The qualities of beauty

by bjmuirhead

Of the many difficulties associated with talking about beauty, perhaps the most basic is that ‘beauty’ always is a generic concept which can be and is applied to a wide range of objects, phenomena and situations. That beauty is a generic term in this way implies that there is some common element shared by all ‘beautiful’ things—chairs, landscapes, trees, animals, people, cars, and anything else we can think of.

This seems to be an inherently confused and confusing notion, but it is one which is based on common human experience, and which has had currency for a very long time. Take, e.g., A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1756/1757) by Edmund Burke. In this essay Burke attempts to define beauty (and the sublime) in terms of the qualities shared by all beautiful objects, and he was, I think, startlingly successful in his project. He ultimately failed, however, especially in contemporary terms, because of what he was looking for. In Part III, Section XII, he says:

Beauty is a thing too much affecting not to depend upon some positive qualities. And, since it is not a creature of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to its use, and even where no use at all can be discerned, since the order and method of nature is generally very different from our measures and proportions, we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically on the human mind by the intervention of the senses.

In saying this Burke is maintaining an ‘objective’ notion of beauty, which is thought to exist as a part of—a property—of the beautiful object. Hence he proposes (ibid.) that we need to consider ‘in what manner those sensible qualities are disposed, in such things as by experience we find beautiful[.]’ Burke’s conclusion (Part III, Section XVIII) is that those qualities which act upon us  to create beauty via the intervention of the senses are:

  •  To be comparatively small.
  •  To be smooth.
  • To have a variety of direction in the parts.
  • That the parts are not angular, but are ‘melted […] into each other’.
  • To be delicate, without any remarkable appearance of strength.
  • To have clear and bright colours, but not strong and glaring colours.
  • Any glaring colour is to be ‘diversified with others’.

As much as we may like to dismiss ideas and arguments of the type offered by Burke, they are not so easily dismissed as we may wish, even if the reason for this is no more than cultural. The simplistic reason is that we do, e.g., tend to think of small, elegant and smooth objects as beautiful, and these are qualities of an object which we can identify as belonging to the object, furthermore, these qualities  apparently are quite separate to our perception (experience) of the object.

It may, of course, be the case that the qualities of a specific object which arouse exclamations of beauty from one person, fail to affect the another person. That this is so is not an argument against beauty or against the notion of a beautiful object (phenomena, situation, person, etc.) but highlights the one truly common factor shared by all beautiful objects—the experience of beauty by a human being or group of human beings.

I want to say, and I think it is self-evidently true, that is is the experience which counts more than the qualities of the object. To me this seems obvious, just because not everyone experiences the same objects are beautiful. The difficulty with this approach, however, is that it appears to take ‘beauty’ away from the object and its qualities, and to make it an almost entirely subjective matter that may be written off as merely, and perhaps shallowly, psychological, even if we can appropriately and adequately identify the objective qualities which lead us to the experience of beauty.

The point, of course, is that specific objects appear to us to be beautiful in and of themselves. Moreover, beauty can and often does affect us profoundly, and beautiful objects and people have high stature and value in human society and life. But not every experience of beauty transports us into the nether realms of (aesthetic) joy (a peak experience in Abraham Maslow’s terms); we are, this is to say, not always transfixed by a beautiful object. Sometimes what we experience is little more than a passing pleasure and the willingness to experience it again by revisiting that object (phenomena, situation, etc). Sometimes, the beauty of an object fades in our experience, and sometimes it intensifies until we experience something profound and deep.

The one obvious common element in all possible variations of the experience of beauty is the experience itself, specifically, our own experience of beauty, but this does not seem to be an answer to the many questions we have about beauty. As common (pop) psychological belief has it: we all experience the world in our own way, according to our own preferences, past experiences, psychological outlook (Weltanschaung), the (sub-) cultural groups we ‘belong to’, and so on. All too often, pronouncements of this variety, at different levels of intellectual skill and depth, are thought to e enough, simply because it boils down to what appear to be irredeemably personal issues and concerns. Therefore, beauty must merely be a matter of psychological affect which tells us little or nothing about the world, but which can and does tells us about individual and group psychology.

What this means is that we seem to be caught between the error of believing that beauty is some type of objective quality of objects, and the view that it is little more than a motivating factor within our personal (and cultural) psychology, with the senses as some sort of intermediary between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. Neither of these views seem satisfactory, although Burke’s old-fashioned view (that what is beautiful about any particular object is its qualities) seems to me to have a lot going for it, and in fact to incorporate both views: whenever anyone is questioned about why they think something is beautiful, they refer to the qualities of the object and what those qualities mean to them.

The idea that beauty ‘means’ something over and above any pleasure we may experience on looking at a beautiful object is what carries us into the realms of philosophy (it needs to be noted, by the way,that  many now look to the neurosciences as the best area for their philosophising), and is an idea which we cannot shake off easily. It also leads to making judgments about the worth of beauty, of beautiful objects, in ways which often don’t seem to make sense in terms of the nature of the object itself, but which refer to the qualities of the object. It seems that, as human beings, we cannot escape the feeling that the beautiful object (phenomena, situation, person, etc.) has certain apparently inherent qualities which we perceive (experience) as possessing the extra quality of beauty. Traditionally, especially in the writings of pre-modern artists and theorists, this extra quality has been taken to be the relationship between the various properties (qualities) of the beautiful object. Initially, such an observation opens the door to (at least) two issues:

  1. Because beauty is thought to be related to (experienced because of) the relationship(s) of various qualities, the ‘beauty’ is thought to be another, supervening or emergent quality of the object. On this type of view, the supervening or emergent property of beauty continues to be thought of, in most cases, as belonging to the object rather than to our perception, although the latter argument also is frequently made.
  2. It also provides a justification and argument for formalism in art, where this refers to formal compositional elements of an artwork—an idea which has been substantially rejected by many academic theorists and ‘high’ artists of the modern and postmodern world.

That there is no easily (objectively) discernible extra quality ‘beauty’ inhering in ‘beautiful’ objects, apart from our experience, suggests that beauty in fact is only the manner in which we experience some parts or aspects of the world. It is, as Mary Mothersill might say, the apprehension itself (apprehensio ipsa) which constitutes beauty. It must, therefore, be the case that we isolate various qualities from our apprehension (experience) and declare these as the qualities or properties which create or constitute beauty as something external to our experience.



I have taken the long way around in this skirmish with beauty, to arrive at the point which most people already are willing to admit: beauty is personal, subjective, but of course it is filtered through culture and personal experience. I have taken this path in order to highlight one very important point. The idea of experience is used as a gloss which covers the most important area of the whole , viz., the senses.

For Burke, the senses are a mere intermediary between the ‘beautiful’ object and the mind, and theories such as Mothersill’s barely bother with the senses at all because the apprehension is somehow thought (assumed) to occur within the mind, which is thought to be, or at least treated as though it is some abstract, amodal entelechy in respect of which, yet again, the senses are mere intermediaries, thus leaving the experience of beauty as something which occurs entirely ‘in the head (mind)’.

It is not that anyone (whom I have read) actively denies that the senses have a rôle in (the experience of) beauty; it’s that by and large they do not question the senses at all. Nor is it that (aesthetic) experience is denied or ignored; rather it’s that the primary attempt is to clarify how the experience of beauty (aesthetic experience) differs from other experience.

As I’ve already said, experience provides us with a particular type of knowledge, some of which remains tacit, whilst other parts of it can be made explicit; and so we build our theories, culture, and so on. Clearly, however, experience itself is not possible without the senses. Just as clearly, it seems absurd to suppose that the senses are intermediary between ‘the world’ and ‘experience’. The challenge for any understanding of beauty, therefore, is in understanding just what it means to say that beauty is the child of the senses. To the extent that this is the case, beauty is personal in a more profound sense than mere ‘like’ or dislike’, and it behoves me, therefore, to say something a little more personal about beauty, my experience of it, and how it has influenced me, before going on to talk about the senses.



My sense of beauty, the contexts and ways in which I experience beauty, along with my art, have all been influenced in deeply personal way, by World War II. Other influences have been Maldoror, Rilke, Hans Bellmer, Masson, (the list could go on and on), but the most important visual influence by far, was photographic: shots of bodies partially burnt in concentration camp ovens, bodies piled high in the gas chambers and stacked like wood in the mud and horror, and many more.

Of course, I am far too young to have been involved in the war, but my father was, and apart from collecting books and magazines about the war, he talked about what he saw and did, so that the war was an ongoing, almost tangible presence in my childhood.

I would not, could not, and cannot accept that people do such things to each other and that, in smaller ways, such things happen around me all the time.. In many ways my early painted and drawn work was a retreat into abstraction and shapes which seemed to have no relation to the world per se. I can reasonably say that these hard edged yet glutinous abstractions drove many people ‘up the wall’ because of their seeming lack of relation to anything but themselves. At the same time, I spent years copying the drawings of Bruegel, Pisano, da Vinci, Botticelli, and more. But the first photograph i copied was a photograph of a burning corpse in a gas oven. I say I copied it, but it was more a scream in bright yellow and black that erupted out of me at age eleven.

What this has to do with beauty is that it was one of the many grotesque images which infected by childhood and teen years and completely ripped apart any notions of the goodness and trustworthiness of humanity. Furthermore, it rendered me incapable of dealing effectively with the world: I knew that anyone could transmogrify into a monster, attack and destroy without reason. (I feared everyone, totally and with reason.)

The point of this is just that it is a personal, psychological aspect of beauty. Where others see the horrors of war, the world and human behaviour generally as a reason to reject beauty as a shallow and misleading ideal, which in any event is socially constructed, I saw beauty then and now as a precious, albeit transient, pleasure: something which could lead away from horror and provide a release from burdened life. Whilst I found and find beauty in many different objects and phenomena, for me it crystallised into the nude, both male and female, in art.

So much for the personal psychology, of which I could say no more, but which merely is a backdrop for my experience of beauty.

At various times when I’ve perceived beauty (seen a beautiful object, person, phenomenon, listed to Mahler or Bach, or…) I have undergone ‘peak’ experiences. At other times it has been a mere visual fascination with shape, colour, line, texture―the formal elements.

My response to these experiences was to assume that there was something valuable going on, something more than mere distraction from the unpleasantness of life, more than a meaningless gloss. Needless to say, as a teenager, I had no idea what this ‘something’ could be, though I explored many options, religious, philosophic, sociological, mystical. At the time, however, the most fruitful avenue of exploration was art―I not only copied past masters, as already mentioned, ; I also spent hours each day in the garden drawing flowers. This drawing and painting activity wasn’t particularly fruitful intellectually, but it brought me closer to much of the good that exists.

I suspect what lies behind the rejection of beauty by artists and theorists over the past hundred years is the realisation of the death of God: Whilst God was alive in human hearts, lives and society, there was cause enough to believe that all the ugliness (evil) within the world had some purpose and justification, and art could be seen as a part of this, especially when created for ‘the glory of God’. (Please, don’t nitpick―obviously there have been times and places in which this is not the case. I am, however, talking about Europe at a particular time.) Without God, however, art became, in Nietzsche’s words, nothing but beautiful lies used for survival in a nihilistic world. As a necessary falsehood Nietzsche none the less held art in high esteem, for he also believed that there was more truth in art than in any other form of human knowledge.

There always has been, of course, a search for some type of ‘ultimate truth’ or ‘reality’ which stands behind and above our knowledge of the world via the senses, which we know frequently mislead us. What we see, simply isn’t what is there, by virtue of the way in which our eyes work (see RL Gregory for the classic statement of this), similarly, what we hear isn’t the sound that is there, and so on. Yet, despite this, our senses work for us, we survive and act in the environment quite easily and effectively, and this alone lends credibility to Nietzsche’s assertion that

The senses do not lie at all. What we make of their testimony, that alone introduces lies; for example, the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence. ‘Reason’ is the cause of our falsification of the testimony of the senses. In so far as the senses show becoming, passing away, and change, they do not lie. (Twilight of the idols, Reason in Philosophy, 2)

Nietzsche’s argument is not so much against reason as it is against the idea that reason (explicit thought and knowledge) reigns supreme, over and above everything else; rather reason is to be seen as the tool by which we interpret the evidence of the senses, and we have used this tool badly.

I said earlier that beauty is the child of the senses, but so also is every other example of ‘cognitive content’. As Rudolf Arnheim reminds us: ‘nothing is in the intellect which was not previously in the senses.’ This is, perhaps, more obvious in respect of beauty as an experience than it is of other experiences, thoughts, knowledge. None the less, it ultimately is the case that the qualities of beauty exist only as an aspect of the senses, only as an aspect of our experience, which may be shared with others, or may not be so shared.

In any event, it is important to note that the experience of beauty (of the senses generally) is an experience like any other―it has a tacit aspect which we simply cannot talk about, and an explicit aspect, which we can and do talk about endlessly. The absolute core of (the experience of) beauty, however, necessarily remains inexpressible. All the rest is interpretation, ‘reason’―an inevitable falsification of the experience and a diversion from the senses themselves.

false springThis particular post has been extremely difficult: there has been much which I wanted to say, much which I have left out which may well aid my argument. I fear that in an effort to keep it at a reasonable size (which I have not achieved) I have written badly. My apologies for this.