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Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

Updated on June 10, 2014

Aesthetic Subjectivism

We have all heard, and we might have used, the expression "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Like so many popularly used, readily hackneyed, views, this one too springs some unexpected inner traps when it is subjected to analysis.

What does the expression mean exactly? Could it be ambiguous, having different meanings across various contexts? Most words and phrases can suffer from ambiguity when a plethora of meanings across various contexts is available and when the user of language cannot determine which meaning is intended in a given context.

If we mean to be polite about someone with whom we disagree with respect to aesthetic taste, then our use of the phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" does not have the literal meaning. It is indicative of the difficulties we find when we scrutinize claims that in this case we might actually hold to the opposite view: we might be thinking that the taste of person X is atrocious, as can be attested objectively, but we are being polite in repeating the trite observation. The meaning of the phrase in this case is, disambiguated, "there is no reason you should feel bad on account of your taste." But we may not mean this really. Let us ignore this case and take it that the phrase is used in its straightforward sense. Now, keep in mind that, if there is logical absurdity, it doesn't matter that I am using a phrase: I am speaking nonsense, wether I am aware of it or not. On the other hand, it is also the case perhaps that we cannot correct the competent user of language - our analysis that shows absurdity would then have to be shelved on the undestanding that the language might have a different logic at work. This view is controversial, and is known as Logical Pluralism.

If, taken literally, the statement "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is true, then see what follows: any dispute, between persons X and Y, regarding whether item z is beautiful or not would have to be a pseudo-disagreement. You cannot see, right away, why this matters. In the study of logic, we study, and end up knowing a lot about, pseudo-disagreements. It may shock you to know that we show that many disagreement - emotionally keen, violent, considered grave disagreement - are not genuine! The disputants are confused.

One type of pseudo-disagreement is caused by the fact that the two disputants are using some word or phrase in different meanings. This is not a genuine disagreement: had the disputants used the word or phrase in the same way, they may have agreed and, in many cases, they would have to agree. Let us assume, however, that this is not the case here: it is the not the meaning of the word "beauty" that may be varied as between the two disputants.

Remember: if our statement, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," is true, then any dispute about beauty would have to be a matter of confusion. It would be a pseudo-disagreement. We are assuming that it is not a verbal pseud-disagreement - it is not caused by different meanings of the word "beauty." A parallel case is about taste in foods. X like the taste of spinach but B does not. Check the statement "spinach tastes god." Suppose that X and Y argue about this now. They are confused insofar as this is a case of pseudo-disagreement. Is it? Let's take for now to be a characteristic case of something that cannot be disputed. "Taste is in the tastebuds of the eater."

Should we be concerned that beauty seems to "behave" like taste? Assuming, for now, that disputes about taste cannot be genuine disagreements, should we pull back once we see that we are treating aesthetic values like taste preferences? Some might think so. It is also the case, though, that we don't have at this point any specific justification as to why aesthetics should not be treated like tastes.

Here is another example of a pseudodisagreement: X and Y are in dispute over the truth, or falsehood, of the statement "a triangle has three angles." You might be bemused that any such example could arise but subjective, psychological conviction can intrude in surprising ways. The classical view is that logic and psychology part ways radically. X might be confused about the meaning of the word "triangle," or "three" for that matter, as a matter of his psychological state. So, we have a dispute but it is not a genuine disagreement. Why not? The competent user of the language takes the word "triangle" to be defined in such a way that the statement "a triangle has three angles" cannot possibly be false, ever!

Notice now how the statement "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is unlike the statement "a triangle has three angles." The latter statement is logically necessarily true - a technical term is "analytic:" the meanings of its words make it so that it has to be always true. The statement about beauty, however, is not analytic or logically necessarily true. Nothing about the words "beauty," "eye," etc., make it so that the statement cannot possibly be false. The statement may logically be true and it may be false - although not both. It is what is technically known as a synthetic statement. It may still be true but its assertion is a theoretical choice. Is this statement supported? This will be our next task - to scrutinize this statement. We have seen that the statement is not trivial - neither logical laws nor the meanings of its words fix it as a true (or false) statement. Logically speaking, it is a contingent matter whether this is a true principle or not. Someone who denies that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is not being logically absurd. Nor is one who puts this down as a true principle being logically absurd either.

Beauty and Subjective Preference

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Could it be that Aesthetic Values are Objective? Evolutionary Biology and Beauty.

We have seen that it is not logically absurd to deny that the principle "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is true. If you have heard, and repeated, statement of this principle time and again, you might find it obvious. It is not logically trivial, as we saw; nor is it something that can be known a priori (regardless of what factual evidence is adduced.) Examples of a priori known truths are "1 + 1 = 2": if you have still one after you put one and another one of the same kind together, you don't take this to mean that experience is, after all, setting you straight about the truth or falsehood of "1 + 1 =2." We know today that we can have statement that are not logical truths but, still, can be known a priori. Spoken in the first person by anyone, but in the first person, "I am here now" is known by this person a priori although it is not a logically necessary truth. The principle "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," though, is neither a logical truth nor is it knowable a priori.

Ok - but can we prodcuce examples of theories that have a coherent defense of the view that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder? It is surprising at first that I could be criticized for what I happen to have as a taste in aesthetic matters. Is this critique incoherent? It is not. Here is an example that helps understand how this position makes sense - whether it is to be accepted or not: Given the objective standards about human biophysiology and health, we can criticize someone for having the wrong "tastes" in food - eating harmful food, and even for liking it since that goes against what they should like. To adopt this view, you need to take "nature" as the reservoir of moral truths - you get this in Plato, and in Aristotle later. Do you see the point? We are not insisting that this is a good moral theory, but it is not incoherent. Catholic Natural Law was a Medieval outgrowth of the Aristotelian version - and the Catholic Church is still holding on to this view as to a holy relic.

The findings of evolutionary theory anger many an ideologue by proposing to show how aesthetic tastes are themselves based on objective grounds. Suppose some animal was aesthetically attracted to dirty hair. Often, dirty hair indicates the presence of some dangerous liver condition. No moral judgment can be passed about this animal's risky taste - evolutionary theory has no moral idiom in it, although there is widespread confusion on this issue. Not as a moral matter, the animal attracted to dirty hair fails to procreate because the object of attraction does not make it on account of that liver condition. The genes are not passed on. Scan the genetic pool later and you find that the animals that are around find dirty hair ugly perhaps - definitely not beautiful. Here is an example of an objectively justified aesthetic choice. We can similarly make sense of positive criteria - evolutionarily successful preferences about what is attractive rather than about what is unattractive. Perhaps a certain circumference of female hip girth to waist indicates higher chances of fertile outcome in procreation. Those genes are passed on more successfully then and you should expect that more animals in the future will be attracted to members of the other sex who manifest this characteristic.

There is a confusion here. Accepting the fact pointed above, we still don't know if we can make a normative principle that "one SHOULD be attracted to ----." This distinction comes into play with respect to moral values. Perhaps our principle, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", is a statement as to facts. In that case, the claim can be made that the scientific hammer of evolutionary theory is brought down to falsify this principle. Indeed, studies carried out across widely different cultures and parts of the world have shown that attraction patterns remain surprisingly steady.

But is our statement factual or is it normative? We have come to one of those subtle distinctions that can easily elude us when we first take stock of a viewpoint. If our statement, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," asserts a principle, it has to be normative; it cannot be factual. Think of factual principles as having in them words like "is" and other derivatives of "to be" while normative statements have words, and derivatives of words, like "should," "must," "ought," "have to," "right," "wrong," "good," "bad," etc. The words don't have to appear as a matter of grammar but, you get the point, normative statements are prescriptive and evaluative whereas factual statements are broadly descriptive.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is usually stated to ward off passing judgment on aesthetic taste. As such, it is a normative principle. From it we are supposed to derive "you should not pass judgment on aesthetic choices" or "it is right to have whatever aesthetic choice you in fact have." Notice the tell-tale words "should" and "right." If we can correctly derive normative statements from our statement about beauty, then this statement must itself be normative - a principle indeed.

More strongly, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is meant usually as a theoretical position: it is supposed to be about aesthetic values are. This is also a normative matter. It is like telling us what the RIGHT view is with respect to something - aesthetic matters in this case. Or, think of it this way: it is a theoretical definition of value - not about facts; again, this is a normative matter.

Notice now that the evolutionary refutation we talked about above does not hit bull's eye. Actually, it has no bull's eye to hit. Evolutionary theory gave us factual information only; it cannot hit a normative target. We could, however, add a moral principle, and, then, yes, evolutionary theory could pass on to normative matters. For instance, the moral principle we can add is: "anything that interferes with success in survival and reproduction is bad." In aesthetic matters, this principle gives us something like "beauty should not, properly, be taken as depending on the beholder." We can then even call what happens to the beholder with the WRONG tastes as punishment: he or she doesn't get to pass on genes. Of course, biology has no special advantage when it comes to moral principles. See again the principle we added to make an evolutionary normative case. Is this a good principle? Biology, or science, has no weight on this. In fact, the principle itself falls outside the province of science - it is, after all, just another moral principle!

Does this mean that our principle is good? We don't know that either. We can now turn to what follows if one were to adopt this principle, that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

What Follows from Aesthetic Subjectivism?

If your read the preceding text, you saw how confusion between facts and values can wreak havoc. To be sure, there are moral theories - like Aristotle's and like Natural Law - that blur the distinction by claiming that the proper source of moral truths is nature. A modern view is failure to observe the distinction between fact and value can lead to a logical fallacy. At the very least, any argument with a moral (or, broadly, normative) conclusion should have at least one normative premise. A standard, and embarrassing, example of this "is/ought" fallacy is the derivation of the conclusion that "morality is a matter of culture" from solely factual premises (like the factual premise that "in fact, cultures disagree about what is morally right and wrong." See that the conclusion is normative but the only available kind of premise is factual. You are likely to come across this embarrassment even in college - so be prepared.

Often, the statement "beauty is in the eye of beholder" is taken to be simply a matter of stating a fact. But we have seen that we are dealing here with a normative statement. If is empirically a fact we can attest, and verify, that different beholders disagree about what is beautiful. If this is it, there is nothing to talk about. Take it as granted. But notice now that the claim "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has a theoretical punch to it: it is put out there contentiously, to be argued for and against, to be disputed perhaps. There is no dispute that there is a plethora of aesthetic tastes in fact. So, what are we supposed to dispute? The dispute is over a normative principle, not over the fact: is it OK that people have any subjective aesthetic preferences they happen to have? Or, should we rightly criticize someone for having bad aesthetic choices? Example: Hitler's taste in art was drawn to architectonically massive and expressively pseudo-moralistic themes. If you criticize his taste as "awful", you cannot at the same time hold on the normative principle "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Nor can you praise anyone for having a good taste. This problem is common to all relativisms.

There may be a way around this problem but something else comes up, as we will see. I could say that I can rightly critique your taste, even though taste is properly subjective: after all, my critique is itself a relative matter; so, I "rightly" critique you because the standards for "rightly" are themselves relativized to the subject.

Nevertheless, there is a deeper problem - perhaps a problem but something we should bring to light. This is a very subtle issue but be appraised that it was debated over two thousand years ago, as we know from a polemical lecture Aristotle gave against the Protagoreans (included in Aristotle's Metaphysic.) Here is the catch. The notion of truth needs attention. Take two disputants, again, X and Y. X asserts that "z is beautiful" as true but Y valuates "z is beautiful" as false. Given our Subjectivistic theory, both X and Y must be right. (Is there a way out? Can we say, "z is beautiful for X but not for Y" and evaluate this statement for true/false? The deeper issue, however, is that Relativism makes both X and Y entitled to claiming that they are right.) See what this gets us to:

X is right and Y is right - it is a matter of subjective opinion what the truth about the beauty of z is. X and Y assess the same statement, p, as true and false. So, it is right at the same time, in the same instance of evaluation, to make the same statement, p, both true and false. If this is your position, you should understand that your view has a non-classical logic - a logic that tolerates contradictions, in the sense that it accepts at least some contradictions as being rightly assertable. It is to the eternal glory of the Greeks that they were aware of this - as our contemporary disputants, outside of disciplines like Philosophy and Linguistics, are blissfully unaware that they incur this consquence for their relativism.

Is it a knock-out refutation of Aesthetic Relativism that its underlying logic is non-classical? I would not say so although the absolutist view about LOGIC is still popular. On the other hand, chances are that the defender of Relativism is not ready to accept a non-classical logic in which contradictions are not banned. In that case, the Relativist cannot have it both ways. As a Relativist, he is simply confused! There is no way around this: It is like having a language in which "triangle" means "having three angles" and yet one insists that it is acceptaable to assert that "a triangle can possibly have four angles"

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis

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      Odysseus Makridis 3 years ago from Netcong, NJ

      Thank you - this inspires me to read Kant on the sublime.

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      Dwight Goodyear 3 years ago

      Nice analysis Odysseus. I agree that the claim "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is typically understood in a normative sense. And this deep normative thrust seem to be one reason why Kant thought there was way to, on the one hand, argue that judgments of the beautiful should be universal and, on the other hand, accept that in practice people will not always agree. He claims that when we judge something to be beautiful we aren't expressing what is personally agreeable. We don’t think, despite the fact that aesthetic judgments are not a matter of concepts, that our judgment is simply a matter of subjective feelings. No, we place the beautiful object on a pedestal and try to convince others that they should think the same. If we hold something to be beautiful we think it should be held universally so: beautiful for everyone, everywhere, at all times. If one doesn’t think this then one is not, for Kant, making a judgment of the beautiful! To be sure, Kant is not saying people do, in fact, agree about what is beautiful. He wants to respect the facts of disagreement. But he is saying that judgments of the beautiful entail the belief that others should see what we see. But why is this the case? One reason Kant gives is this: if a judgment of beauty is indeed "disinterested", that is, if it is not made out of a concern for whether the object is true, good, or useful, then the judgment is made on the basis of something that transcends the self with its situated, unique concerns, inclinations, and desires, namely, the pure form of the object and how it interacts with the categories of the understanding. Such an experience of transcendence leads us to assert that the judgment of the beautiful can be universal insofar as we all share, as rational agents, the same categories of the understanding. But perhaps the real reason for denying the relativity of beauty is less profound but empirically sound: when people think they see beauty they do indeed think others should as well and, far from turning into relativists, they argue (or blabber) rigorously in defense of their claim!

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      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      I've just completed an introductory course in philosophy, but I've decided not to take it further into university as I'm taking a writing course instead. I am however still perusing the amazing discoveries the subject holds, I love the thought process, I love the debates, and I absolutely strive for knowledge. It is incredible

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      Odysseus Makridis 3 years ago from Netcong, NJ

      Thank you very much. Philosophy is like a well-hidden secret - though there is no conspiracy to hide anything. It is the most rigorous subject to major in outside of math-science, when in college. In a democratic era it is available to us all, isn't it? It still works like an elite subject that is mostly pursued, strategically, by students who aim at getting admission into the very top law schools.

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      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      I've never looked into the philosophy of art before but I just stumbled across this and thought I'd take a quick gander. A very interesting hub I found! I must look more into the topic now, thank you for sparking my interests, I look forward to reading more from you.