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We had a Tippling Philosophers night the other night on beauty, and these are the quick notes I sent to someone who was unable to be there. Let me know what you think:

My belief is that:
  • Beauty is a word which all too often means “I like that”. In other words, it is shorthand for desirability, attraction etc. Stripping many of those meanings away leaves you with somewhat anaemic definition.
  • Beauty is a personal value statement ascribed to an object by the subject. It might be described as relational.
  • If there were no humans or rational agents in existence, then nothing would be beautiful, though they would still have the properties which were ascribed beauty.
  • In other words, it is dependent on perception.
  • I would think, in the ways that humans understand beauty, only humans presently have that conception, though other animals might have the same emotional reaction to some things which we might describe as beautiful.
  • The argument boils down to nominalism vs realism (see a link above) and I didn’t go into too much depth about it, but it is foundational to the debate.
  • If you think an object actually has the real properties of beauty, then these properties must exist somewhere. Either this means a platonic realm DOES exist, or that an object holds beauty like it does mass and so on. Either claim is victim to an array of problems.

Let’s say that we claim a volcano is beautiful. These questions should evoke the issues with objective beauty:


What about looking at the inside of the volcano? The outside?

Is half of the volcano half as beautiful?

What about where the volcano ends? If I included 2, 4, 9 miles outside the volcano?

Would different angles viewing the same object ACTUALLY hold different beauty values?

What about that same volcano but magnified to standing right in front of it? What about magnified under a microscope? What about at electron level? This same object, would it now have different objective beauty?

What about the volcano to an alien, monkey, bird?

What if it was erupting, smoking?

What if it was now causing widespread death and destruction? Global warming?

What if I kept chipping away at it, rock by rock? When would it go from being beautiful to not? Or is it gradual? If you were looking from afar, you wouldn’t see most of that gradual chipping, yet you would still claim that now different object had the same beauty value. At some point, though, there would be a tipping point.


etc etc

The point is, it is easy to claim that something is objectively beautiful, far more difficult to give a coherent account of how it works.

However, from a subjective stance, all the above questions pose absolutely no problems at all.

Of course, with different definitions and ideas (a grandmother being beautiful, to grandmothers as a generic concept being beautiful – visual vs abstract ideas of beauty).

In other words, it is difficult enough to establish abstract ideas as real in philosophy (nominalism vs realism) but to then assign a supposedly objective abstract concept (beauty) to an abstract idea (grandmotherness) is even more difficult.

Just my thoughts!


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...