The Concept of Beauty


As a concept, beauty has been extolled, revered, dismissed and argued about throughout history. It has been regarded as some fundamental property with connotations of perfection, or equated with truth. It has been declared, in an adage, to be merely “skin deep” and to be “in the eye of the beholder”. Today’s discussion is an attempt to develop a concept of beauty that will be coherent and defensible. I will start with definitions, and then discuss beauty from a range of viewpoints.

A Tentative Definition

Dictionaries refer to beauty as giving aesthetic pleasure or pleasure of the senses. But since aesthetic pleasure is defined as pleasure derived from the appreciation of beauty, this doesn’t help. “Pleasure of the senses” might imply something like the pleasure of being stroked or massaged, but this seems inadequate as an example of beauty. Dictionaries also refer to beauty as being perfection of form. But what are the criteria for perfect on? Something like a balanced combination of dissimilar elements, perhaps? But many things we regard as beautiful are neither perfect nor complex. The French novelist Stendhal described beauty as “the promise of happiness”, commenting that “there are as many styles of beauty as there are types of happiness”. But beauty seems to be a presence not just a promise, and happiness is not entirely the same as pleasure.

Here are two tentative definitions that I have concocted:

Beauty is the quality by which something gives pleasure to someone for reasons other than mental stimulation, personal gain or the satisfaction of innate drives. The pleasure may be aroused by a thing or an artistic representation or an action or an idea.
Beauty is the quality by which something gives pleasure to someone directly through the intellect and independent of any ulterior considerations.

These definitions include no description of the type of pleasure imparted by beauty, nor of the particular sense by which the beauty is experienced. They assume that the presence of beauty is decided by admirers. This is consistent with the view that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” but it goes beyond that. It might imply that nothing is either beautiful or not beautiful unless it is being exposed to someone and/or being thought about by someone.

The definitions accept that something may be beautiful, or not beautiful, or neither beautiful nor not beautiful, for a particular person at one particular time. But for the same person, the judgment may be different at another time.

Some people would say that they can recognise beauty without having to feel pleasure or any other emotion. To them, recognising beauty is just the same as recognising, say, a triangle. I can see two possible reasons for this. The first is habituation, that is, after long and continued acquaintance, something pleasing can be taken for granted and become emotionally neutral. In this case, re-acquaintance after a period of deprivation may reawaken the pleasure.

Some people might regard something as beautiful because many other people regard it to be beautiful. So they would like it more than other things that are apparently equivalent to it but have not yet been praised.

My definitions might seem to make beauty too trivial. Often people say that they feel other emotions than pleasure on encountering something beautiful. They may feel awe, or have “a lump in their throat”, or be moved to tears. Some people become obsessed with something they regard to be beautiful. While such feelings might not always be consciously associated with pleasure, if they are valued, then I think they could still be regarded as constituting a form of pleasure.

Not all pleasures are necessarily aesthetic. The pleasure derived from humour would not usually be included in the definition. Humour, which some people might think cannot be explained, is sometimes said to derive from a clever or unexpected consequence or juxtaposition (which might at times also be thought to be beautiful).

Another kind of pleasure, one that is purposely excluded by the definition, is confirmation of something believed in, or delivery of good news. A different kind of pleasure comes from the effects of neurotransmitters in response to innate physiological and psychological needs, and from drugs that mimic these effects. And also there are the pleasurable reflex responses to such things as stroking the skin.
But these kinds of pleasure will sometimes overlap with that from appreciation of beauty, such as receiving a beautiful gift. And when something beautiful also gives pleasure for any of these other reasons there may be mutual enhancement of appreciation. Indeed, any of these other kinds of pleasure may themselves be described (metaphorically) as beautiful. The perceived beauty of a person may be affected by their personality, or sexual connotations, or presumed physical fitness and suitability as a mate.

Sources of the Pleasure of Beauty

I think the feeling that something is beautiful arises from physiological or unconscious psychological preferences (as distinct from innate drives such as satisfaction of hunger). Feelings of beauty can be innate, e.g., feelings for the desirability of symmetry, balance, complementarity or elegance. Some people would say certain smells and tastes that give them great pleasure are beautiful. These would range from the perfumes of flowers or the finely crafted taste and bouquet of a wine.

Also, aesthetic pleasure might arise from a personal association with familiar important aspects of life. Such associations might be:
natural, e.g., flowers, landscapes, people;
constructed, e.g., buildings, bridges, works of visual art;
things associated with past pleasing events;
things that fit in with something taught and accepted as a concept of beauty;
things that are novel, uncommon, or seen singly rather than in profusion (although a profusion, e.g., of flowers, may itself be beautiful).

So we may think that innovative architecture or unfamiliar landscapes are not beautiful, but familiar examples are. Federation Square is an example,

This gives a very broad concept of beauty, and it might be objected that some of these associations relate more to sentimentality than to beauty. Sentimentality implies “excess” of emotion, in this case deriving greater pleasure than might seem to be appropriate to the occasion. But who is to say when pleasure is inappropriately excessive? One person’s beauty may be another’s kitsch.

What is considered beautiful varies from person to person, and for any person varies from time to time. Different cultures and different eras have differing common ideas of what is and is not beautiful. Changes of fashion cause short-term judgments that something is beautiful that previously might have been thought to be unusual or ugly. But also that same thing may soon become merely common. So there is an element of indoctrination in the judgment of beauty.

Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, but also in the ear of the listener, the taste of the epicure and wine buff, the mind of the games enthusiast (from chess to football), etc. So physiological, intellectual and emotional differences give different people different appreciations, and hence different feelings of what is beautiful and what is not.

There appear to be gradations of beauty, i.e., A is more beautiful than B but less than C. Terms such as prettiness and attractiveness, suggest something pleasing but less than “really” beautiful”. The gradations of beauty will often be accompanied by ranges of pleasure. This could range from fine wines to works of art to sunsets.

Sometimes something that has been regarded as beautiful is spoilt by being defaced or scribbled on or having some defect. Depending on the circumstances and the person making the judgement, the thing may be no longer beautiful. The classic case where the impairment does not spoil the beauty is ancient works of art, particular statues that have lost an arm or leg or other appendage.

Some things are not immediately pleasing on first acquaintance, but require familiarity or a degree of understanding. In particular, visual, literary or musical works of art may require continued acquaintance, or explanation before their beauty is recognised. This also applies to features of the natural environment, systems of science and mathematics, and games.

Plainness, Ugliness and Prettiness?

The term plain is sometimes applied with approval, for example, the use of plain language in preference to obscure or pretentious language. In this connotation, plainness has the qualities of elegance. Plainness can also imply lack of feature, as in a plain sheet of paper – no lines, no decoration, no marking of any kind. The term is also used to imply, with mild criticism, mere absence of any degree of beauty, as when a woman, or a building, etc, is said to be plain, i.e., not beautiful or even pretty or attractive, but also not ugly. In fact, plainness is always considered to be different from ugliness. But one person’s judgement of plainness may be someone else’s judgement of elegance, or beauty, or ugliness. Plainness may also mean ordinariness, in the sense of being prevalent.

This implies that the use of an object may make it less beautiful. Many objects in common use are elegant in form, but their elegance is overlooked or dismissed. Classical examples are cutlery and other utensils. But if one such item were discovered by an archaeologist, and particularly if its intended function was not recognised, it could readily be considered to be beautiful.

So something regarded to be beautiful, it is also regarded to be special and distinct from the ordinary. Discovering the wide replication of something initially thought to be beautiful immediately takes away its beauty, and it may then seem plain, or worse than plain. The classic modern example of this (and by modern I mean as distinct from ancient) is the “sculpture” with the title Fountain which was exhibited by French painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp in New York in 1917. This single elegant work of art was actually a mass-produced porcelain urinal, laid flat on the floor of the art gallery so that its original identity was not immediately recognised.

Ugliness is usually regarded as the antithesis of beauty, but it is not as simple as that. Ugliness can be seen in things that are discordant, both literally and figuratively so, or are dysfunctional or disfigured. It can also be attributed to things that threaten, or frighten, or go against inner feelings or convictions.. We talk of an ugly wound, probably with some introspection. In some of these cases the term ugly has lost its aesthetic connotations. However, while we might refer to a smell as beautiful, it would be unusual to describe one we dislike as ugly. Here the opposite of beauty is expressed using a range of strongly emotive words, such as nasty, putrid or, more literally, stinking. But in each case, the judgment that something is ugly is subjective.

An interesting example of the subjective nature of ugliness and beauty occurs with sounds, some of which are regarded as beautiful, as in music. The history of Western music illustrates the changes in people’s attitudes. Combinations of sounds that were once regarded as discordant, and therefore ugly, gradually became accepted as chords, and therefore desirable. This was so much so, that in the twentieth century, ordinary discords became so tame that for some genres a “distortion box” was developed, mainly for electric guitars. By contrast, Hi Fi music aficionados go to great expense to remove every audible trace of distortion. The short-term equivalent of this is that a first impression may be that something is ugly, but on further acquaintance it becomes an acquired taste.

In twentieth century painting there are similar examples in the discordant; the colour tones of the Fauvists and the contorted shapes of the Cubists. To those who claim to understand these modes of expression, they are not ugly, but legitimate, and often beautiful.
People or things that are hated are often regarded as ugly by the haters, irrespective of whether they might otherwise be thought to be attractive or beautiful.

The concept of beauty relies on pleasure. So can someone get pleasure from something that they consider to be ugly? Or can they, at the same time, get both pleasure and displeasure? Perhaps a masochist could get both at the same time, but here there may be confusion between pain and displeasure.

If someone can genuinely consider something to be ugly but derive pleasure from its ugliness, does that discredit the definition of beauty (or my concept of ugliness), or can something be simultaneously be both ugly and beautiful? Classic cases are the gargoyles of medieval buildings and paintings of abhorrent scenes.

Can ugliness enhance beauty by juxtaposition? There is the fable about beautiful women going out accompanied by “ugly” animals such as monkeys, to make themselves appear even more beautiful. Surely the success of such an endeavour would have to depend on the sensibilities of the viewer. (Another monkey might think it made the monkey look more beautiful?)

A different and common type of juxtaposition is sequential. It is when a passage of music creates some “tension” and then “comes home to where it began”, so relieving the tension and giving pleasure. The feelings of tension and relief seem to come from some innate feeling for compatibility in sequences of sound.

In a similar way, an element of something regarded as foul smelling in its own right may be added to “round off” or complement, and so enhance, a sweet-smelling perfume. (I happen to like the taste and smell of a particular fruit called a durian.)


While every person has a distinctive idea about what is beautiful and what is not, there are some things whose beauty is generally agreed about within a particular community at a particular time, but will be different in different communities and at different times. One such thing is clothing, particularly, but not exclusively, women’s clothing. The favoured style is in fashion, and it is beautiful. The recently discarded style is now plain, and when the next style begins to reveal itself it may at first be regarded to be ugly. And this is fashion. But sometimes fashion itself becomes unfashionable, or splits into two or more different styles.

But whatever the current fashion happens to be, there will always be people who don’t like it or conform with it.

And fashion is not confined to clothing: it can apply to art, and architecture, and music and other aspects of culture. Just how much fashion relates to beauty and how much to the herd instinct is a matter of opinion.

Personal Beauty

Individual people are considered to be beautiful, and there are personal assessments and fashions and cultural/regional differences in perceptions of their beauty. But there are also some consistent general criteria. These have to do with assumed signifiers of health, fertility.

So faces and bodies are more beautiful when symmetrical than asymmetrical. Facial colour is a factor, but is complicated by such things as the natural skin colour for the particular “racial” group, and current fashions relating to suntan and make-up. In some cultures, indicators of femininity, such as size of eyes and lips (larger), and eyebrows, nose and chin (smaller), tend to make a woman to be regarded as more beautiful. In fact, exaggerating the differences of each feature to look almost abnormal tends to further enhance the perception. Masculine-looking characteristics, larger chin, brow ridges and eyebrows, might make men look more handsome. But when exaggeration becomes more than slight the effect quickly becomes absurd or ugly. But, like many other things, the details change with fashion. Other criteria of personal beauty are social class, fame and wealth.

Objective Beauty

Some philosophical and poetic traditions treat beauty as an intrinsic quality of the thing itself, independent of any human judgment. This is inherent in Plato’s concept of ideal forms.

It is also a romantic idea, expressed, for example in the poetry of John Keats:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;..... from Endymion
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. From Ode “On a Grecian Urn”

This would make beauty intrinsically objective, not subjective. What might the criteria of objective beauty? They should be the attributes that we subjectively regard as beauty, such as elegance, or balance, etc.

The aspect of elegance is in accord with a statement attributed to Michelangelo: “Beauty is the purgation of the superfluous.”

So a definition in which the criterion of beauty is elegance might be:

(Objective) Beauty is the successful use of maximum economy , that is, of elegance, in an object, idea, or system of objects or ideas.
We could have separate definitions for each criterion, that is, for each kind of objective beauty, or include all criteria in a single definition.

But, as I said earlier, people do not subjectively agree on what is beautiful. They don’t even agree when they think they are being objective. This is because they don’t agree on what is elegant, etc. So are some people will identify “real” beauty when they see it or hear it, and other people will disagree.

So who decides and defines what are the objective criteria for elegance, and balance, etc., which must be universal?
There are, of course, no universal subjective criteria. The subjective differences of opinion are the consequences of different individual psychological, experiential and physiological differences. Some people are timid and some are reckless, and this, along with their instinctive preferences, will affect what they find to be beautiful or ugly. Some people will have fond, or sad, or bitter memories that will affect their reactions. Some people are unable to detect certain colours, smells or flavours that most others can. Some have synaesthesia.

Our ideas of the objective qualities of something depend on how our eyes and other sensory organs react to it. There are many tricks in visual perception, in which one viewer sees one thing while another sees something different. What we perceive as colour depends on the small range of the vast spectrum of radiation that we can see, and refer to as light. People with colour blindness and many non-human species have different perceptions of colour, giving them a different idea of the objective characteristics of what they see.
So this rules out all subjective criteria as possible criteria for objective beauty, which is in the thing itself, not in the person assessing it.

Are there any truly objective criteria for beauty? One possible objective criterion that has been proposed is the “golden ratio”. This is the “ideal” ratio of the length to width of a “golden” rectangle. In this ideal rectangle, the ratio of the length to the width is the same as the ratio of the length plus the width to the length. This proportion works out to be slightly less than 1.62. When paintings, or significant sections of paintings, have proportions close to this value, they are claimed to be more beautiful.

Measurements have shown that shapes roughly conforming to the golden ratio often appear in works of art and architecture that are generally regarded as beautiful. But they don’t occur always, and are mostly only approximately close to the golden ratio.

A similar claim has been made that having a fractal structure endows an intrinsic beauty, such as in the paintings of Jackson Pollock. (Whether his paintings actually have a fractal structure is a moot point.)

Another possible criterion is the idea that a shape drawn by hand is inherently more beautiful than a shape that is derived mathematically.
One “quasi criterion” might be the authorship of a work of art: is it “genuine” or just a copy? Sometime it is hard to tell, and alleged experts are often unable to agree. But that is a weird concept of beauty.

It is hard to see how any of these criteria relate to objective beauty, but they might explain some aspects of subjective beauty. They seem to be dependent on human preferences, some of which may be innate. Innate or not, it seems to me that beauty derives from the characteristics of the human admirer, not from some special quality of the thing of beauty itself.

And this brings us back to the idea that beauty is in the mind of the beholder, and it got into the mind of each person there as a result of the person’s physiology, personality and life experiences.

Some people might say that the innate quality of beauty is apprehended by the soul, in distinction from the intellect or the emotions. But the great diversity in what is and is not regarded as beautiful suggests that the soul is no less subjective than the mind.

If there were to be an objective criterion of beauty, should there also be one for ugliness and one for plainness? Ugliness might be “the opposite of the element that confers beauty”. But the mere absence or opposite of elegance or balance would not by itself be necessarily ugly. Ugliness is just as subjective as beauty.

What about plainness? If plainness is the absence of any features, or the absence of variety of features, then plainness would be truly objective. Perhaps Keats could have written, A thing of plainness is a joy forever, or perhaps is boring forever. It seems odd that plainness could be objective but beauty and ugliness could not.

Is Beauty Good?

Beauty is usually thought to be a good thing. People go to great trouble and expense to experience it, possess it and become human examples of it. The possession of or ready access to beautiful things is generally thought to enhance the quality of life. This does not prevent beauty from being taken for granted after a while, just as wealth, privilege and good health are taken for granted. But as with these other cases, the withdrawal of access to beauty is usually regarded as a significant loss. Being beautiful or handsome is generally thought to be an advantage in many aspects of life, from winning a mate to getting a coveted job. Regarding oneself as ugly can be traumatic, as in the case of anorexic people who think they are too fat.

Sometimes the possession of personal beauty is thought to be a disadvantage, in the same way that having money or jewellery can be a disadvantage, when it leads to undue complacency or envy or when it is lost or stolen.

Some things, such as specific animals or plants parts of the natural environment are said to be too beautiful to change or damage, while others of their kind are not given the privilege. People with other particular motives may put such beauty at a lower priority. The comparative values within a community often cause a lot of conflict.

But because the perception of beauty differs from person to person, from culture to culture and from time to time, to the extent that beauty is good or bad, this is always dependent on personal taste and fashion.


This raises one final issue. Why do we all seem to have the experience of beauty? Why do we have this particular kind of pleasure? It seems reasonable to think that the pleasures of eating, and of sex, and of conviviality and of being successful are all important for our survival and wellbeing.

The feeling of all kinds of pleasure seems to be dependent on specific hormones acting on specific parts of the brain. So beauty would seem to be not just in the mind, but to have evolved to be built in.

I leave it to you to ponder how this might have happened.

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, Sunday May 7, 2017