Beauty: more than the eye of the beholder (part 3)

In memory of Roger Scruton (1944-2020)

Changes in the apperception of the beautiful across historical time and the very individuality of the experience of beauty, have led to a false doctrine of the relativity of beauty. In fact, the history of the development of knowledge supports an alternative view, that the variability across time and place of the experience of beauty is the possibility for the discovery of what is essential, constant and transmissible in the formal aspects of the object of appreciation.

In a lecture in 2010 the philosopher Denis Dutton set out a thesis that the roots of our sense of beauty lie in our evolutionary prehistory during the Pleistocene (Dutton, 2009; 2014). He identified two parameters of this development corresponding to the Darwinian concepts of natural selection and sexual selection. First he asserted the universality of the description of a beautiful landscape as that corresponding to the Pleistocene savannah where homo sapiens is considered to have learned to survive. Secondly, he argued that the presence of intricately carved hand axes, found wherever advanced hominids dwelt, lie at the root of an inherited aesthetic sense, as the ability to carve such items require a set of skills considered attractive in a mate, such as fine motor skills, patience, planning, access to rare materials, etc.

Dutton’s thesis reinforces the view that the idea of the beautiful resides in our nature and is thus universal, rather than subjective and relativistic. However, as a cultural experience and philosophical concept beauty extends beyond biologically determined realities. Nevertheless, I will show that the philosophical arguments around the nature of beauty can  usefully be subsumed within an evolutionary account of our aesthetic sensibility.

The picture which emerges from cultural history, outlined in part 2, suggests that the fundamental property of the object of aesthetic appreciation seems to be a balance between opposites, the finding of the harmonic centre between extremes; yet it also exists in the departure from this balance and the enrichment of the centre with the new and innovative. It is clear, though, that this is a concept that can exist apart from the experience of beauty. In this essay (part 3) I will look at arguments that further the view that beauty is not a relativistic, subjective and immediate impulse, but grounded in a complex of relationships between the perceiver, their object, setting and milieu.

The philosophical argument around beauty

The ideas expressed in part 2 correspond closely with what is referred to as the classical conception of beauty found in Plato and Aristotle, in the Roman physician Galen and architect Vitruvius and in the Italian Renaissance, concerned with the properties of objects, such as proportion, balance and wholeness. post-Descartes, theories of the beautiful start with the Cartesian assumption of subjectivity, even if they reject its rationalism. Hume, for example, restricted the sense of beauty to “impressions” we have of things and not to innate qualities of the things themselves, much as he considered morality to be based on pleasurable or painful sentiments. In fact, the close connection in Hume between aesthetic appreciation and morality, have led many to conclude that his views on aesthetics are essentially judgements of the moral worth of something.

Though influenced by Hume, Kant wrote more systematically on aesthetics in the Critique of Judgment. Kant argues that while the experience of the pleasant is universal to all animals, the beautiful can only be experienced by a rational being, one that is able to have a “disinterested and free” appreciation, one not tainted by the desire to possess. For Kant desire is inimical to freedom; it is only in the ability to distance oneself from desire, through the operation of reason that the ability to appreciate the qualities of the object-in-itself is established. However, for Kant the conditions for appreciation do not lie in the nature of the object, but in the intersubjective ground of “taste”:

“the preceding explanation of [beauty] as the object of an entirely disinterested satisfaction…implies…a ground of satisfaction for every one. For since it does not rest on any inclination of the subject…he cannot find the ground of this satisfaction in any private conditions connected with his own subject; and hence it must be regarded as grounded on what he can presuppose in every other man.”

Kant makes the analogy with logical inference; just as logic cannot be a property of individual subjectivity alone, so taste, in order to be communicated meaningfully, has universality. In a rather similarly manner to Hume, though more clearly and explicitly, Kant finds a close correlation between aesthetic sensibility and moral judgment.

Among contemporary philosophers Roger Scruton develops an essentially Kantian approach to beauty, emphasising “disinterested interest” and rationality as the critical demarcation in the acquisition of a refined taste for the appreciation of beauty, as distinct from the merely pleasant. However, Scruton also develops a distinctive phenomenology of the beautiful:

“[T]he experience of natural beauty belongs to our ‘intentional’ rather than our scientific  understanding: it is focused on nature as it is represented in our experience, rather than on nature as it is. To understand natural beauty we must clarify the way natural things  appear when focused in the aesthetic gaze. And the way things appear depends upon the categories we bring to bear on them. When looking on the world disinterestedly I don’t just open myself to its presented aspect; I bring myself into relation with it, experiment with concepts, categories and ideas that are shaped by my self-conscious nature” (Scruton, 2009, p.70).

There are three distinct ideas presented here. First, the object of aesthetic appreciation is not the reality of nature as determined by scientific theory and experimentation, it is the object of our perception as it appears to us. Following Kant and against the Platonic tradition, Scruton does not accept that the beautiful lies in nature or in the particular properties of objects, but only presents to the cultivated mind. Secondly, although this is a departure from the strict phenomenological tradition of the epoché (or bracketing out of biases), concepts – derived from prior acculturation, presumably – are imported into the intentional object. Thirdly, the experience of beauty arises from the interaction between these concepts and the object as presented. This phenomenological approach is also explored in relation to the appreciation of human beauty, which Scruton likens to a “summoning” of the embodied person, not as a property of the physical body (ibid, pp.47-48).

There is a clear contrast between the Kantian tradition and two other conceptual schools of thinking about the beautiful, that emphasising love and longing and that having a hedonist interpretation. The hedonist school shares with the Kantian the belief that the experience of the beautiful resides with the subject; they differ, though, in that for hedonists, such as Santayana, the ultimate measure of beauty is the pleasure that is experienced in the presence of the perceived object, the ultimate source of which is “indescribable…It is an experience: there is nothing more to say about it…beauty is of all things what least calls for explanation” (Santayana, 1896, pp.266-70).

The idea that the beautiful is that which we love and long for is often attributed to the Greek poet Sappho, but has found expression through the ages in philosophers otherwise quite disparate, such as Plotinus, Burke, Hegel and Schopenhauer, and has proponents in the contemporary period, such as Sartwell and Nehamas. They agree that beauty is an intense emotional experience, but they differ from the Kantian tradition in two important respects. One is clearly the relativism implicit in beauty being defined by individual feeling, in distinction to Kant’s universalism based on disinterested interest. The second is the belief that the longing is for qualities that are actually embodied in the object. This idea was particularly developed by the Romantics of the nineteenth century, who saw the organic unity of nature, and the striving for that in art, as the basis for beauty.

What the philosophical discussion around beauty clearly shows is that the important conceptual narrative cannot be reduced to facts (or actually hypotheses) about human evolutionary history. We not only are correctly interested in the history of the development of our capacity to appreciate beauty through genetic encoding of mental capacities, but, more importantly, what this means in the succeeding millennia of cultural history and what it means when we make an aesthetic judgment today. The philosophical discussion has shown that this is not as simple as a relationship between an appreciating subject and a beauteous objective reality; in fact, science itself seems to increasingly discount a straightforward correspondence (theory of truth) between conceptualisation and reality. Instead, the focus of aesthetic theories, particularly in the modern period, is on the object of aesthetic appreciation as an object of the intentional mind, made explicit in phenomenology, but finding precursors in Hume’s empiricism and the Kantian synthesis.

The phenomenology of beauty

Three important strands have come out the – admittedly brief and partial – account of the philosophical discussion of beauty: the first is the totally immersive character of the experience of beauty recognised by Santayana and the hedonist school, but also by romantic philosophers. The second is the ineffability of beauty itself which speaks to a need within us that cannot be satisfied in any other way and according to philosophers such as Nehemas (2007) is the cause of longing for that which cannot be possessed. The third, championed by philosophers in the Kantian tradition is reason, which both imposes standards of refinement that separate beauty from entertainment, kitsch, degrees of mere prettiness and base enjoyments, and also potentially universalises its experience. These will be referred to as immersion, distance and acculturation, respectively.

In order to bring together and contextualise these philosophical strands of the schools of thought concerning beauty, I will employ Heidegger’s notion of the hermeneutic circle found in Being and Time (1962, pp188-192). As far as I am aware, the similarities of aesthetic appropriation to the hermeneutic question of the meaning of texts (in the Heideggerian sense, rather than its later development by Gadamer) has not been explored, although I find it highly suggestive, in particular, where Heidegger expounds on the ‘fore-structure of understanding’, consisting of a fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception. Just as the fore-structure of understanding is implicit in the ontological structure of Dasein – human being – the fore-structure of appreciation is implicit in the evolution of the aesthetic sense, as immersion, distance and acculturation. I will explain where I find the correspondence, although I will deal with them in a different order.

Acculturation corresponds to the Heideggerian fore-conception, that is the acquisition of concepts regarding the structure of reality that are brought to bear in the aesthetic encounter, as Kant proposes and a point that Scruton develops. In contrast to the classical school of beauty, the Kantian view is that the object of aesthetic regard is ineffable and its proposed qualities are the concepts of the intellectual tradition imbibed by the subject. For example, symmetry is a  mathematical construct and an implied aesthetic value rather than an aspect of reality-in-itself. Acculturation includes those concepts regarding the moral tone and acceptability of the aesthetic object and thus relates to the universal (at least culture-wide) norms of taste.

Underlying all aesthetic theory is human nature as an emotive being being more fundamental than as a rational being, and the emotions come into play in any aesthetic judgement. Pleasure, as the hedonists claimed, is the most important of these, though fear and awe can be the appropriate responses in recognising some forms of the beautiful. Our emotive nature is the Heideggerian fore-having, that aspect of our minds which is fully embodied and like the body most individual and incapable of being intersubjectively experienced. In the aesthetic experience we are already primed, both naturally and through the conceptual world of our culture, for emotive immersion in the encounter with the beautiful.

The third aspect of fore-structure of appreciation, corresponding to fore-sight, is the most difficult to conceptualise; it exists in the ‘distance’ between the appreciative subject and the object of aesthetic appeal (Gadamer, in fact, developed the idea of temporal distance as the possibility for interpretation), the ‘longing’ of the subject for the object and the ‘unattainability’ of the object by the subject. The beauty of the object is always unattainable, because it is not a primary quality of the object, such that it can be grasped and thrown, or eaten, or owned. It is experienced as a permanent loss or emptiness (what Sartre might have called ‘nothingness’), to which the only fitting means of appropriation is appreciation. It is this distance, rather than the Kantian disinterestedness, which is experienced in the presence of the beautiful, the painful realisation of our inability to possess, except in those moments of experience, the beauty of the aesthetic object.

Two matters seem to be outstanding in this account. One is whether these three purported aspects of the aesthetic experience have a necessary, internally coherent and exclusive relationship – in other words, do they fully explain the phenomenon – or are they, rather, random variables of convenience. The other is whether and to what degree this phenomenology of aesthetic experience aligns with the purported evolutionary origins of this capacity, such as that proposed by Dutton.

On the first point I would say that it attempts to incorporate all the important ideas about beauty that have been raised in the philosophical canon, even if it leans more heavily on some more than others. Doubtless, there will be developments that are as yet unknown, possibly through brain imaging and AI, which will cast philosophical thinking on the subject on a new path. There is undoubtedly an element of contingency in using Heidegger’s concept of the fore-structure of understanding as the basis, for that merely begs the question of whether fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception have a logical necessity and relationship. That is a topic beyond consideration in this essay. However, I think that immersion, distance and acculturation do exhibit a coherence in being the relevant aspects of the embodied self, the aesthetic object and the socio-cultural context in which both are embedded, creating a systemic model.

As discussed in part two of this essay, there is a distinction between strict biological evolution according to natural selection and cultural evolution, proceeding by an as-yet poorly understood process of the acquisition of shared knowledge. The development of both the conceptual basis of judgment of the object of aesthetic appreciation and of the philosophical grasp of the properties of the experiencing subject in an encounter with the beautiful, are adequately explained within a framework of cultural evolution. The challenge is making the case that the proposed model is in accord with the supposed origins of the capacity for aesthetic appreciation in biological evolution. To take up this challenge properly would also require going beyond the scope of this essay, but an initial proposition can be made.

In part 2 of this essay I hypothesised that the transition – perhaps as a result of a change in the structure of the brain – between dance as the sole form of sacred expression and the advent of painting in the late paleolithic occasioned the beginning of aesthetic consciousness as there was the need to compensate for the change from collective, ritualistic movement into an individual, externalised and static form, through language and hence to symbolism and conceptualisation. This hypothesis posits a precursory state of the three aspects of the fore-structure of aesthetic appreciation considered above:  immersion, distance and acculturation. It is likely, though, that earlier transformations, which took place adapting to survive and multiply on the African savannah, as Dutton has argued, laid the foundation for the later development of our aesthetic sense.

The duty owed to the beautiful

Ultimately, while the roots of our sense of beauty lie in our evolutionary prehistory, in adaptive advantages passed on through our lineages, the philosophical concept of beauty is not reducible to biology, as biology offers little in the way of explaining the complexity of the aesthetic experience. What the evolutionary narrative does endorse is the reality and objectivity of beauty as something natural beyond our individual experience of it. It suggests that beauty is something basic to human life and that we owe a duty to find, experience and express the beautiful in all aspects of our lives.

There are two things to be said in conclusion. The first, which is a point of social policy, to my mind important but less interesting, is that the reality of beauty, beyond the subjective experience of the beholder, suggests that we should not be afraid to discriminate between high and low culture, between the great (which does not mean old) and the trivial, nor to educate the young in order to refine their sense of aesthetic appreciation. Wherever we invoke the beautiful, whether it be through painting, literature, music, architecture, dance, the human form or nature, we increase the capacity for human flourishing.*

The more interesting is that the phenomenology of beauty points to a transcendent reality in which we recognise both truth and goodness. This is exemplified above all in great lives and in great acts, for example of sacrifice, service and forgiveness. Beyond our individual admiration is the experience of the unattainability, the ineffability of such human spiritual achievement, but which is, nevertheless, embodied at the deepest level of culture. There is a long history of such people, which counterbalances the seeming ubiquity of evil and the banal, but two recent examples spring to mind: the Japanese doctor killed by the Taliban, Tetsu Nakamura, who dedicated most of his professional life to medical and humanitarian work in Afghanistan, helping to reclaim swathes of desertified land, allowing people to feed themselves and to return to villages they had abandoned; the other the Frenchmen, Georges Salines and Azdyne Amimour, one the father of a daughter who died in the Bataclan terrorist atrocity, the other the father of one of the gunmen, who have formed a bond and written a book together. Perhaps, in the end, beauty shares with horror and insight the discovery of the unimaginable.


* This is a pointed rebuke to the Marxist critique of beauty as a bourgeois distraction from the reality of capitalist exploitation of labour and nature. While there is an element of truth in this critique – marginal states of existence, such as extreme poverty, war and oppression, leave little space to consider the broader swathes of aesthetic experience, this does not paint a holistic picture of human life, even under those conditions. Largely due to the influence of Marxist thought on philosophy and the arts, including, notably, architecture, the idea of the beautiful in human life was largely abandoned during the twentieth century. Interpreting this generously, there may have been necessity in part to focus on areas of human rights and the improvement of economic fundamentals, but it has had a lasting legacy in terms of a brutal lived-environment. Only now is beauty beginning to be reasserted as important in the arts and the quality of the environment. If anything, though, Marxism has had an even more devastating influence on the social environment, condoning, upholding and practicing the uglinesses of hatred, lies and violence in the service of its strategic political ends.


Denis Dutton (2009). The art instinct: beauty, pleasure, & human evolution. Oxford University Press

Denis Dutton (2014). A Darwinian Theory of Beauty. Philosophy and Literature, Volume 38, Number 1A, (October 2014), pp. A314-A318 [transcription of TED lecture], online at:

Martin Heidegger (1962). Being and Time. Translated by John McQuarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row.

Immanuel Kant (1952). Critique of Judgment. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952

Alexander Nehamas (2007). Only a Promise of Beauty: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

George Santayana (1896). The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Roger Scruton (2009). Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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