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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The main work that has been done in the twentieth
century on the concepts of beauty may conveniently


be sorted into four lines of inquiry: (1) the philosophical
analysis of beauty, (2) the phenomenology of beauty,
(3) the psychology of beauty, (4) the sociology and
anthropology of beauty. These will be described briefly.

1. Philosophical Analysis. The distinctions made in
Part II of this article are the product of philosophical
analysis by many mid-twentieth-century thinkers, a
number of whom have already been referred to. Philo-
sophical analysis consists of various procedures de-
signed to elicit and make explicit the nature of a con-
cept: e.g., is it simple or complex? If complex, what
are its constituents? Does it have necessary and suffi-
cient constituents, or is it really a family of concepts
with overlapping sets of criteria? Analytic methods
have contributed to progress in every branch of philos-
ophy, including aesthetics. It is safe to say that, at the
very least, the distinct issues involving beauty and the
reasonable defensible resolutions are better understood
today than in any previous period.

2. Phenomenology. The phenomenologist is con-
cerned with the characteristics of experience itself,
including its “intentional objects.” His aim is to remain
wholly faithful to what is given, without importing
extraneous presuppositions or illegitimate inferences—
to discriminate and expose the subtle differences be-
tween closely allied experiences, and fix their essential
natures. To ask what is the difference in experience
between beauty and grace or prettiness, for example,
is a phenomenological question. What distinguishes
contemporary phenomenology as a particular school
or movement is the systematic formulation of its pro-
gram (despite many differences among its practitioners)
and the immense sensitivity and thoroughness with
which inquiries have been carried out.

Phenomenologists (including those sometimes re-
ferred to as existential phenomenologists) have con-
tributed to several branches of aesthetics. Some under-
standing of their methods and results can be provided
by a brief account of two phenomenological essays,
among the few that deal directly and in detail with
concepts of beauty. The first is “Der Ursprung des
Kunstwerkes,” by Martin Heidegger (Holzwege [1950];
trans. by Albert Hofstadter, as “The Origin of the Work
of Art,” in Hofstadter and Richard Kuhn, eds., Philos-
ophies of Art and Beauty,
New York [1964]). Seeking
for the essential “workly” character of the art-work
(in contrast to the “thingly” character of mere things
and the “equipmental” character of useful objects),
Heidegger finds it in “the setting-itself-into-work of the
truth of what is.” Thus in Van Gogh's picture of the
peasant shoes (i.e., of certain pieces of equipment), the
being of the shoes (their “truth”) is “unconcealed.” In
its capacity to suggest something of the life of the
peasant—his toil, poverty, toughness—this painting
“discloses a world”; as a physical object, exploiting and
exhibiting the qualities of a medium, it “sets forth the
earth.” The art-work is a field of conflict between
world, which strives for openness, and earth, which
has a tendency to withdraw and hide; in this conflict,
the truth of being is laid open, and this happening is
beauty: “Beauty is one way in which truth occurs as

The second essay is Truth and Art, by Albert Hof-
stadter (New York, 1965). According to Hofstadter,
beauty, “the central aesthetic phenomenon,” is “a
union of power and measure, a dynamic or living
harmony” that is “the appearance of truth—not of any
truth at random, but of truth of being”—which is the
kind of truth that “comes about when a being projects
and realizes its own being.” In certain natural phe-
nomena—the snowflake, the color gold, the form of
the horse—Hofstadter discerns this self-realization;
e.g., “the horse's visual appearance makes it look like
life-will—energy, vitality, mobility—come to perfect
realization” (Ch. 7). In the experience of beauty we
are seized by the “rightness” or “validity” of the object,
which appears in its highest form in works of art
(Ch. 8).

3. Experimental Psychology. The systematic exper-
imental study of aesthetic responses is generally re-
garded as having been initiated by Gustav Fechner,
in his Vorschule der Aesthetik (Leipzig, 1876). He has
been followed by a large number of investigators,
among whom Richard Müller-Freienfels and Max Des-
soir are especially noteworthy. Psychological aestheti-
cians have studied reactions to elements of visual,
musical, and verbal design (colors, lines, sounds of
words), and to combinations of elements (rhythm,
meter, pictorial balance); they have used the “method
of paired comparisons” to discover what kinds of object
certain people call beautiful, and what kinds of people
call certain objects beautiful—and why. They have
learned a great deal about preferences in these matters,
e.g., that it is not the Golden Rectangle, but propor-
tions close to it, that are preferred in playing cards,
etc.; that the popularity of red among American chil-
dren declines after age six; that British children find
beauty in nature before they become aware—about age
ten—of beauty in art; that when photographs of several
men or women are superimposed to produce a “pro-
file-picture,” it is judged more beautiful than the origi-
nals. Much of this work is reviewed in A. R. Chandler,
Beauty and Human Nature (New York and London,
1934), and C. W. Valentine, The Experimental Psychol-
ogy of Beauty
(London, 1962).

It is not always clear at what point psychological
aesthetics casts light on the nature of beauty. Valentine
holds—and offers experimental evidence (in Chs. 7 and


13) to show—that the appreciation of beauty is not
the same as the enjoyment of pleasure, though typically
accompanied by it; yet “It has been found more con-
venient in such psychological experiments to ask per-
sons the question, 'Do you like this, and if so, why?'
or 'Do you find this pleasing?' rather than “Do you
think this beautiful, and why?'” (p. 6). But different
questions, however convenient, are likely to evoke
different answers (cf. H. J. Eysenck, Sense and Non-
sense in Psychology,
Baltimore [1957], Ch. 8).

The problem of explaining our perception of beauty
(or our experience of kalistic pleasure) has tempted few
psychologists, and is generally thought to remain un-
solved. During the first decades of this century, the
Empathy Theory was widely accepted. First ex-
pounded by Theodor Lipps in his Aesthetik (2 vols.,
Hamburg and Leipzig, 1903-06), the theory was de-
veloped and popularized by Vernon Lee (Violet Paget),
in The Beautiful (Cambridge and New York, 1913) and
Herbert S. Langfeld, The Aesthetic Attitude (New York,
1920). The primary purpose of the Empathy Theory
was to explain the expressiveness of visual forms in
terms of the unconscious transference of the perceiver's
activities to the object (something in the mountain as
seen activates our tendency to rise, and so we see
mountain as “rising”); when the empathic response is
highly unified and quite uninhibited and unchecked,
beauty is experienced. The hypothesis was never veri-
fied, and serious difficulties were raised as a result of
some experiments. The satisfaction taken in perceiving
ordered patterns of visual stimuli has been explained
by the Gestalt psychologists in terms of phenomenal
“requiredness” and “good gestalts” (see, for example,
Kurt Koffka, “Problems in the Psychology of Art,” in
Art: A Bryn Mawr Symposium, Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1940);
but Gestalt psychologists have generally not given
special attention to beauty.

4. Social Science. When beauty is considered in the
context of a whole society or culture, a number of
significant questions suggest themselves: What are the
social causes and effects of people's ideas of beauty
or experience of beauty? How is the capacity to ap-
preciate a certain kind of beauty, or the preference
for it, associated with other cultural traits, or with
social class, role, or status? Though the pioneering
sociological thinkers of the nineteenth century, for
example, Jean-Marie Guyau, L'Art au point de vue
(Paris, 1889), began to consider such ques-
tions, even today it cannot be said that we have ob-
tained very conclusive answers. This is partly because
the specific questions about beauty have been sunk into
more general questions; there are many studies of the
variability of taste, of connoisseurship, of artistic repu-
tations, etc., but it is not clear in many cases what
light they shed on the social aspects of beauty. Adolf
S. Tomars, for example, begins his Introduction to the
Sociology of Art
(Mexico City, 1940) by marking out
the “phenomena of art” as those referred to in making
the judgment “this is beautiful” (Ch. 1). And he defends
a relativistic account of beauty, which he holds to be
required by the scientific character of his investigation
(Ch. 12). But for the most part, beauty drops out of
his inquiry into relations between characteristics of art
(“styles”) and types of community, social class, or insti-
tution. Vytautas Kavolis (Artistic Expression; A Socio-
logical Analysis,
Ithaca, N.Y. [1968]) discusses many
discoveries about preference: for example, according
to the Lynds' study of “Middletown,” homes of lower
middle-class urban families in the 1920's “were more
likely than those of other class levels” to have Whis-
tler's portrait of his mother (Chs. 3, 7); and highly
ethnocentric people prefer regular, balanced designs
(B. G. Rosenberg and C. N. Zimet, 1957). But Kavolis
himself does not use the term “beauty” at all.

Cultural anthropologists have made a beginning in
the investigation of beauty (again almost always ap-
proached through aesthetic preference, especially in
view of the linguistic difficulties), with cross-cultural
comparative studies, and intercultural functional stud-
ies. There is evidence to support two generalizations.

First, “the appeal of what a people consider sur-
passingly pleasing, beauty as an abstraction, that is,
is broadly spread over the earth, and lies deep in human
experience—so wide, and so deep, that it is to be
classed as a cultural universal” (Melville J. Herskovits,
in Aspects of Primitive Art [1959], p. 43). This is seen,
for example, in the Pakot (Kenya) distinction between
the “good” milk pot and the “beautiful” lip of the pot's
rim or the severely critical attitude of the Tlingit
audience toward their dancers, and in the artistic ac-
tivities of Australian aborigines: “aboriginal art is pre-
dominantly nonmagical, i.e., used in the secular and
ceremonial life by men, women, and children, to satisfy
an aesthetic urge or to portray their beliefs” (Charles
P. Mountford, in Marian W. Smith, ed., The Artist in
Tribal Society,
New York [1961], p. 8). Herbert Read,
commenting on this paper, however, suggested that
“tribal art in general is vital rather than beautiful”
(ibid. p. 17).

Second, there is a significant cross-cultural conver-
gence in standards of beauty, despite evidence that
some standards of judgment applied by experts in one
culture are not applied in others. “I believe that there
are universal standards of aesthetic quality, just as there
are universal standards of technical efficiency,” wrote
Raymond Firth (Elements of Social Organization, Lon-
don [1951]; 3rd ed., Boston [1963], p. 161). Irvin L.
Child and various collaborators in a number of studies


have provided evidence against the earlier prevalent
view among ethnologists that taste is completely vari-
able. They found, for example, significant correlations
between BaKwele and New Haven judgments of
beauty (or aesthetic likeability) in BaKwele masks
(I. L. Child and Leon Siroto, 1965).