Unlikely philosophical studies bring new light on beauty


Photo by Kristine Cho

Kristine Cho

Of all the different philosophical concepts, beauty isn’t the first thing most people think of. However, it would be a great injustice to skip the study of aesthetics. Beauty is tightly linked with the very essence of cultures, and so, is tightly linked to the core of humanity. The faces we find attractive, the music we find pleasing and the art we enjoy is all linked to the philosophy of aesthetics and the study of beauty. The study of aesthetics may seem unorthodox, but is quite complicated when it comes to the examination of such simple and normative concepts like “beauty”.
Immanuel Kant is primarily known as a moral philosopher, but he also formulated theories concerning the arts — most notably the concept of pure beauty. For him, this kind of beauty is objective and selfless, not marred by greed or lust. This appreciation calls for all of us to detach ourselves from selfish interests and participate in the universal appreciation for a beautiful sunset. Kant’s calculations for beauty are cold, but are indicative of a certain common humanity and harmony that the appreciation of beauty evokes. As such, according to Kant, “Beauty is a symbol of Morality.”
Since then, the philosophy of aesthetics has grown to include some of the more expressive aspects of art, and emotion has proven to be a significant part of the discourse and concepts that have since then arisen. In 1930, R.G. Collingwood called art a form of self-expression, as he writes, “By creating for ourselves an imaginary experience or activity, we express our emotions; and this is what we call art.” The feelings people pour into their musical performances, dance routines or paintings are ones that, for Collingwood, define art. However, as abstraction made its way around in the 20th Century, thinkers turned to Clive Bell’s “Aesthetic Hypothesis” which defined the workings of art to surround what he called “significant form.” The way certain lines are arranged on a piece of paper, the way certain tones are put in places when coming out of an instrument provoke emotions or reactions that thus make something art.
The study of aesthetics extends far beyond significant form and pure beauty, but it continues to shape our world and how we, as humans, appreciate the art that surrounds us.