Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? April 19, 2013

So having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions were. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

This is the third post after

#1 – a priori

#2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

This post is about aesthetic value or, in other words, beauty and the like. Is beauty a purely subjective notion, or do ‘objects’ actually have intrinsic aesthetic value?

Here are the results from the survey:

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Accept or lean toward: objective 382 / 931 (41.0%)
Accept or lean toward: subjective 321 / 931 (34.5%)
Other 228 / 931 (24.5%)

Which appears to be a fairly indecisive split.

If you remember my post on Plato, you might remember that he reckoned that there were ideal forms of everything which existed in some Platonic realm. Until a few hundred years ago, most philosophers concluded that beauty was objective, located in the object or the qualities of the object being evaluated. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry on “Beauty”:

In De Veritate Religione, Augustine asks explicitly whether things are beautiful because they give delight, or whether they give delight because they are beautiful; he emphatically opts for the second (Augustine, 247). Plato’s account in the Symposium and Plotinus’s in the Enneads connect beauty to a response of love and desire, but locate beauty itself in the realm of the Forms, and the beauty of particular objects in their participation in the Form.

Can you have the ideal form of something which is ugly, I wonder? Socrates, another subject of one of my factfiles, thought that beauty was instantiated in the object, rather than being represented by universals. In this way, however, it is objective and not entwined with the subjective response of the individual.

Subjectivists, on the other hand, believe that beauty is pretty much in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. As Hume said:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. (Hume 1757, 136)

The issue with this kind of position is that if beauty is indeed entirely subjective, then the whole concept is pretty meaningless by point of fact that the word has no real meaning other than stating a particular preference of the individual. It seems remarkable, then, that our aesthetic judgements do seem to coincide to such an extent. Denying the beauty of a wonderful sunset is a difficult thing to do.


Such aesthetic words as ‘beautiful’ and ‘hideous’ are employed … not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings and evoke a certain response. It follows…that there is no sense attributing objective validity to aesthetic judgments, and no possibility of arguing about questions of value in aesthetics. (Ayer 1952, 113)

The SEP continues:

All meaningful claims either concern the meaning of terms or are empirical, in which case they are meaningful because observations could confirm or disconfirm them. ‘That song is beautiful’ has neither status, and hence has no empirical or conceptual content. It merely expresses a positive attitude of a particular viewer; it is an expression of pleasure, like a satisfied sigh. The question of beauty is not a genuine question, and we can safely leave it behind or alone. Most twentieth-century philosophers did just that.

Put another way, as more modern thinkers often do, it is the pleasure, perhaps, that makes something beautiful. Empiricist thought sees, say, colour as a perception. Without the perceiving mind, there is no colour as understood by the way different people have different perceptions of the ‘same colour’ (think colourblindness), and also how colours of objects can change depending on the lighting.

However, philosophers such as Kant saw something being lost in such subjective perception. The fact that we argue over beauty in all of these contexts goes some way to showing that we, at least intuitively, think there is a right and a wrong to such evaluations. If beauty is completely relative to individual experiencers, it doesn’t qualify as an important value. It becomes unrecognisable as a value at all across persons or societies (ie objectively). Thus it seems that there are both objective and subjective aspects to aesthetics.

Hume claimed that:

“Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (“Of the Standard of Taste” 1757, 144).

If the best of the best seem to agree on their conclusions in evaluating aesthetics (why the classic works of art and literature persist) then this must indicate objectiveness or a close analogy to it. As the SEP states:

Though we cannot directly find a standard of beauty that sets out the qualities that a thing must possess in order to be beautiful, we can describe the qualities of a good critic or a tasteful person. Then the long-run consensus of such persons is the practical standard of taste and the means of justifying judgments about beauty.

Kant made some interesting points about disinterestedness. One must evaluate aesthetics without bringing any baggage to the table. This hints at intrinsic value and moves away from personal, subjective context. As he said himself:

if you are looking at a beautiful valley primarily as a valuable real estate opportunity, you are not seeing it for its own sake, and cannot fully experience its beauty. If you are looking at a lovely woman and considering her as a possible sexual conquest, you are not able to experience her beauty in the fullest or purest sense; you are distracted from the form as represented in your experience.

This needs to be qualified though. There is dependency on what sort of thing the object is. A beautiful horse does not make a beautiful ox. Some things are more abstract, such as, say, a particular pattern.

What this means is, if we can all divorce ourselves from our own baggage, we would all agree, so Kant reckons, on what would be beautiful. This is a universalisation of judgement. The SEP surmises:

In the case of aesthetic judgments, however, the judgment remains subjective, but necessarily contains the ‘demand’ that everyone should reach the same judgment. The judgment conceptually entails a claim to inter-subjective validity. This accounts for the fact that we do very often argue about judgments of taste, and that we find tastes that are different than our own defective.

BUT. An object cannot, perhaps, be beautiful if it gives no pleasure to anybody:

An object cannot be beautiful if it can give pleasure to nobody: a beauty to which all men were forever indifferent is a contradiction in terms. … Beauty is therefore a positive value that is intrinsic; it is a pleasure. (Santayana 1896, 50–51)

Aesthetics, as a discipline, declined in favour as people stopped seeing it on a par with other truths: moral, epistemological and so on. A recent theory is one that proposes that it is a relationship. SEP says of Sartwell’s work (this guy has a bunch of You Tube vids, so check him out):

Crispin Sartwell in his book Six Names of Beauty (2004), attributes beauty neither exclusively to the subject nor to the object, but to the relation between them, and even more widely also to the situation or environment in which they are both embedded. He points out that when we attribute beauty to the night sky, for instance, we do not take ourselves simply to be reporting a state of pleasure in ourselves; we are turned outward toward it; we are celebrating the real world. On the other hand, if there were no perceivers capable of experiencing such things, there would be no beauty. Beauty, rather, emerges in situations in which subject and object are juxtaposed and connected.

There are many theories abounding which target symmetry and other factors as underpinning beauty, both in concrete stimuli such as people’s faces, and in mathematical constructions and equations. The Triple Helix Online blog sums up the discussion adeptly:

The emerging discipline of evolutionary psychology is based on the idea that not only have our physical traits been shaped by our adaptation to our ancestral environment, but our behaviour and preferences have likewise been shaped by natural selection [1]. This has led to many studies investigating the evolutionary reasons for the human concept of beauty, and their results are often surprising. Mostly, these studies examine whether a particular trait – for example symmetry, colour, and facial hair– is correlated with perceived attractiveness, and in doing so they focus on the biological and evolutionary reasons why some faces are commonly judged to be more attractive than others. They show that despite the old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, there are a number of traits which are generally and cross-culturally perceived as more attractive than others. However, this approach has come under much criticism – not only methodologically, but also from those who argue that attractiveness should be studied as a cultural concept only, or those who argue that it should not be studied at all [2].

I would advise reading this piece in its entirety as it sums up all of the different works which are looking to ground attractiveness in adaption, neurology and psychology. The conclusion to the piece feeds into this particular debate about objectivism and subjectivism:

It seems that this expanding field will not stop growing in the foreseeable future. As more traits – not just facial, but in body and behaviour – are found to correlate with attractiveness, our picture of the biological basis of beauty will become more filled out, perhaps to the point where it can compete with the widely-held cultural view of individual, subjective aesthetics. This exciting new discipline is pushing the boundaries of what science can and cannot tell us about the way we see the world around us, telling us that beauty is not in the eye, but in the specific adapted cognitive modules of the beholder.

So do these theories (facial markers, symmetry, hormone levels, neoteny, biological mechanisms etc) mean that the ideas of beauty are based in concrete objects, that they are, indeed objective?

All told, it is no wonder that philosophers are split on objective vs subjective. It seems it might well be a case of being both, but without anyone being able to put their fingers on it!

What do YOU think?


#1 – a priori

#2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

#3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

#4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

#5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

#6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

#7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

#8 – Belief in God: theism or atheism?


1. Swami V, Furnham A. The Psychology of Physical Attraction. London: Routledge; 2008.

2. Cartwright J. Evolution and Human Behaviour. 2nd ed. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan; 2008.



 SEP, BeautyFirst published Tue Sep 4, 2012

Aristotle, The Complete Works of Aristotle, in two volumes, Jonathan Barnes, ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984 [4th century BCE].

Ayer, A.J., 1952, Language, Truth, and Logic, New York: Dover.

Hume, David, 1757, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Essays Moral and Political, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1894.

–––, 1740, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel, 1790, Critique of Judgement, J.H. Bernard, trans., New York: Macmillan, 1951.

Santayana, George, 1896, The Sense of Beauty, New York: Scribner’s.

Sartwell, Crispin, 2004, Six Names of Beauty, New York: Routledge

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  • This is pretty much exactly what I was talking about with my most recent post about what a colossal waste of time a great deal of metaphysical philosophy is.

    OF COURSE aesthetic value is subjective, for completely obvious reasons: if it was intrinsic to objects, it would be empirically detectable; obviously, there’s no empirical test for “beauty” or whatever. That’s because aesthetic values are cognitive abstractions. Their existence depends upon human minds. And of course it shouldn’t be that surprising that, broadly speaking, humans tend to find similar aesthetics valuable, because we’re all, y’know, human.

    So, allow me to nitpick:

    The fact that we argue over beauty in all of these contexts goes some
    way to showing that we, at least intuitively, think there is a right and
    a wrong to such evaluations.

    No it doesn’t. It just shows that we tend have broadly shared concepts of what beauty (etc.) is, again most obviously because our brains are so overwhelmingly similar.

    If beauty is completely relative to
    individual experiencers, it doesn’t qualify as an important value.

    Hogwash! You could say the same thing about “meaning”, “purpose”, etc. – theologians trot out that old canard all the time: if it’s not objective, it’s of no value! That kind of thinking fails to recognize that we’re a cooperative, interdependent species with shared needs, interests and experiences. Because our human brains tend to (broadly) value similar aesthetics, our subjective experience of beauty is a shared experience that serves to reinforce our social identity.

    That’s clearly the most parsimonious view, unless there’s some empirical test for aesthetic values I’m not yet aware of.

    • I suppose the term ‘important’ is not quite what I meant. I am trying to equate an individual preference in a relativistic sense to a truth claim.

      In other words, to say that person X is beautiful is essentially meaningless to anyone else unless they want to know what my preferences are. It is a very similar argument to moral relativism.

      In other words, does the proposition have a truth value, or is it entirely subjective?

      And then, as with my views on morality (that morality is a ‘concept in the mind of the conceiver but if all conceivers were of sound mind, knowledge and logic, we would all universally agree as to what moral goo dis), does beauty have a universalism, which may or may not equate to objective, depending on how you define objective?

      • That last sentence is where you gotta be careful; it’s why philosophy annoys the balls outta me sometimes. If you play fast and loose with the meanings of words, you can construct just about any argument you want. It reminds me of when WL Craig replied to an argument of Stephen Hawking’s by saying “that’s true only if you’re using physical measures of time!” Given the commonly understood meaning of the word objective, I think it’s abundantly clear that aesthetics can’t possibly be objective.

        But I think there may be a bit of a false dilemma happening. Just as we’re not forced to choose between objective moral duties and complete subjectivity (nihilism, essentially), so too with aesthetics simply because of the fact that we’re creatures with similar brains who live socially and interdependently. I think to say it has a ‘truth value’ would be stretching things a bit. I think it’s enough just to say that because we’re all humans who are social and interdependent, we tend to share ideas whose roots are likely both biological and sociocultural.

        Just take for example how beauty has changed over the centuries. In olden times, if a woman was pale and portly it was because she was wealthy and powerful; now, those qualities are associated with less attractiveness. Was there some biological change? Extraordinarily doubtful. Did we come closer to some objective truth? Laughable. Our obligatorily gregarious nature leads to some shifting sociocultural norms that aren’t entirely arbitrary (in that they change because of economic circumstances), but are certainly bizarre.

    • Mike, I’ve added to the end of the piece, regarding evolutionary adaption etc (briefly).

  • Andy_Schueler

    A random thought on this one:
    Humans tend to find symmetry beautiful in other humans (both facial symmetry and overall body symmetry), and there is some evidence for this being an adaptive trait – because symmetry has a (albeit weak) positive correlation with health. If this is true, it might also explain why non-human objects that have symmetrical features (e.g. fractals like the Mandelbrot set) appear to be beautiful to many humans (i.e., not because they are intrinsically beautiful, but rather because we evolved to “like” symmetry). Similar explanations might exist for other attributes that we frequently associate with beauty.

    • Shit, forgot to talk about symmetry and adaptive traits as well mathematical beauty etc. Time for an EDIT!

    • I’ve added a bit. The post I linked to gives a really good summary.

      • Andy_Schueler

        For objects that appear to be beautiful / aesthatically pleasing to humans, and for which attributes can be identified that are linked to evolved traits (like a preference for symmetry), would this imply “objective beauty” since the preference is not arbitrary / subjective, but rather linked to an objectively existing human trait? Or would it imply “subjective beauty” because those objects are not intrinsically beautiful? Or something in between?

        • I think this is an important question and one which is relevant to debates about morality. The term ‘objective’ is slippery. I think it gives an aspect here of being both objective and subjective. I think we are inclined towards certain ideals of beauty, subconsciously, but have a lot of relative wriggle room.

          I suppose a more metaphysical question would be ‘does it matter whether beauty is subjective or objective?’ People generally think it matters for morality, I suppose because the consequences of moral theory are more wide-reaching.

  • ncovington89

    I think morality and beauty are both partly objective and partly subjective. With both of these, there’s some diasgreement, but also a broad variety of objective factors that seem to correlate with what most people think. I’d say that both have to do with *subjective* judgements passed on objective things for reasons that are largely, thought not wholly, objective. Example: my thought that “Meagan Fox is beautiful” partially has to do with subjective reaction of pleasantness wihen I look at a picture of her, but the subjective reaction is caused by a number of objective factors, objective factors that cause a similar reaction in most other people.

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