Is Beauty Objective?
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
- John Keats, from Ode on a Grecian Urn
This poem and frankly the topic of aesthetics or the nature of beauty is truly baffling to me. It is one of those areas where my intuitions clash spectacularly.
Classically speaking, beauty finds company with truth and goodness and together comprise the transcendentals - that which human beings are striving for, and perhaps what is most foundational to ultimate reality.
And yet, I find beauty to not fit in perfectly here. It seems a bit easier to understand how truth and goodness have objectivity. Objectively true - the world is a certain way, and sentences trying to describe the world can succeed or fail in capturing that certain way. Objectively good - it would be wrong for me to select a person at random on my way home and throw a brick at their head; the wrongness of that action is the case regardless of what anyone thinks about it, it isn’t subjective. I have questions and nuances to sort out, but objectivity for truth and goodness does especially bother me.
But, objectively beautiful? That is a tough one for me. I’d certainly like to think that some things are objectively beautiful - the Grand Canyon, the night sky, even a freshly cut lawn.
Let’s try to be clear on what we mean. What is beauty? It’s almost a force; a drawing, an attracting, a wooing, a captivating aura. It demands attention, appraisal, and appreciation. Of near conceptual necessity, it seems to be “positive” in nature, whereas ugliness would be “negative”. We could fill in the blanks with other terms, as philosophies of the past have attempted - we have wondered to what extent beauty has to do with pleasure, value, order, harmony, etc…
Now, consider the taste of ice cream flavors. Some prefer vanilla, some prefer chocolate, or something else and there is no right answer. In fact, we’d think it a category mistake to suppose there was.
Here’s the skeptic’s concern: is the same thing going on with beauty as it is with taste? We’d want to be careful about merely reporting a subjective experience and claiming that the world is objectively that way. Couldn’t it just be that individuals, or even collections of individuals, perceive something as beautiful, rather than it having that property inherently? Analogously in taste, it would be like saying “vanilla is delicious”, and someone retorting, “well yeah, to you, but not everyone finds it delicious.”
I’m not saying that mere disagreement is enough to relegate beauty entirely to the realm of relativity and subjectivity; yet, a substantial aspect of it is. You might be tempted to point out objective, concrete features like symmetry, pattern, the golden ratio or even features that may have played some evolutionary role in reproductive fitness and survival, but these things all seem contingent on the fact that we, human beings, are the ones perceiving those things.
Here’s another way of getting at the point: consider the history of the transcendentals: truth, beauty, and goodness. It appears that we have made genuine progress in the project of understanding our world better - we have more truths at our fingertips than ever before. There has also been significant moral progress, let the proliferation of freedoms of the past few hundreds be evidence here. But, in what way has there been “growth” or even an approximation in beauty? Is the art, music, dance, architecture, and other creative artifacts produced by ancient cultures less beautiful than ones millennia later? Surely not; they’re just different. This is at least a piece of evidence that there may not be a “standard” of objective beauty that is being approximated like there is with truth and goodness.
If you are interested in these sorts of questions, we dig in a bit deeper and explore the power and importance that beauty has in our lives despite some uncertainty about its objectivity. You can watch on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.