The Two Conceptions of Beauty


Beauty is a quality that is often associated with art, music and architecture. Despite this, beauty is still a very subjective term and has many different meanings. It can refer to the aesthetics of something, or it can be defined as an emotion or mood that a person experiences when they see a particular piece of artwork.

The First Conception: A Classical Concept

A classical conception of beauty posits that it consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony and symmetry. This idea is rooted in ancient Western culture and has persisted even into modern times. It is embodied in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature and music.

This idea of beauty was formulated by Aristotle in his Poetics, where he states that “to be beautiful, a living thing, and every whole made up of parts, must present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Aristotle, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]). It is also central to Plato’s account in the Symposium and Plotinus’s in the Enneads.

The Second Conception: A Subjectivist Approach

In the nineteenth century, philosophers started to take a more subjective approach to beauty. They argued that it was an emotion triggered by certain things, rather than a property of the objects themselves. These accounts, often influenced by Santayana’s philosophy of pleasure, were particularly influential in the philosophy of aesthetics.

Taking this approach, Santayana argues that beauty is an ‘objectified pleasure’: the ‘judgment of something that it is beautiful’ responds to a pleasure response of the ‘beholder’ that is attributed to the object. This is a very interesting and revealing view of the subjectivity of beauty, but it has many disadvantages as well.

One of the main drawbacks of this view is that it can lead to confusion about what makes something beautiful, or not. The most obvious example of this would be the phrase ‘that song is beautiful’: while it might sound like a meaningful claim, it does not really have any empirical or conceptual content.

This view is also problematic because it equates aesthetic value with an immediate sense of pleasure, which cannot be proven by observation. As Santayana notes, there are plenty of people who enjoy a’satisfied sigh’ after listening to a song, but they do not call that ‘beautiful.’

A third approach, based on the neo-classical conception of beauty, is to consider beauty as an objective quality that is found in any object. This approach is reflected in the seventeenth-century writings of Berkeley and Carritt, for example. It is a very similar line to Augustine’s, although Berkeley and Carritt do not go quite as far in the neo-classical direction.

This neo-classical conception of aesthetics has been very influential in the twentieth century, and it has shaped the way we think about beauty today. It is also the basis of a lot of the aesthetic theories developed in the last hundred years, and it has influenced the ways that we use language to talk about art.