Beauty: Objective or Subjective

Historically, philosophers wrote systems of philosophy that tried to connect the different branches—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy—unifying the branches top each other. Steadily in the twentieth century, the academy became hyper-specialized. A few have attempted to systematically look at philosophy as whole again, as illustrated by Crispin Sartwell’s 2017 book, Entanglements: A System of Philosophy. While he discusses six different branches of philosophy, his chapter on aesthetics will be the focus here. And more specifically, his discussion about whether beauty is objective or subjective.

The nature of beauty is a perennial question in philosophy, having its western origins in Plato’s dialogues, notably the Symposium. Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the middle ages all held that beauty existed outside a person’s mind, making it objective. People had to discover the nature of beauty through knowledge and extramental reality. In the modern period, the focus shifted inward, and people became their own standard of whether something was beautiful. While people in contemporary thought favor the subjective notion of beauty, Sartwell describes the choice as “a false and crushing dilemma.” (303)

“If we treat beauty as a property of objects apart from subjects, we seem to omit the transport of soul, or at any rate the pleasure, with which we associate beauty.”

Crispin Sartwell, Entanglements, 303.

If we consider beauty as solely objective, then we sacrifice the personal experience and pleasure that are part of beholding beautiful objects. Even stringent accounts of objective beauty, like Thomas Aquinas’s, emphasized the pleasure involved in experiencing beauty, which supports Sartwell’s claim that it is a false dilemma (perhaps only a product of more recent philosophy). Sartwell then confronts the belief that beauty is wholly subjective. To illustrate, he says it would be strange to stare at a sunset and attribute the beauty of the scene to your own feeling of pleasure, essentially disregarding the sunset itself. Objects are connected to the experience of beauty; otherwise, random things could potentially cause those same feelings, and people’s notions of beauty would be wildly different from one another.

“Beauty is a form of connection to a particular thing or event, and it is of all experiences most attentive to the details of things, the differences among things, the real externality and the real connection and the real profuse character of real things.” (304) The beholder and the object or experience are both entangled in the same situation together. This connection is an essential aspect of the aesthetic experience. Beauty does not merely use things, claims Sartwell, to create the pleasurable experience. People cherish the connections they make with literary works, paintings, music, films, and nature.

People spend time and money to stand in front of specific works of art, for example, because they know (or at least believe) these objects will provide an aesthetic experience. The relationship between this particular subject and this particular object is necessary for the experience to be meaningful. The great thing about there being a multitude of artworks in the world is that we don’t know in advance which objects will provide the best experiences of beauty or other aesthetic properties. Once we gain some knowledge of art, nature, and our own desires, then we may have better guesses for future experiences. But the point is that the subject and object exist together in the situation and are both needed for the requisite experience to be possible.

Whether Sartwell’s ideas are completely correct here is, in some sense, beside the point. He has shown at best that the arguments for a strict objective or subjective notion of beauty are both indefensible. And, at least, he has shown the idea of beauty is more complex and nuanced than either position can adequately explain without an appeal to parts of the other.

In this post, only one idea (very important for aesthetics) from Sartwell’s comprehensive philosophical book was briefly introduced. However, ARL’s director, Michael Spicher, recommends reading the entire book as an overview of the branches of philosophy and how they might fit together in a coherent system.

In addition to his book Entanglements, you might also read Crispin Sartwell’s entry on Beauty in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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