The Ambivalence of Beauty

What is beauty? This is a question asked by many, and answered by few. For most people, beauty is primarily defined by the standards of society. These standards usually consist of beauty in appearance, or beauty in behavior, which are often dictated by culture and tradition. Beauty is also commonly defined as a mental trait that makes objects pleasing to see. Such objects might include sunsets, landscapes, beautiful humans and creative works of art.


The word beauty, with all its philosophical connotations, has expanded into other areas in the twentieth century. Now, beauty is frequently associated with the idea of beauty in nature. Beauty is also a highly personal concept, and differs from person to person. In addition to these new areas of definition, beauty has also become increasingly subjective, with aesthetic ideas evolving across time and geography. In this paper we briefly examine some of the central notions of beauty.

Subjective beauty is the idea that beauty is something that can be seen, touched, or smelled, or that can be judged by the individual who sees, smells, or touches it. For example, a particular cat might be considered beautiful to some while she might be considered ugly by another. Beauty then is a subjective concept, with each beholder determining its own personal definition of beauty.

Another important aspect of beauty is the idea of beauty as an internal state. By this definition, beauty is something one feels when they are in a particular situation. Aesthetics scholars argue that there are two important elements to beauty: one is pleasure (or joy), and the other is emotional response. For instance, seeing a beautiful fall landscape brings a pleasurable response to the aesthetic senses, while smelling flowers brings happiness to the olfactory senses.

Beauty is also often equated with sexual appeal, especially between the ages. Most people, however, feel beautiful only in a relative sense. According to one widely cited survey, even married couples felt beautiful in different ways at different times. For instance, the wife thought she was more beautiful than her husband, but only because she looked more attractive to him; he thought the same thing about his wife, but only because she smelled better.

One major argument against beauty is that beauty is merely an aesthetic trait that one finds in others. It is argued that beauty is merely a personal preference, which can change with circumstances. Others argue that beauty can be found in the reflective aspects of nature, such as water, a sunset, or a starry sky. The aestheticians are right on one aspect: beauty is largely an aesthetic quality, and is not found in nature. However, the beauty ideology does have some truth in its desire to eradicate the ‘inferior’ aesthetic sense and replace it with a universal aesthetic sense.