What, In Truth, Is Beauty?

This is a topic with a high failure rate. Students who pick this topic often decide that they don't have to follow the prompt, and write papers which say absolutely nothing interesting about beauty. Such papers receive bad grades. If you've somehow gotten the idea that you don't have to do what the prompt says below, either change your mind and decide to follow the instructions for this topic, or pick another topic.

The usual way of failing this assignment is to write a paper that says something like "beauty is constant and is always changing" and repeat this self-contradiction over and over again in different words over two and a half pages. If you pick this topic, you must understand that you have to say a lot more than just repeat common platitudes about beauty. You have to give and defend, or at least analyze, a theory of beauty.

Another common mistake is to confuse the notion of defining "beauty" with the notion of finding something beautiful. The person who finds beauty in something others find ugly does not have have a different opinion of what beauty really is. He just has a different sense of what is beautiful. If you pick this topic, you have to remember that you are supposed to write about the issue of what beauty actually is. The fact that different people can find beauty in different things is not as important as figuring out what this "beauty" thing is that these different people are finding in different things.

People also commonly fail by substituting warm, fuzzy feel-good pronouncements for logical analysis. You don't succeed in philosophy by writing stuff that feels good to you. You succeed in philosophy by logically analyzing concepts and arguments. If you write something that makes you feel good, but which cannot be practically applied in any way, you are not succeeding in philosophy.

If you write that beauty is in everyone, you will receive zero for this assignment.

If you write about "inner" beauty, or say that everyone is beautiful in their own way, you will receive zero for this assignment.

You get started on this topic by digging one or two theories of beauty out of the textbook or from one of the following links and then critiquing the theory..

If you dig up just one theory, you will be expected to think about whether this theory is true or false. This will involve trying to apply the theory to real-world situations, and otherwise exploring it's implications. You should also try to give and analyze reasons for and against this theory. If you pick out two theories, you should compare and contrast them, and then see if you can figure out which one is most likely to be right, based on a logical analysis of their implications and supporting arguments

Remember that you only have to dig up one or two theories. You should not try to cover more than two theories, and you should not try to address a complete article. Just find one or two theories, and think about them on your own.

Links to discussions of theories of beauty.
Theories of Aesthetics
Early Theories of Beauty
All stereotypes are true, except... II: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"
Philosophy of Beauty, by John H. Brown
Video: Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty
Aesthetics Introduction from Ellen Miller
Science News

Make sure you explain you chosen theory completely and that you critically discuss the arguments for and against the theory. If you don't do this analytical work, you are not doing the assignment.

Also make sure you also sit down and think about the issue for yourself. Here are some questions to get you started. You don't have to answer all of them. A thoroughly worked out exploration of just one of these issues will be worth much more than a set of shallow treatments of all six questions. (Please don't take this to mean that you can ignore all these questions in favor of endlessly repeating the obvious fact that different people find different things beautiful, or platitudes like "true beauty is timeless." If you say something like that, make sure you go on to explain what exactly it means, and spend some time thinking about whether it's really true or not. If you say both kinds of things (i.e. "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "true beauty is eternal and universal," spend some time thinking about what each means and how they relate to each other, because as far as I can tell, these two statements directly contradict each other.

We're just talking about what's aesthetically pleasing. We're not talking about other, metaphorical uses of the word "beauty," such as people who are "beautiful" to you because of their personalities.

Here are the questions you should think about as you analyze your chosen theory or theories. (If you decided to ignore instructions and not analyze a theory of beauty, you should thoughtfully and logically respond to absolutely all of these questions.)

1. Is beauty a natural feature of the world? (If it isn't, why are some things beautiful and others not?)

2. Is a sense of beauty something built into sentient organisms? (If it is, how can our ideas of beauty change over time?)

3. Does the real nature of beauty change over time? (If it does, then how is it possible to look at older works of art and still see them as beautiful? To still, or again, feel them as beautiful?)

4. Is beauty a pure social construction? (If it is, then how is it that someone raised under a particular ideal of beauty can look at something his society calls "beautiful" and feel it as bland, uninteresting, foolish or ugly?)

5. Is it possible for people to be fooled about beauty? Do people sometimes see mediocre productions as beautiful merely because advertisers, prophets or politicos have persuaded them that they should see them as beautiful?

These are not simple "yes or no" questions. These are questions that will require you think very hard about what goed on when people make aesthetic judgments. To think about what really makes ideas about beauty change, what cause people to see rubbish as art while failing to see real beauty. To think about what it is inside us that allows us to see things as beautiful, and about all the other external forces that might influence us in our ideas about beauty.

Possible Follow-Up Topics.

If you do a good job on the basic question, I might ask you to discuss one or both of the following, if you haven't already.

1. Social pressure and beauty. Many of us feel pressure to like things because everyone else likes them. If somebody likes something purely because she's been made to feel she should like it, is it really beautiful?

2. Beauty and evolution: Explain and evaluate Dennis dutton's theory:
Book review
Another Book Review

3. Politics and beauty. Many societies have had ideas of what their citizens should consider beautiful. The Nazis were an extreme example. Under Hitler, Germans believed they had a moral duty to value National Socialist art and to despise "entartete kunst." What, if anything, is wrong with this?

Copyright 2005 by Martin C. Young

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