What do we talk about when we talk about beauty? If Wittgenstein is correct that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,’ then it would seem to follow that “the expressions of my language are the expressions of my world.” Hence, if we can pin down a clear way a word is used and separate it from how other words are used, we might also be able to isolate a distinct experience and/or “use,” and thus arrive at a distinct meaning. From Wittgenstein, we can then move into phenomenology: the effort to define a word becomes the effort to define an experience, to achieve meaning.
At the same time, beauty should not be formalized — a “recipe” or “formula” should not be created that says “if x has these attributes, it will thus be beautiful,” per se — for the transcendence of beauty and individual “takes” on it should be preserved. Yet without any attempts to describe beauty and the experience of it, beauty is vulnerable to being reduced to mere preference and taste, thus robbing it of its power. The desire to avoid formalizing beauty can be an effort to preserve its transcendence, but taken too far, beauty lacks defenses to keep it from being reduced to something arbitrary and utterly relative. A definition threatens to restrict, but a word without a definition is meaningless. By appealing to Wittgenstein and phenomenology, I have attempted to strike the right balance, but I will leave it up to you to decide if I have succeeded.
If when I say “that is beautiful,” I mean “that stands out,” there is little difference between the words “beauty” and “uniqueness,” and furthermore everything that is “one of one” would be beautiful, when something like a dead cow, even though the only dead cow in the world that will ever be that dead cow, isn’t necessarily beautiful (though that isn’t to say it couldn’t be under any circumstance). As love often entails acknowledging uniqueness but isn’t uniqueness itself, so the same can be said of beauty. If I were to see the same rock a hundred times, though I might have found it beautiful the first time, after a while, it can become boring. Hence, when I say, “that is beautiful,” I must mean to some degree “that is rare” and/or “that is un-repetitive,” but it doesn’t follow that everything that is rare is necessarily beautiful or that the goal of beauty is to be unique. Beauty entails uniqueness, but the beautiful isn’t merely unique.
Beauty surprises. When I step out of my house and see a sunset I didn’t know was there, I am more taken by the beauty: the surprise enhances the experience. This isn’t to say that everything that is surprising is beautiful, and if when I say, “that is beautiful,” I mean “that is surprising,” there is no difference between the words “beauty” and “surprising.” Yet beauty does seem to be surprising or at least enhanced when it is surprising, for it seems to better “get past” our preset ideas, expectations, thoughts, and the like (in that we experience it before we have an idea of it). Yes, our ideas then quickly race in and “cover” it, but initially what is beautiful strikes us more so “as itself,” freer of our concepts than just moments later. Considering this, because there is a connection between “surprise” and “beauty,” “originality” is often an element of beautiful artwork, because for something to be original is to be precisely something that the observer has not experienced before. Originality surprises.
To borrow from Walker Percy, imagine that we never heard of the Grand Canyon — never seen a picture of it, never heard the phrase “Grand Canyon,” etc. — and imagine that we walked out of a forest —
And there it was.
The surprise, the uniqueness, the sublimity — it is likely impossible for people like us in a photo-filled-world to imagine what this experience would be like. For Percy, a world full of photographs and images is a world where “original experiences” are increasingly hard to come by, and in that respect, so is beauty. For Percy, we now more so visit the Grand Canyon to confirm pictures we’ve seen of it, and now it’s seemingly impossible for us to experience the Eifel Tower without already having some ideas and images of it in mind. It is increasingly difficult to be “entirely open” to things and to “let them speak to us as themselves.” This isn’t because we will to “color over” things with our thoughts, preset ideas, and the like, but because the mind naturally does so (especially when trained by technology). Despite these obstacles, when we experience something beautiful, the thing still manages to “get past” our thoughts, and in this way, it is surprising. By extension, it is also unique, for that which isn’t unique is that which we’ve already experienced, formulated preconceptions about, stuffed into mental categories, and so on.
When I say “that is beautiful,” I must mean “that is surprising and unique,” but if the word “beauty” is to have distinct meaning, it must mean something else than “surprising” and/or “unique.” Additionally, if when I say, “that is beautiful,” I mean “that is pretty,” there is no difference between “beautiful” and “pretty”: the word “beauty” lacks distinction. Clearly what is beautiful entails aesthetic pleasure, but not everything that is aesthetically pleasing is necessarily beautiful. Yes, as people may use the words “like” and “love” interchangeably though the words don’t mean the same thing (as discussed in “On Love” by O.G. Rose), so people may use “beautiful” and “pretty” interchangeably even though they are distinct.
The well-made cover of a book might be pleasing to my eyes, but it is not “beautiful” in the same way as is a well-crafted dance. Yes, both are arguably crafts and art-forms, but a well-made book cover, table, or house almost feels to be in an entirely different category from the Grand Canyon or a masterful performance of Swan Lake. Perhaps “beauty” means “a great aesthetic pleasure” while “pretty” refers to a lesser one? Perhaps, but then “beauty” and “pleasure” are both points on the same scale of “aesthetic pleasure,’” and the two words lack distinct meaning, as using the word “love” to refer to something I “really like” ultimately renders “love” a mere simile for “like,” different only in (relative) intensity.
When it comes to aesthetic pleasure, there are lots of words that can be used — “lovely,” “picturesque,” “scenic,” “gorgeous,” “stunning,” “attractive” — and “beautiful” is often used as another word like these, one among many. And yet “beauty” entails a long history of supposedly meaning “something more” that these other words don’t capture (though perhaps these words can “point to” it). Perhaps the history of philosophy is misguided, but if “beauty” does in fact have some distinct meaning from “aesthetic pleasure,” it mustn’t only mean “pretty.” Indeed, beauty can entail a high level of aesthetic pleasure, but if “beauty” is uniquely meaningful, it isn’t merely aesthetically pleasing: there’s something more to it.
If when I say, “that is beautiful,” I mean “that is subjective,” the word “beautiful” will struggle to have distinct meaning from “subjective.” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a common phrase, but does it mean that beauty is relative in a manner that renders it meaningless beyond arbitrary taste? Indeed, what is aesthetically pleasing is relative: one person may dislike the works of Picasso, while another may find them gorgeous. What is aesthetically pleasing is subjective, but is it the case that what is subjective lacks any “common core?” Are there no universal characteristics of things that are beautiful that “summon out” subjective admiration (though that’s not to say all subjectivities respond to the summoning)? If not, the effort to define beauty might be hopeless, for all definitions will be too easily deconstructed.
“Subjective” is a troublesome word, and it should be noted that we often use it as if “I alone think x.” Though I may subjectively believe a given painting is beautiful, that doesn’t necessarily mean I am the only person in the world who thinks this way: there may be others, if not many others, who from within their subjectivities, share the same view, and agree that the painting is beautiful (a fact that could suggest “something more” than mere subjectivity is at play). To say “that is subjective” is to say “that is relative,” which is to say “that is conditional” more so than something solpistic.¹ In other words, in order to find x beautiful, there are certain conditions that must be met by the observer, conditions which not everyone may meet.
In order to find Shakespeare beautiful, I must learn how to read; in order to be amazed by Mozart, I mustn’t be on my cellphone during a concert; and so on. Professors teach their classes that if they really want to appreciate a work of art, they must learn to cultivate their capacities to absorb work (take a book like Ulysses by James Joyce or The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner), that there are conditions that must be met if the beauty of a work is to be fully experienced. This doesn’t mean the work isn’t beautiful, but that experiencing beauty requires “something to happen within” the person experiencing it. This applies to nature just as much as it does to books: if as a child my best friend drowned in a lake, it will be more difficult for me to find lakes beautiful than someone who didn’t suffer such a trauma; if as a child I played in the woods, it might be easier for me to find trees beautiful than those who lived in cities all of their lives (on the other hand, it might be harder for me, being so used to trees, while the city-dweller might be “open” to the forest, having no preset ideas). In other words, my internal life impacts what strikes me as beautiful, not because what is beautiful is “all in the head,” but because there are conditions that must be met in order for a person to “receive” (the experience of) beauty. Beauty is conditional, not illusionary.
To say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a valid statement if it means “there are conditions the eye must meet if it is to grasp the beauty of what it beholds,” but if the phrase is used to mean “beauty is merely subjective,” the phrase is invalid. Indeed, there is something individual and particular to beauty: it speaks to me (though that doesn’t mean it speaks to no one else), and perhaps for reasons I might not ever be able to put into words (it perhaps being a matter of the subconscious and/or “high order complexity,” to use language from “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose). That said, that which is “beautiful” as opposed to simply “pretty” is that which actually (more so) transcends subjectivity, “standing over it, calling it up,” per se, even though it is the case that I must cultivate my subjectivity to be able to hear its calling. Beauty calls something out of us while also asking us to develop the capacities to hear its summoning, though we paradoxically are often deaf to its calls. We often simply have to know we need to develop these capacities, but the more we experience beauty, the more we learn to have faith in what we cannot hear and to work on developing our internal life until the music reaches us.
Though beauty might be an experience everyone can have, it isn’t the case that everyone will necessarily experience a given thing as beautiful. Everyone experiences beauty generally (perhaps some more than others), but not a given thing as beautiful (and why one experiences this as beautiful and not that is a matter of “high order complexity”), similar to how everyone agrees murder is wrong, but not on what exactly constitutes murder. Beauty is something everyone experiences either through music, a sunset, a touch of dawn light, or what have you, but not everyone experiences James Joyce as beautiful (and perhaps they don’t meet the conditions for experiencing such for reasons in their control or perhaps outside their control — hard to say). And yet this isn’t because Joyce isn’t necessarily beautiful, but because we have to “raise ourselves up” to grasp Joyce, yet the very experience of Joyce, even in our ignorance, “calls us” to understand it. Arguably, the fact it so “calls” is a sign of its beauty, even though we might find Ulysses nonsense. Perhaps the book only calls because experts tell us it is a great book, but the very fact that experts find it a great book means there is reason to believe there is beauty there that can be experienced if certain conditions are met.² The question is only whether we will choose to meet them.
Does everything in the world “call” like Ulysses? Perhaps: I don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to say for sure that any given thing doesn’t “call” to at least one person in the world, if not all of us (with most perhaps being deaf to the summons). What about a dead rat? This brings us to the question of if it is possible for something to be so ugly, offensive, rude, etc. that it cannot be beautiful to at least one person on the planet. If this is so, it would be inaccurate to say that “everything is potentially beautiful.”
Christians find the cross “beautiful,” but many early Romans found it ugly and monstrous, but it should be noted that Christians only find the cross glorious because they believe Christ rose from the dead; had this not occurred, the cross, like an electric chair, would probably be hideous to Christians as well. Considering this, the beauty of the cross to Christians is tied to what it means to them: it is not the cross itself which they find beautiful, but the cross plus its symbolism, what it “points to.” Hence, if a person finds something like a dead rat “beautiful,” it is probably because the dead rat means something to the person, though I don’t mean to say it is impossible for someone to exist who finds beautiful the particular way the dead rat lies on the ground. Yet if someone finds “the lay of the rat,” beautiful, it follows that the dead rat at least means “I am beautiful” to the person observing it (and/or “I am”).
Beauty means. It is a meaning, and yet not simply a meaning lest saying “that is beautiful” is no different from saying, “that is a signifier” and/or “that is a symbol.” Beauty can be “pointed to” by signifiers, as words are signifiers of their definitions: to see a tree as beautiful is to see it like a word. What signifies beauty to one person doesn’t necessary signify the same to another person (as not everyone understands the same words), but it is the case that whenever someone experiences a thing as beautiful, the person experiences something “pointing beyond itself” (that, do note, it could somehow be part of: signification could suggest participation, a part of a whole, versus something dualistic).
Throughout the day, we experience countless entities, most of which are “invisible” to us (like a doorknob that works, to allude to Heidegger). What is “invisible” is necessarily not “beautiful” to us: beauty is necessarily “visible.” And as a doorknob that’s unexpectedly broken causes us to stop and look at it, so what is beautiful stops us in our tracks (though that’s not to say there isn’t a difference between a “negative stopping” based on brokenness versus a “positive stopping” based on awe of fullness). We don’t passively say “that’s beautiful” unless we use the word as a mere simile for “pretty”: beauty stops us. We don’t experience most things in life as signifiers, but what we suddenly experience as “beautiful” is different. In a sense, something within us “breaks the thing” from being a non-signifier into being a signifier (to us), making it “point to” something more than itself (that, again, it possibly participates in — language struggles here). As we read meanings onto words from words, we experience beauty onto things from those things. There would be no beauty without observers, and yet things are needed for observers to see and for sight to matter.³
Beauty freezes: it is a meaning that suspends us in a moment of life by moving us; beauty is “awe-full.” We are walking through a city, caught up in our own thoughts, and suddenly there is a rose growing out of the concrete. We stop. We look. We see something after hours of watching the invisible movie inside our heads. And there the external world is in the form of a rose in a city.⁴ Misplaced. Unexpected. In our eyes. And it means. “You are alive.” We see.
We’re lost on a college campus, having grown up on a farm, trying to find our class, nervous. We pass the music center, one of the windows is open, and we hear Beethoven’s 9th — Poppa’s favorite. We stop. We look up. “Everything will be alright.” We hear.
Beauty hopes. How much depends, but beauty creates hope and inspiration. In addition, to whatever else beauty signifies, it seems to mean “there is hope.” Personally, I cannot imagine a genuine experience of beauty that doesn’t make the observer feel that life isn’t totally a waste (though that’s not to say the observer can’t forget his or her experiences of beauty amidst “the slings and arrows” of life moments later). Yet if when I say, “that is beautiful” I mean “that is hopeful,” “beauty” and “hope” lack distinct meaning. Still, what is beautiful is that which is “visible” in a world of mostly “invisible” things, and in this way it at least creates the hope that things can be “visible” (including ourselves). Additionally, to find something beautiful is to find proof that there is the possibility of something that makes life more like living than surviving. Yes, cynicism can immediately creep in, and I can “think away” the experience of beauty instantly, but at least in the moment of the experience of beauty itself, there is a suspension of cynicism. Of sorrow. Of loss. Hope.
To one person, an earlobe could be the stained-glass window in reality through which beauty shines over them; to another, it is the eyes of their wife.⁵ Perhaps a dead rat can be the “crack in reality through which beauty shines” over someone, but this only seems realistically possible if the person can project onto it a meaning that exists within the observer (perhaps the last thing the person’s mother did before she died was heroically remove a dead rat from the person’s bedroom). Considering this, beauty entails meaning, and it seems possible because humans are capable of “seeing a thing as it is not” — of understanding symbols and signifiers. And yet terms like “symbol” and “signifier” suggest a separation between the thing and what it “points to” that might not be the case: it could be more like a beautiful thing “points to” a fuller version of itself and its world. It could be that beautiful things are “symbols of themselves.”
An interesting question arises: is it the case that the more beautiful something is, the more everyone agrees that it is beautiful, as the more true a thing becomes, the more all agree it is true (consider 2 + 2 = 4); the more good, the more all agree it is good (consider helping the oppressed)? If this is the case, it doesn’t mean that everything that is beautiful, good, and true is universally agreed on as such, but it does mean that the beauty, goodness, and validity of a thing increases as does its universal acknowledgment. The more beautiful a thing is, the more the thing speaks to everyone in their particularity universally (for reasons of “high order complexity” that may transcend intelligibility): everyone internally meets the conditions necessary for grasping the thing as “beautiful.” Who disagrees that the Grand Canyon is beautiful? A blind man? But this isn’t necessarily because the Grand Canyon isn’t beautiful, but because the blind man cannot see it: the beauty isn’t lacking, just the capacity to behold it (a condition isn’t met). Hence, the right question is “Who doesn’t think the Grand Canyon is beautiful of whom can see it?” I doubt few would answer “me.”
If beauty increases as does universality, it would follow that the Grand Canyon is more beautiful than Ulysses, for less people find Ulysses beautiful. Perhaps this is the case, but I would argue that we can’t say either is more or less beautiful than the other; we can only say that the beauty of the Grand Canyon is “more apparent” than the beauty of Ulysses, that it is easier for a given person to meet the conditions necessary for experiencing the beauty of the Grand Canyon than for Ulysses. This may mean in some ways that the Grand Canyon is less beautiful than Ulysses, because appreciating Ulysses requires more work and hence is more meaningful to those who love it. On the other hand, the fact the Grand Canyon is easier to experience as beautiful might be evidence that it is more beautiful than Ulysses.
Personally, I am of the opinion that we can’t say either way, for we can’t say for sure if the beauty of a thing increases as does its universal “apparentness” or if it increases relative to “the bar of cultivation” that must be passed to experience it. What can be said for sure though is that the more we cultivate our internal life and aesthetic sensibilities, the more beauty we will be able to experience. Beauty will appear more often to us, though it cannot be said for sure that “better” beauty will be experienced. Fortunately, it isn’t the case that the more beauty we experience, the less meaningful it becomes: beauty always means, and because it is always unique and surprising, it is never redundant and boring. Unlike food, exercise, and some other goods, we cannot have too much beauty. Infinite beauty is beauty-yet-enough.
If when I said, “that is beautiful,” I meant “that makes me happy,” there would be no meaningful difference between “beautiful” and “enjoyable.” Certainly, beauty is something to be enjoyed, but it isn’t merely pleasurable, and not everything that is enjoyable is necessarily beautiful (such as a game of tag or laughing at a joke). Why is beauty pleasurable? Not only because it creates a sense of hope, but because it is like looking in the mirror and seeing someone you admire. What is beautiful to a person is something that “means” to that individual, and why it does so is relative to who that person is in his or her particularity. Considering this, beauty is necessarily “reflective,” and what is beautiful to a person is that which somehow shares in that person’s image and likeness (in ways that perhaps not even the observer can put into words). This isn’t to say that beauty is egotistical, but to say that beauty is individual, and as every human is universally an individual, so every experience of beauty is likewise universally individual.⁶
Yet as beauty can cause pleasure, it can also cause anxiety, and it is perhaps because of this risk that beauty can in fact incubate joy.⁷ As already pointed out, to claim “beauty is individual” isn’t to say “beauty is an illusion” or “irrational”: as human emotions aren’t fundamentally irrational but rather often too complex for human rationality to grasp, so it is the case that beauty isn’t beneath human intellect but above it and complex in ways that transcend what the mind can fully comprehend. Yes, the mind can sometimes grasp it “in part,” but often the full reason a thing is beautiful to a person (“calling up” that individual) is beyond what that person can understand. This isn’t because beauty is “nonsense,” but because beauty entails “sense” beyond what enables humans to only survive. Yet “high order complexity” is that which can cause existential uncertainty, for we experience it as “incomprehensible,” the same way we experience a complete lack of complexity. Great genius and great stupidity are both “beyond understanding,” and so when we experience one or the other, we can wonder if we are experiencing genius or idiocy, substance or only an appearance of substance, reality or only a scene.
When we experience beauty, we can wonder if what we are experiencing is “truly beautiful” or only “seemingly beautiful,” as we can wonder if a modernist painting is “truly art” or only “seemingly art.”⁸ This can be existentially challenging, but we can calm ourselves if we recognize that an experience of beauty is an experience of a (“meaningful”) reflection, and that regardless if a given thing is “actually beautiful” (a question the answering of which might transcend intelligibility), the very fact that it “draws out of us” a reflection means the thing is valuable (to us at least), and furthermore means “the thing itself” is capable of “making us project onto it” something that we otherwise wouldn’t project out into the world before our eyes. The very fact it does this, for whatever reason, is evidence that it is in fact “beautiful” (even if by some objective standard it isn’t), and since everything in the world could potentially be such a “caller” (at least to someone), everything in the world is potentially “actually beautiful.” If it is the case that a jagged rock is a “caller” to just one person in the world, it doesn’t mean the beauty of the rock is all in that person’s head, but rather that only one person in the world is “conditioned” to experience the “(actual) beauty” of the rock itself. As it isn’t the case that if I paint an old chair teal its beauty is an illusion, so it isn’t the case that if I project over a jagged rock a memory that the rock’s beauty is fake.⁹ Furthermore, it is perhaps by painting the chair that others will actually stop and look at it versus walk by and ignore it. Because of the paint, there is the possibility of people actually being “open to” (a thing) in the world that people would otherwise miss, as because of memory, there is the possibility of people actually being open to the jagged rock itself. Considering this, it isn’t the case that because things “call us” that we cannot experience them; in fact, it is only “callers” that have any chance of being truly experienced “visibly” at all. If there is a sense in which beautiful things “point away” from themselves, it’s paradoxically by doing so that we “look toward” them (and that they perhaps suggest something “within” and/or “deeper”).
Lastly, another reason beauty may cause anxiety is because it can make a person wonder questions like “What am I doing with my life?” or “Why can’t I experience beauty constantly?” Beauty can lead a person to reflecting on the whole of life, the beautiful standing in contrast with everything else in the world that doesn’t shine as bright. Because a thing “stands out” “visibly,” it can make us realize that we live in a world of mostly “invisible” things, causing despair. Beauty can be like a religious experience that results in a person longing for the next life, disengaged from the world. Does this mean beauty should be avoided? No, no more that I should avoid things that bring me hope because I might encounter that which tomorrow makes me wonder if that hope was an illusion. As humans need hope to live, so humans need beauty, and as the possibility of going without food doesn’t make me need it any less or mean I shouldn’t eat so that I never miss food, so the possibility of beauty leading to anxiety doesn’t mean I can live without it or should try. Rather, we should simply accept that we live in an imperfect world and recognize beauty as glimmers of the truth that not all is lost and that we all have within us the potential for something more.
Because beauty is individual, there’s something mysterious to beauty, for it is a mystery why something is beautiful to one person and not to another. Furthermore, the experience of beauty can be something that cannot be put into words, and why it is ineffable is in itself a mystery. However, if when I said, “that is beautiful” I meant “that is mysterious,” “beautiful” and “mysterious” would be similes. Though beauty entails mystery, it is not the case that all mysteries are beautiful.
Flannery O’Connor noted that mystery is not that which we cannot know, but that which the more we know, the more there is still to know. Mystery is ever-deepening versus inaccessible, and this understanding applies to beauty. What is beautiful is not that which we cannot know, but that which the more we understand, the more that we see that there is more to know, like a landscape covered in fog that is unveiled a little at a time. Why is beauty an ever-deepening mystery? Because beauty is an individual projection/reflection unified with an external phenomenon that, in being aesthetically magnificent and “awe-full,” attracts the observer into diving into it/self, and since humans are infinitely deep (we have met countless people, seen countless things, entertained countless conscious and subconscious thoughts, etc. — all mixed together into a unity within), what we experience as beautiful is also infinitely deep, being an extension of ourselves and yet not a simple reflection. Understanding why we experience as beautiful what we do may take deep reflection and might ultimately be incomprehensible, not because there isn’t an answer, but because the answer lies beyond our capacities to grasp within a finite timespan. Because humans are infinite, so is beauty, but this doesn’t mean we cannot understand anything about beauty; rather, it means that the more we understand, the more there is left still to understand: to access beauty is to always have something to access.
In its mysterious, “awe-full,” hopeful, and attractive nature, beauty inspires, but if by “that is beautiful” one meant “that is inspiring,” “beauty” and “inspiration” would be similes, robing “beauty” of distinct meaning. Beauty stops us from moving along and at the same time moves us: it suspends and inspires; it catches us and then we catch it. In being an inspiring mystery, the experience of beauty is the same experience that makes us want to dive deeper into it, if not in that exact moment “toward” the phenomenon that is striking us, “toward” life itself. If the experience of a sunset doesn’t inspire us to grasp its fullness, it will inspire us to grasp the fullness of life or something else. To experience beauty is to carry it into the world like a man carrying a bucket of water who fills the empty wells he encounters. Influential, beauty changes us to change.
Beauty is an inspiring mystery that summons the observer ever-deeper into its mystery. In a way, beauty is entertainment, for it “calls” the observer to entertain it.¹⁰ However, if beauty is a mystery that cannot be fully grasped, what is the point of trying? Because the journey changes the traveler for the better: the individual is deepened in the same way personal reflection leads to personal development, provides hope, shows others why being beautiful is a valuable undertaking, and so on. Does beauty always positively influence a person? Perhaps it is possible that it doesn’t, and for such an individual, beauty inspires the individual to dive deeper into a bottomless ocean for no good reason. Just when the person wants to turn around, the person will be inspired to press on, and the only way to escape the eternal sink is to resist inspiration and turn back, which is precisely the opposite of “being inspired.” This kind of situation possible, to experience beauty is perhaps to take a “Pynchon Risk,” but what is fully meant by this will have to wait to be explained until “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose.
That said, even if beauty is a meaningless, endless sink, the fact that it inspires means that beauty necessarily increases the will to live, the will to will. To be inspired is to want to do something, and one cannot do if one isn’t alive and/or willing. To experience beauty is to want it, to want beauty is to want things to be beautiful, and things reside only amongst what exists.¹¹
Life is where beauty is found.
Finally, since beauty inspires, beauty calls out for creation. To experience beauty is to want it to exist in the world and through us. To drink of elegance is to be stirred to partake of it in how we are and how we act; it is to come to desire to be a creator, perhaps in the art of politics, glass-making, raising children, or the like. Beauty calls, and to hear its call is to want to answer.
To be beautiful is to be true to life.
In conclusion, if “beauty” is to have distinct meaning, when I say, “that is beautiful,” I must mean “that is unique, surprising, aesthetically magnificent, and “calls” something out of me that I in my particularity can or can’t hear because of who I am and who I’ve made myself. It means something, even if I don’t understand what it means, and whispers “I am.” It stops me from moving yet moves me, stands out as “visible” in the midst of a world of “invisible” things, and begets hope as I live amongst countless things that are hopeless. It brings me joy, though like hope, this is a joy I can only experience through vulnerability. It is an inspiring mystery, ever-summoning me to take a risk and dive deeper into it/self to understand what I cannot grasp without finding that there is more to grasp, increasing my desire for life, to create my being and my world.”
“Beauty, I will be the art of who I am.”
¹A point inspired by James K.A. Smith from his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?. Also keep in mind that “false” and “subjective” aren’t similes, for as discussed in “Compelling” by O.G. Rose, I can be subjective about something that is true and objective about something that is false.
²Part of the reason experts can find Joyce beautiful is because they find Joyce “genius,” which suggests that there is a connection between “genius” and “beauty.” To say “Joyce is beautiful” suggests that Joyce created difficult, unique, surprising, original, and creative conditions that had to be met to grasp his work as beautiful (you have to read this and that book to get this allusion, understand that history of this opera house to understand that plot development, etc.). Without these conditions that no one else in the world created, Joyce wouldn’t be beautiful, and hence Joyce had to meet the condition of “being a genius” to create the conditions of his art, as readers themselves may have to be “genius” to meet those conditions. This also hints that “design” and “beauty” might be related, but it doesn’t follow that everything that is beautiful is designed (though perhaps an “appearance of design” is required) (keep in mind the critique that Joyce is “nonsense” by those who just glance at his work: they believe “the appearance of intent” is all there is, such as many think in regard to much postmodern art.). Trees grow and take shape emergently, and yet that emergent outcome strikes us “as (looking) designed.” Part of the tree’s beauty might very well be to us the fact that it looks designed: the beauty comes from a sense of the miraculous, the impossible-that-is.
³Animals do not seem to experience beauty (though this could be wrong), perhaps because animals do not experience signifiers (this points to a condition of experiencing beauty being certain cognitive abilities, though it might not be possible to say which). I don’t mean to say animals don’t experience aesthetic pleasure — I cannot say — as it is the case that a dog could look at the word “cat.” But it seems to be the case that a dog can’t from the word “cat” experience a “movie in its head” of a cat. Considering this, to experience beauty is to confirm one’s humanity.
⁴This “moment” is evidence that the external world is real, as Sartre’s “pinned down”-moment is proof of other “selves.”
⁵This metaphor seems to imply Platonism: that Beauty Exists behind reality and that reality “is in the way” of Beauty, and that Beauty every now and then reaches us through things (as “beauty”) because Something/something within us pulls and translates Beauty through those things into ourselves. I’ve personally never been much of a Platonist, but if there is Beauty, we can only know it as beauty: things are the windows into their Forms. Additionally, I don’t believe Forms and things can be divided: they are two-sides of the same coin, though one side transcends full conceivability. I am no dualist.
⁶It is perhaps the case that the pleasure that comes from beauty is something that the more I arrange and/or plan, the less I experience it: the more “surprising” the beauty, the more joy I experience. When I buy tickets to an art gallery, since I am expecting to see beauty, it is perhaps the case that it is more difficult for the works to “speak to me.” Since I don’t know exactly which pieces of art I will experience, there is still an element of surprise, but the very fact I know I am going to see something beautiful (at least according to some critics) may in fact hinder my “openness” to the works. On the other hand, if I don’t know that in the forest there is a magnificent waterfall and I encounter it, unable to fill my mind with expectations and ideas of what I’m going to experience beforehand, perhaps the waterfall is able to bring me more pleasure.
⁷This is perhaps similar to the idea in business that to create value, risks must be taken.
⁸On this question, we usually end up relying on the opinion of experts, but this can cause anxiety as we feel at their mercy.
⁹This mistake perhaps has been worsened by our tendency for “reality prejudice,” as discussed in “Incentives to Problem Solve” by O.G. Rose.
¹⁰However, though what is beautiful can be entertaining, it isn’t the case that everything that is entertaining is necessarily beautiful. On the other hand, it also isn’t the case that what is entertaining can’t be beautiful: the modern tendency to put “entertainment” on one side and “art” on the other can be problematic (as expounded on in “On Art” by O.G. Rose).
Like is claimed of beauty, “entertainment is in the eye of the beholder,” and both seem to similarly be matters of “individual reflection.” Why one thing is more so “entertainment” than “art” or vice-versa is a difficult question to answer, one that might ultimately be an individual and “high order” judgment (though perhaps not). Then who should judge? Experts? Perhaps.
¹¹Is it possible that a person be inspired by art to find nothingness beautiful? Technically, nothing can’t be beautiful (being “no thing”), only one’s idea of it, which isn’t “nothing.” But even in willing “(one’s idea of) nothing,” we must will to be alive to have the chance to hurl ourselves into nothingness. Even if beauty inspired us to never be born, we must be born to be so inspired. If beauty inspires us to commit suicide, it must be because we think we will experience something “on the other side” that we want to experience, whether it be God or nothingness. But again, we can’t will this if we aren’t alive, so beauty must make us want to live so that we can will to cease to be. What never lives cannot die, and if beauty inspires us to die, it must inspire us to live so that we can die. Hence, beauty necessarily increases an observer’s “will to will.”
¹²Allusion to Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats.
1. To emphasize what was said at the opening of the paper, rightly or wrongly, I have attempted to describe beauty more than formalize it (to show more than tell, which must paradoxically be done through telling), and to avoid the mistake of overly-formalizing beauty, I have attempted to use a phenomenological and Wittgenstein method and attempted not so much to say “what is beautiful,” but instead to describe how we experience beauty, what happens when we experience something beautiful, and why we describe something as beautiful. It has not been in my interest to establish hierarchies or qualitative assessments about what is true beauty, for I fear this inevitably falls into establishing power structures and elitism. Again, I am not interested in qualities or top-down judgments of beauty, but in describing the experience of it and the conditions that can be met to make a thing beautiful to us (phenomenological and personal conditions versus qualitative or hierarchical conditions — there is a difference between saying “there are conditions that x must meet to be beautiful to us” and saying “these are the conditions that x must meet to be beautiful at all and/or to be more beautiful than y”).
At the same time, though I sympathize with the effort to save beauty from elitism, I don’t want to go as far as I feel some in the West today have gone, and avoid trying to say anything meaningful about beauty at all. In fear of defining beauty, there has been a lack of phenomenological descriptions that could help us grasp how beauty is a unique and meaningful experience. In not carrying out this effort, beauty has been left defenseless, and the very effort to preserve its transcendence has cost it a sense of transcendence. My hope is that by seeking to define beauty through phenomenological description versus formal logic, beauty can be defended without becoming overly restrictive. I leave it up to you to decide if I have succeeded.
2. As it is possible for everything to be “beautiful” (to someone), so it is possible for everything to be “dangerous.” It is possible for me to hurt someone with a toothpick, a small stone, a piece of paper, and so on, just as it is possible for someone to find each of these entities elegant. Considering that there might be no such thing as a “non-dangerous object” in the same way there might not be such thing as a “non-beautiful object,” perhaps “beauty” and “danger” are somehow related.
3. As judging a man by his strength alone is improper, to judge a woman by the standard of beauty alone seems wrong, yet judging a painting by that standard seems proper. At the same time, telling a woman that “she is beautiful” can be a compliment, but only insomuch as the woman isn’t objectified and/or reduced to simply her quality of beauty (which is arguably and paradoxically to divide beauty from the “wholeness” that makes it beauty), as if she is nothing more. This seems to be like treating a living human like an inanimate object (more particularly, like a mirror), and it is precisely because a painting is inanimate that considering it simply by one quality isn’t such a violation. But perhaps like women, paintings shouldn’t only be considered in terms of beauty? Perhaps they should also be considered in light of the ideology they “point to,” their history, their mission, etc.? Perhaps beauty is only an attractive invitation into something more?
4. The idea of “beauty as suspending” and/or “beauty as awe-full” is similar to the idea of “the sublime” found in Burke and Kant.
5. Since beauty is an individual reflection, it might collectively be a reflection of the “spirit of the age” and people’s overall ideology. Art could be how we read the soul of the people.
6. Do note that this paper has not been asking “What is art?” but “What is beauty?” These two questions are easily conflated.
7. Experience is extension.
8. On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry and For the Love and Beauty by Arthur Pontynen are books that should be read alongside this work.
9. For a thing to be “ugly” might be to see a reflection we don’t like.
10. Elaine Scarry makes fascinating points about how the language we use to describe beauty often intersects with our language for justice; for her, the attributes of beauty are often the attributes of justice. We call something “fair” that is lovely and equal; we believe good art entails symmetry, in the same way that we think a society that is too economically unequal or one that punishes disproportionately is a bad society; and so on. In a way, a just society is one where everyone can experience beauty; an unjust society is where there isn’t equal opportunity for everyone to see life as beautiful (not that everyone will).
Scarry points out that great art entails an “unselfing” in which the individual feels small before something bigger than his or her self, and yet delights in this feeling of smallness, even though usually “feeling small” causes anxiety and unhappiness (if this is the case, perhaps a robust life of beauty is an important balm for “status anxiety”). In an unjust society, it is difficult for individuals to feel small without feeling exploited, as it is difficult for individuals to feel as if there is something bigger than them that isn’t consequently an oppressive force. Similarly, those in higher classes can feel anxious about a need to maintain an avoidance of “feeling small,” which paradoxically is the “unselfing” state necessary to experience real bliss.
Scarry notes that there is something about beauty that makes us “trust the ground we stand upon,” that makes us feel like the world is actually there and that it will support us, that it is not an illusion. Considering this, perhaps beauty helps us avoid cynicism and trust that the society we live in, though imperfect, is not in the business of constantly deceiving or taking advantage of us — perhaps beauty helps stop “the legitimation crisis” which Habermas has warned us about for decades. Additionally, I wonder if beauty can help us avoid getting lost in endless conspiracies and paranoias about the world around us, which is perhaps a corollary to correcting “the legitimization crisis.”
For Scarry, beauty “raises the bar of awareness” and makes us realize that we can’t treat the world like Heidegger’s “invisible” doorknob — something there that we never pay attention to unless it breaks — that the world should be noticed and not taken for granted. By extension, perhaps beauty helps us appreciate society and all that goes into making it possible, and though we should still critique society, perhaps beauty helps us do so from a place of thanksgiving, making our critiques more balanced and fruitful.
Unfortunately, today, beauty is something Capitalism tends to appreciate only insomuch as we are convinced to buy it, while as Scarry points out, beauty was classically seen as a call to heal the world. Devolved, the connection between “justice” and “beauty” become harder to see, except perhaps in the analysis that corporations can use “calls for justice” to help create customer loyalty.
11. Considering “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, is beauty a matter of thought or perception? It seems to initially be a matter of perception — an “open up to” — that leads to thinking (a response to that which you “opened up to” thanks to perception). Beauty suspends us, gets past our preset ideas, and surprises us, and this aspect of beauty is a matter of perception. However, once we are surprised, we think, for we reflect, but these thoughts are ones we will only have because of the perception of beauty which functions as the groundwork. Beauty seems to be an elevating dance between the two.
12. As it difficult for us now to imagine a world that isn’t “preconstructed” by photographs, so it might be difficult for us to imagine a world without philosophical, ethical, scientific, etc. theories.
13. The act of observing the beautiful is often the act of wondering why we cannot articulate what we are observing. In other words, beauty is often an experience of thinking failing to be perception (as discussed in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose), and hence the realization that there is a (hidden) difference. This realization is also the acknowledgment of a mysterious standard existing against which we determine something as “beautiful,” and what constitutes this standard might be a matter of perception, and hence that which thinking longs to understand but that’s very touch may push understanding out of reach.