Of Beauty and Beautiful Things
December 31, 2013
Stuart W. Mirsky in Aesthetics, Art, Beauty, Stuart Mirsky, Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein

Although I've been using this site to post a number of lengthy pieces I've been working on regarding questions of moral valuation (distinguishing and justifying claims of moral goodness), I thought I'd change my focus briefly as we head into the new year. A correspondent of mine from India who has evinced an interest in Western philosophy and has been in touch with me about some of its issues, particularly seeking clarifications on his Wittgenstein readings, sent me a quote (unsourced) this morning concerning the matter of beauty. In fact, his questions have been the prompt for many of the articles I've been moved to write and post here since this site began. But in this case I have no lengthy article in mind. Still his implicit question got me to thinking a bit and I thought I'd say something about his message here (in case he's reading along or others have comments).

He sent me this passage:

Beauty is never an expression of the individual, its idea includes the perfection of those tendencies of form whose expression marks the outlines of the race. Therefore in attaining beauty something becomes perfected, which is more than individual.

I offered the following response:

This is a sentiment I simply don't understand. It sounds pretty, even impressive and yet when I try to make sense of it from my own experience, I cannot. What is beautiful, in my lexicon, are a great many things, all of which have in common only the fact that they appeal to me in a certain way.

I find certain women remarkably pleasing to look at and describe that pleasingness which I find in looking at them as their "beauty." I find certain feelings I have, when reading some books or other artful writings (some fine poems, for instance) pleasing, too, and so may be moved to speak of those items as being beautiful because of their power to evoke those feelings in me. Hearing some musical pieces I will also often speak of their "beauty." Looking at some paintings or sculptures or other works of art, I might also be moved to speak of them as being beautiful and so having beauty. But what is it that all these things have in common?

Is the beauty in the woman, whose form in face and figure appeal to me as the poem does, or is it in me for having been so moved? Or is it just that each, the woman and the poem, move me in a way I find similar, a way I cannot put a name to but which, on feeling it, I am inclined to speak of "beauty"?

Should we look for some special condition in the world or some feature that is the beauty we speak of when confronted by these different stimuli? And why should we think that the same stimuli that prompt exclamations of beauty from me would affect you or anyone else in the same way? Is someone's beauty perhaps another's ordinariness, or vice versa? Is another's "beauty" hideous to me? Can't it be?

But if beauty is not in the thing to which we ascribe it, is it in us, the ascriber, instead? Would this mean that we should look for the beauty of the object we are admiring in ourselves rather than in the object? But wouldn't that be a strange thing if the beauty of the woman is in her admirer, of the painting in its appraiser, of the poem in its reader?

I think there's something wrong with taking the word "beauty" as denoting some thing as the text you cite does, though, admittedly, it does it by supposing some abstract object that we apprehend in a special, non-physical way. But that is misleading.

If you find Wittgenstein's approach useful, then you might well want to think that the text reflects a kind of confusion to the extent that it wants to present "beauty" as an ideal object of our apprehension. "Beauty" is a word we apply to certain things when they play a certain role for us and, I would say, that that role includes prompting in us certain kinds of feelings. But this does not mean that there is a beauty in the world in the way that there are colors and shapes and tones, etc.

"Beauty" doesn't name any constant thing in the world which all the things we call "beautiful" share. Rather the word serves as a signal, an expression we make under certain conditions. It's a term we use to express our feelings in much the same way that declaring that we are in pain is often just another way of crying "ouch!"

In a very important way, I think, "beauty" is like the value term "good". Where is the good we call by that name? If many things seem good to us, must they all have something in common? However, unlike the term "beauty" which, I think, is largely a signaling term we use when experiencing certain kinds of feelings, I do think "good" is a little bit more than that, though it plays something like that role, too. Often "good" is a praise term we use, a way of rewarding another as in exclaiming "good work" when they have done something to our satisfaction or as I might speak to my dog, when pleased with his response, "good dog" or "good boy" and so forth. But I do happen to think "good" has another important role which perhaps "beauty" may also share.

That is, I think that we often use the word "good" to express a determination about something about which we believe there is something (some feature or element) in its makeup which is also a reason for us to acquire or achieve it. Thus "good" seems to me, at least at times, to be a kind of shorthand for a more complex formulation:

"There is something about X which is also a reason to obtain X".

Perhaps "beauty" can be seen to work in a similar way. But, if so, then "beauty" doesn't designate any particular thing, however abstract, but only the particular feature or combination of features whose presence in a thing prompts in us certain sorts of reactions (including feelings we may have and the behaviors that manifest them). Just as "good", seen in this way, denotes the presence of features that prompt us to relate to the object which has them in a certain way (to seek to acquire or achieve it) so "beauty" may denote the presence of those features which also prompt in us attraction feelings and behaviors.

If this is so, of course, then beautiful things will also be seen to be among those things we call "good".

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