2017/03/16

A Metaphysic of Beauty

A recent debate on Twitter about whether "good" science fiction is a matter of subjective taste or objective value reminded me of this essay I wrote a few years back. It's remained unpublished until now.


Is there such a thing as an objective standard of beauty?
Some people insist that there isn’t. They usually cite the wide differences in individual tastes as proof that beauty is strictly subjective. According to this view, what’s beautiful to you may not be beautiful to me.

But if beauty is purely subjective, what does it mean when someone calls a painting or a baby or a sunrise beautiful? Saying “It’s beautiful to me,” is a non-answer that just rephrases the question as a statement. What we’re after is the meaning of this “beauty” concept for which the person in question is said to have a subjective standard.

You could define beauty as “a quality that causes a pleasant emotional response”, but someone who says, “That painting is beautiful,” is talking about a particular kind of emotional response, as opposed to the satiation of hunger, sexual gratification, the thrill of victory, etc. What’s more, it’s assumed that others have a similar response in the presence of a quality called “beauty”.

Unless a statement that something is beautiful is made in reference to a standard that exists independently of the observer, the statement has no meaning, even to the one making it (because it doesn’t define what this “beauty” concept is). So calling an object beautiful on a purely subjective basis is unintelligible noise which effectively denies that beauty exists.

Sometimes when people call objects beautiful, they’re making preference statements like, “I’m fond of pizza.” Statements of preference really are subjective. There’s no way for others to test the truth or falsehood of such claims.

But a lot of the time, aesthetic statements are value judgments. When someone who’s in love says that his beloved is beautiful, he doesn’t add the qualification “to me”. He’s making a value claim about his beloved’s attractiveness that he wants others to agree with.

Sure, there’s some variance in aesthetics between individuals, and even whole cultures. But concluding to aesthetic subjectivism from that fact leaves out a step—the unstated premise that “the lack of unanimous agreement among all people in all times and places rules out the existence of objective standards of beauty.” The reason it’s never stated is because it’s pretty easy to disprove.

Most geologists didn’t agree with the theory of plate tectonics until the mid-twentieth century. Was the theory false until a majority of scientists accepted it? Virtually all past civilizations thought that slavery was perfectly moral. Were they right?

I know that these are examples from empirical science and ethics, but the same principle applies to aesthetics. Just because everyone doesn’t clearly and immediately recognize a norm, that doesn’t mean it’s not objective. The existence of an objective standard doesn’t mean that everyone is automatically infused with perfect knowledge of that standard.

At this point, the following questions often arise: “What are the objective standards of beauty, and how can we tell if a work adheres to them?” Many postmoderns assume that those questions are unanswerable. That’s because the institutions that once taught the answers—places that used to be called “universities”—focus almost exclusively on practical knowledge to the detriment of speculative reasoning. Thank you, Immanuel Kant (throw fruit now).

Luckily, Plato, Aristotle, and Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have us covered.

Firstly, all of these guys agreed that beauty is a quality possessed by objects independent of the observer. How did they reach that conclusion? Well, it’s pretty much self-evident if you accept the model of knowledge that prevailed in the west for thousands of years, viz. that the human mind forms impressions of real, external things (much like how Silly Putty works).

In contrast, postmodernism arbitrarily declared that the world is formless or non-existent and our minds project form onto it (and yes, you can believe that, but you can’t trust empirical science while you do).

Medieval philosophers held that beauty is fundamentally connected with knowledge. As was said here previously, every creation reveals something about its creator. Since God made the world, the world reveals truths about God.

Because God is existence itself, everything else only exists by virtue of participation in His existence, including beauty. Because God is infinitely simple (not composed of separate parts), He is beauty itself. Therefore, beauty is being, i.e. an object is beautiful to the extent that it fulfills the category of its being (i.e. is all that it can be).

St. Thomas notes that beauty gives pleasure when contemplated, but he maintains that beauty is located in the object. In other words, beauty is not a concept in the mind of the beholder imposed onto a given object; it’s caused when the form of an object is impressed on the mind. Beauty is pleasurable because it satisfies one or more of the following criteria to a greater or lesser degree.

  • Being: everything has its ultimate source in being; therefore, being is the basis of beauty. (Without existence, there’s nothing. Therefore, an object owes everything, including its beauty, to its being.)
  • Proportion: symmetry, harmony, and balance.
  • Radiance: according to Etienne Gilson, radiance is that elusive aspect of beauty that “hooks” us and keeps us coming back for more.
  • Wholeness: completeness/integrity; how close the object comes to being a perfect specimen of its type.

Anyone who’s still reading may wonder what good objective beauty is in the first place. Considering where you’re reading this post, it’s a safe bet that you’re interested in art, especially writing; and especially fiction.

Hugo-nominated sci-fi author Mike Flynn notes that, “Until the early 20th century, artists saw their job as portraying beauty according to a standard of craftsmanship.”

What’s the point of portraying that beauty? The mellifluent John C. Wright describes authors as custodians of a great secret in his indispensable essay anthology, Transhuman and Subhuman.
The secret is that we are exiles here on Earth. This is not our home. We do not belong here.
If the readers and authors did not feel that way, if we did belong on Earth, and if we loved mortal life and mortal suffering, and if we desired nothing more, we would read newspapers for the news and engineering reports for discoveries of useful tools, and gossip about real people and histories of real events, and we would never, ever, ever desire something more.
In a nutshell, an SFF writer’s job is to tell people the truth about themselves by making stuff up. But if it’s not objectively beautiful stuff, the writer’s just lying.

@BrianNiemeier

9 comments:

  1. I've often rejected movies, TV shows, and video games on the basis of their aesthetics alone. Looks do matter.

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    1. Of course. Enjoyment arises from apprehending beauty.

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  2. What I think needs to be brought to attention is substance as well. I find myself dismissing many a film just on the basis of it paying too much attention to aesthetics or better said visuals, and too little to the story. The recent examples that comes to mind being Ben Hur remake, and Suicide Squad.

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    1. The films you're talking about fail to meet the standard of wholeness. Good aesthetics and story are both needed.

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    2. Yes, you're right. It needs to be a complete package. After all what good is a highly ornamented saddle if it doesn't hold the rider atop his horse?

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  3. If I see a sentence with the word "being" in it twice, my brain just turns off. To date, Jordan Peterson is the only person who has used the word in a way that inspires me. Every other instance, the word feels like dividing by zero.

    In music, some people have an ear and many people don't. And over time, you learn to spot the people who do. Sometimes I only have the talk to someone for 2 minutes to know they good taste. I can hear it in the quality of their voice. You just know.

    These platonic ideals... the concepts... My mind just doesn't apprehend them. Not my way of understanding the world. A specimen which is flawed could just as easily said to be a perfect form of something with which the observer is not familiar. I imagine this is a classic objection and there's good responses to it... but I'm barely quarter educated and my mind doesn't work that way.

    But there's certainly ugliness. There's some part of my brain that says "that does not lead to survival." It seeks out the beautiful thing and says "yes, this leads to survival." I couldn't tell you. You just know, but I wouldn't call it subjective.

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    1. Interesting comments. If you can explain to someone why you think something is beautiful, then you are appealing to something objective. If a surgeon were to say: "that's a beautiful pancreas" while pointing at a bleeding hunk of offal, he could explain that it has all the signs of health and full development, and therefore most likely did its job as a pancreas 'beautifully'. And maybe you'd see it.

      The distinction between being and knowing - ontology and epistemology - is very useful if you want to understand basic philosophical discussions. It's critical to distinguish between what a thing *is* versus what we know about it - introduces some sanity into discussions that otherwise get crazy fast.

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  4. Ontology... epistemology... this is why I call myself quarter educated. I read the definitions of these words... and I get to a sentence where the word "be" in is quotes... and my brain turns off. Just happened now. A chemical process prevents me from understanding this concept. Sad. Maybe someday, but I'd rather write some music or something.

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