How Do Philosophers Think About Beauty?

How do we know, appreciate, and value beauty?

Grand Canyon sunset
Michele Falzone / Getty Images

“Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the infinite” said the historian George Bancroft. The nature of beauty is one of the most fascinating riddles of philosophy. Is beauty universal? How do we know it? How can we predispose ourselves to embrace it? Nearly every major philosopher has engaged with these questions and their cognates, including the great figures of ancient Greek philosophy such as Plato and Aristotle.

The Aesthetic Attitude

An aesthetic attitude is the state of contemplating a subject with no other purpose than appreciating it. For most authors, thus, the aesthetic attitude is purposeless: we have no reason to engage in it other than finding aesthetic enjoyment.

Aesthetic appreciation can be carried on by means of the senses: looking at a sculpture, trees in bloom, or Manhattan’s skyline; listening to Puccini’s La bohème; tasting a mushroom risotto; feeling cool water in a hot day; and so on. However, senses may not be necessary in order to obtain an aesthetic attitude: we can rejoice, for instance, in imagining a beautiful house that never existed or in discovering or grasping the details of a complex theorem in algebra.

In principle, thus, the aesthetic attitude can relate to any subject via any possible mode of experience –senses, imagination, intellect, or any combination of these.

Is There a Universal Definition of Beauty?

The question arises of whether beauty is universal.

Suppose you agree that Michelangelo’s David and a Van Gogh’s self-portrait are beautiful; do such beauties have something in common? Is there a single shared quality, beauty, that we experience in both of them? And is this beauty the very same that one experiences when gazing at the Grand Canyon from its edge or listening to Beethoven’s ninth symphony?

If beauty is a universal, as for example Plato maintained, it is reasonable to hold that we do not know it through the senses. Indeed, the subjects in question are quite different and are also known in different ways (gaze, hearing, observation); so, if there is something in common among those subjects, it cannot be what is known through the senses.

But, is there really something common to all experiences of beauty? Compare the beauty of an oil painting with that of picking flowers in a Montana field over the summer or surfing a gigantic wave in Hawaii. It seems that these cases have no single common element: not even the feelings or the basic ideas involved seem to match. Similarly, people around the world find different music, visual art, performance, and physical attributes to be beautiful.  It’s on the basis of those considerations that many believe that beauty is a label we attach to different sorts of experiences based on a combination of cultural and personal preferences.

Beauty and Pleasure

Does beauty necessarily go along with pleasure? Do humans praise beauty because it gives pleasure? s a life dedicated to the quest for beauty one worth living? These are some fundamental questions in philosophy, at the intersection between ethics and aesthetics.

If on the one hand beauty seems linked to aesthetic pleasure, seeking the former as a means to achieve the latter can lead to egoistic hedonism (self-centered pleasure-seeking for its own sake), the typical symbol of decadence.

But beauty can also be regarded as a value, one of the dearest to humans. In Roman Polanski’s movie The Pianist, for instance, the protagonist escapes the desolation of WWII by playing a ballade by Chopin. And fine works of art are curated, preserved, and presented as valuable in themselves. There is no question that human beings value, engage with, and desire beauty -- simply because it is beautiful.