Beauty is a complex and subjective concept that has been the subject of debate and criticism throughout history. It is used as a basis for many social and economic structures, as well as a form of self-expression.
One of the first and most influential philosophical theories of beauty dates back to ancient Greece. It can be traced to the works of two philosophers in particular: Plato and Aristotle, both of whom regarded beauty as something that a person should strive for, ideally, in their lives (and in their art).
In neo-Platonic thought, the ideal conception of beauty is based on symmetry and orderly arrangement. This accounts for the idea that beauty is a process that gives pleasure to the senses.
Aristotle believed that the perception of beauty varied with different objects or types of art. He argued that people should try to understand the meaning of things, not just their appearance or how they look in the eye of the beholder.
It was he who first articulated the classical conception of beauty, in which a thing’s parts should be in a symmetrical and orderly relationship with each other to produce a harmonious whole.
This approach was the subject of a major philosophical debate in the eighteenth century, as some philosophers like Hume and Kant believed that the experience of beauty should be treated as something that is purely subjective, not primarily an objective state.
Other philosophers, such as Santayana, maintained that the judgment of something being beautiful is a response to pleasure. This led to the subjectivist view that a person’s pleasure in a work of art or literature can be attributed to the object itself.
However, the notion of beauty being a response to pleasure, while it may be a rational and logical proposition, also risks surrendering beauty to relativism and emotivism. It is a view that has been sabotaged by a range of philosophers, from Kant to Berkeley, who are concerned with avoiding the subjective aspects of aesthetic judgment.
Another line of thought, influenced by the ideas of Plotinus and the Stoics, makes beauty the ‘form’ of an object, describing it as having a definite shape that is characteristic of a type of thing. This line of thought was a major influence on aesthetic theory, despite its subjectivism.
In the twentieth century, the concept of beauty became a major concern for feminist philosophers, who found that women often equated beauty with conformity to stereotypes. They were averse to physical beauty, which was ascribed to women as an expression of femininity, but they rediscovered it in its more abstract forms.
In the twenty-first century, a renewed interest in beauty is being seen, particularly among women, as a source of personal growth and satisfaction. In addition, it is becoming increasingly common for artists to explore the concept of beauty in their works, which can have positive effects on the environment and human society.