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Posted by on Jan 27, 2014 in Aesthetics, Philosophy | 11 comments

On Beauty

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 hold 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 differnt object had the same bveauty 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!

JP

  • Luke Breuer

    There seems to be a pattern of physicists counting beauty as a positive characteristic of those mathematical models which are more likely to accurately describe reality.

    Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.

    – Bertrand Russel, Study of Mathematics

    I stole the above from Eugene Wigner’s The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. One might also look at the golden ratio to see a form of beauty that seems awfully intersubjectively-shared.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      As I mentioned to another poster elsewhere:

      You can ascribe beauty to abstract objects (an abstraction on an abstraction), physical objects, maths, mountains, grandmotherness, colours, sunsets, modern art, classic art, a face, a clock mechanism, etc etc. Would a painting still be beautiful if we knew Hitler painted it? Work has been done to show that if we think a painting is a fake we ascribe less beauty as a value to it. and so on and so forth. And yet one may think this one abstract value covers all of those things?

      [I edited from my forthright response to her, as it was a torturous discussion…]

      • Luke Breuer

        You’re being a bit unfair, I think, in completely ignoring what I said and moving to much harder instances of beauty, much more complex instances. Let’s start simple, shall we? Start simple, and build up from there. Else we’re in irreducible complexity realm, and that’s a boring realm.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          But I think it’s important to show that beauty is a cover-all term. And that makes it a bit incoherent as an objective (supposedly) standard.

          There is such a variety to beauty that it is difficult to see it as properly covering all of these ideas, including desirability, admirability, goodness etc

          • Luke Breuer

            People may well use beauty in different senses. It still seems a bit too easy to point out a huge array of diversity and say, “See? It’s all subjective!” This really threatens to be a retreat into irrationalism: if I cannot explain it, it cannot be explained, except as e.g. a spandrel of evolution (e.g. why would we consider deadly mountain peaks to be beautiful?).

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            That’s not quite what I am saying. I think that given the sheer voluminous array of ideas of beauty that one must really carefully define what it is and what it isn’t.

          • Luke Breuer

            Alright; would you tell me why you didn’t like where I started?

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            I think it is a case of an Aristotelian soul – or a Platonic ideal, such that if maths is supposed to do something that we have in mind for it, then something which achieves that ‘perfectly’ has beauty ascribed to it.

            I wouldn’t call it beauty. I am not so mathematical. Thus, though the properties of such a mathematical proof would exist for both myself and Russell, we would ascribe utterly different valuations of beauty.

            I simply don’t think that is actually beauty, but a ‘perfect’ realisation of what something should be.

            My perfect idea of a car (or any such idea), materialised, would then have the properties which garner valuations of beauty. I just don’t think that this is anything more than “I really like that because it does everything I want it to” type of thought.

          • Luke Breuer

            You’re still skirting the fact that for physicists (and other scientists, but physics is the easiest case), there is a connection between beauty and truth. It’s not ‘just’ “what I really like”. Such a statement locates “what I really like” in the entirely subjective.

            Suppose that instead, beauty draws us toward excellence. Excellence can easily be an objective thing; there really is such a thing as good piano playing and bad piano playing. Different people specialize in different kinds of excellence. This doesn’t make excellence ‘subjective’, any more than the fact that different physiologies respond to medicine differently makes human physiology ‘subjective’.

            Have you read Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge? He gets pretty close there to saying that good scientists have an appreciation for theories that are more likely to be true, and that there is something inherently subjective to this. Now, we know that ‘subjective’ here doesn’t mean that there is no grounding, it just means that the way one scientist motivates his preferences may be different from the next scientist. That doesn’t mean these motivations are just illusions or something—they really do point the way toward truth.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            Aah, but I have a real problem with the term truth, since truth is, imho, a value ascribed to a proposition. The problem is we, as subjective interpreters, and not knowing things-in-themselves, cannot KNOW whether a proposition is actually true. Given the axiom of correspondence, we still can’t KNOW whether a truth claim has truth.

            But getting back to your point, I think you again make beauty a value of something pertaining to what it is ‘supposed to do’.

            These objects of beauty have real properties, and are objective in that way (given accepted axioms), but the value which we ascribe to those properties is subjective. It’s all about what we have in mind for that object to do.

            I guess this might explain what I mean:

            I hear a perfect played by the best orchestra ever. OK, you might say it’s beautiful.

            Now, imagine I am in prison and am told that that will play forever, and I will only be let out if the orchestra play it badly. After 6 years, they mess up. That strong desire I have for that object aligns with the properties of that object and it suddenly, in its badness, becomes the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. My goal for that object is perfectly achieved. Beautiful.

          • Luke Breuer

            The problem is we, as subjective interpreters, and not knowing things-in-themselves, cannot KNOW whether a proposition is actually true.

            That’s fine; I’m happy replacing ‘truth’ with “better approximates reality than what has come before”.

            But getting back to your point, I think you again make beauty a value of something pertaining to what it is ‘supposed to do’.

            I’m not quite sure how beautiful math in physics falls under this rubric? My point was to show an instance of beauty corresponding with something objective. Now, perhaps if we give science a teleological definition—to better model and predict reality—then we can have a ‘supposed to do’ for science. But do you really want to go there—to make science itself subject to teleological definition?

            Now, imagine I am in prison and am told that that will play forever, and I will only be let out if the orchestra play it badly. After 6 years, they mess up. That strong desire I have for that object aligns with the properties of that object and it suddenly, in its badness, becomes the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. My goal for that object is perfectly achieved. Beautiful.

            I’m not convinced that this one counterexample does a great job of torpedoing the whole project. That’s a highly contrived situation, but we can think of less and less contrived situations, through the point where there doesn’t seem to be any contriving at all. We can ask whether there is a kind of ‘convergence’ to beauty—or at least clustering, around different personality types and skill sets for example—once we reduce the amount that things are ‘contrived’.