In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Beauty

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies and Reference Works
  • Beauty and Art
  • Beauty and Disinterest
  • Beauty and Nature
  • Beauty Contested
  • Beauty Experienced
  • Beauty Naturalized

Philosophy Beauty
Jennifer A. McMahon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0038


Philosophical interest in beauty began with the earliest recorded philosophers. Beauty was deemed to be an essential ingredient in a good life and so what it was, where it was to be found, and how it was to be included in a life were prime considerations. The way beauty has been conceived has been influenced by an author’s other philosophical commitments―metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical―and such commitments reflect the historical and cultural position of the author. For example, beauty is a manifestation of the divine on earth to which we respond with love and adoration; beauty is a harmony of the soul that we achieve through cultivating feeling in a rational and tempered way; beauty is an idea raised in us by certain objective features of the world; beauty is a sentiment that can nonetheless be cultivated to be appropriate to its object; beauty is the object of a judgement by which we exercise the social, comparative, and intersubjective elements of cognition, and so on. Such views on beauty not only reveal underlying philosophical commitments but also reflect positive contributions to understanding the nature of value and the relation between mind and world. One way to distinguish between beauty theories is according to the conception of the human being that they assume or imply, for example, where they fall on the continuum from determinism to free will, ungrounded notions of compatibilism notwithstanding. For example, theories at the latter end might carve out a sense of genuine innovation and creativity in human endeavors while at the other end of the spectrum authors may conceive of beauty as an environmental trigger for consumption, procreation, or preservation in the interests of the individual. Treating beauty experiences as in some respect intentional, characterizes beauty theory prior to the 20th century and since, mainly in historically inspired writing on beauty. However, treating beauty as affect or sensation has always had its representatives and is most visible today in evolutionary-inspired accounts of beauty (though not all evolutionary accounts fit this classification). Beauty theory falls under some combination of metaphysics, epistemology, meta-ethics, aesthetics, and psychology. Although during the 20th century beauty was more likely to be conceived as an evaluative concept for art, recent philosophical interest in beauty can again be seen to exercise arguments pertaining to metaphysics, epistemology, meta-ethics, philosophy of meaning, and language in addition to philosophy of art and environmental aesthetics. This work has been funded by an Australian Research Council Grant: DP150103143 (Taste and Community).

Anthologies and Reference Works

Anthologies on beauty that bring together writers who, while they may discuss art, do so in the main only to reveal our capacity for beauty, include the excellent selection of historical readings collected in the one-volume Hofstadter and Kuhns 1976 and the more culturally inclusive collection Cooper 1997. Recent anthologies on beauty can take the form of a study of aesthetic value, such as in Schaper 1983, or more specifically on the ethical dimension of aesthetic value, such as in Hagberg 2008. Reference works in philosophical aesthetics today tend to focus on the philosophy of art and criticism. They typically include one chapter on beauty, and in this context Mothersill 2004 treats beauty as an evaluative category for art; and in keeping with this approach, Mothersill 2009 recommends a historically informed understanding of the concept beauty derived from Hegel. A recent trend toward environmental aesthetics brings us back to beauty as a property of the natural world, as in Zangwill 2003, while McMahon 2005 responds to empirical trends by treating beauty as a value compatible with naturalization. The comprehensive entry “Beauty” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics is divided into four parts. It begins with Stephen David Ross’s brief but excellent summary of the history of concepts that underpin beauty theory and philosophical aesthetics more broadly. It is followed by Nickolas Pappas’s dedicated section on classical concepts of beauty, and then Jan A. Aertsen’s section on medieval concepts of beauty. The entry concludes with Nicholas Riggle’s discussion of beauty and love, which introduces contemporary themes to the topic. Guyer 2014 analyzes historical trends in approaches to beauty theory in a way that sets up illuminating contrasts to contemporary perspectives.

  • “Beauty.” In Abhinavagupta–Byzantine Aesthetics. Vol. 1 of Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Michael Kelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    In the course of setting out the historical foundations to the concept beauty, we are provided with an excellent summary of the key concepts that still dominate or underpin philosophical aesthetics, including pleasure, desire, the good, disinterest, taste, value, and love. Available at Oxford Art Online by subscription.

  • Cooper, David. Aesthetics: The Classic Readings. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

    Introductions are provided to some of the classic readings on beauty followed by an extract from the relevant work. They are discussed in terms of their relevance to understanding art rather than value more generally.

  • Guyer, Paul. A History of Modern Aesthetics. 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Guyer traces the development of key concepts in aesthetics, including beauty, within a context of broader scaled trends, such as aesthetics of truth in the ancient world, aesthetics of emotion and imagination in the 18th century, and aesthetics of meaning and significance in the 20th century.

  • Hagberg, Garry I., ed. Art and Ethical Criticism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444302813

    A series of papers on the ethical dimension of art, the authors draw out the ethical significance of a particular art/literary/musical work or art form. It is worth noting that the lead essay by Paul Guyer argues that 18th-century writers on beauty did not hold any concepts incompatible with this approach.

  • Hofstadter, Albert, and Richard Kuhns, eds. Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

    Well-chosen readings from classic works, with commentary provided, marred occasionally by the editors’ anachronistic emphasis on art. The readings provide a good introduction to various conceptions of beauty as a general value.

  • McMahon, Jennifer A. “Beauty.” In Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, 307–319. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    A historical overview drawing out the contrast between sensuous- and formal/value-oriented approaches to beauty, culminating in the contrast between Freud’s pleasure principle and the constructivist approach of cognitive science.

  • Mothersill, Mary. “Beauty and the Critic’s Judgment: Remapping Aesthetics.” In The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Edited by Peter Kivy, 152–166. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470756645

    Setting out the change in focus in philosophical aesthetics between the 19th and 20th century, Mothersill then proceeds to analyze beauty with a view to its significance for understanding aesthetic value in relation to art.

  • Mothersill, Mary. “Beauty.” In A Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Stephen Davies, Kathleen Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper, 166–171. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    Mothersill considers the contributions made by key historical figures before settling on Hegel’s historicism as providing the most helpful insight for the present context. Available online.

  • Schaper, Eva, ed. Pleasure, Preference and Value. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    A series of essays by prominent philosophers on the nature of aesthetic value, which are very useful as an introduction to the study of value theory, including essays on taste, pleasure, aesthetic interest, aesthetic realism, and aesthetic objectivity.

  • Zangwill, Nick. “Beauty.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 325–343. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    An introduction to the tradition of analytic approaches to value theory, beauty is analyzed into its components and relationships, and its status considered in terms of subjectivity and objectivity.

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