May 6th, 2004

Beauty

Aesthetics can be either the philosophy of beauty, or the philosophy of art, depending on whose philosophy it is. I've focused mostly on the study of art, but beauty is certainly a subject worth studying, and is bound up in art.

Ayn Rand, some say, had a tendency to disdain natural beauty, as compared to manmade beauty. But you have to be careful about what is said, but not clearly established. Her novels contain highly appreciative passages of natural beauty. What seems to have upset the lady was the idea that nature was being held out as superior to man. She would never stand for that.

I heard her asked, how she would define beauty. She said the best she had come up with was to say that beauty was a kind of harmony.

At first this might suggest a mere punt from the realm of what pleases the eye, namely beauty, to the realm of what pleases the ear, namely harmony.

But on reflection, harmony carries some other associations and primary meanings. It specifically imports the idea of "things that go together well." Of course, this is still a very high level of generality, and does not quite get us to beauty.

Beauty is one of those words with fifty flavors of meaning. The primary meaning still seems to be the visual sort of beauty. By ready extension we have musical beauty, literary beauty, intellectual beauty, and so on. But it seems like the base meaning is the visual one.

In the eighteenth century, another sensory mode was brought to bear in metaphorical form. This was the sense of taste. Not taste for food, but taste for beauty and art and all fine things.

Again, this might suggest a mere punt from the realm of what pleases the eye, to the realm of what pleases the tongue.

But I think the literal sense of taste is worth thinking about, partly because certain aspects of it are clearer and surer than the taste for art or beauty.

To be biologically technical, what we usually think of as our taste for food, actually includes a fair amount of our sense of smell. But I am going to use the word in its usual, base, colloquial meaning.

The sense of taste comes with built in evaluation and motivation. Certain things taste good to us. For the most part, things that taste good to us are non-poisonous and even nutritious. When we are born we have never tasted food, but when we taste it, we like it right away. You can call this a blank slate if you like, because we have no experience or conceptual knowledge of food and what it tastes like. But we have a sensory system evolutionarily set to favor certain flavors, and that's the way it is.

That's not the way it stays. Our taste for food develops throughout our life. It develops culturally, in part, depending on what the people around us eat, but there remains a fierce biological component. An individual who hates grapefruit from the word go, may NEVER like grapefruit, no matter how many people around him eat it, and no matter how often he tries to like it. It's a biochemical or neurological quirk, we suppose.

There is choice involved. One can seek out a variety of cuisines, and develop a learned sense of what food one likes best.

I suppose philosophy of life may enter into one's taste for food. But it doesn't enter into as deeply as the way that one's view of life enters into one's taste for art.

My suggestion, and it is not original, is that beauty begins as what the eye has a "taste" for. It seems to be established that some of this is built in, in somewhat surprising ways. It's not just pretty colors that are built in, apparently. It is also a simple appreciation of the beauty of the human face. Tests run on infants establish that infants would rather look at pretty faces than homely ones. "Lookism" not only starts young, it is built-in.

Although originally built-in, it is subsequently built *on*, as culture and choice and outlook all begin to modify our natural endowment for appreciating that which is somehow luscious to our sense of sight.

Guest poetry line of the day:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

(John Keats)