Saturday, June 19, 2004


Here is a new column by Burgess Laughlin:

What is beauty?

I am a regular reader of the online Objectivist news service TIA Daily. I recommend it as a way to receive essentialized news about current events (and links to full articles). It saves time and prevents emotional exhaustion.[1] [Editor's comment: I signed up for a free trial subscription. I want to subscribe to the service in the future, but I can't afford it at the moment. I don't want to "rattle" my tip jar too often, but I want to inform you that I have added a new PayPal button. If you want to donate money, please scroll down to the Support category. Thanks!]

Recently TIA Daily added two new regular columns, "Human Achievements" (by Shrikant Rangnekar) and "Things of Beauty" (by Sherri Tracinski). Both are inspiring because they remind readers of good in the world.

The daily "Things of Beauty" column provides a brief description of and a web link to a beautiful work of art or other item. This raises a question: What is beauty?

I often look first to philosophers for answers to big questions. However, I find no discussion of beauty in Ayn Rand's writings, not even in her book, The Romantic Manifesto, her main work of esthetics. I suspect that is because, though Ayn Rand valued beauty, she valued other things more -- especially the virtues of the ideal man.

The Ayn Rand Lexicon, in the article on "Beauty," contains brief comments Ayn Rand made in a question and answer session after Lecture 1 in Leonard Peikoff's lecture series, "The Philosophy of Objectivism" (1976).

Ayn Rand there describes beauty as "a sense of harmony." She discusses a beautiful face as an example. She notes that "if all these features [of a face] are harmoniously integrated, if they all fit your view of the importance of all these features on a human face, then that face is beautiful." (Emphasis added.)

She says her description of beauty is "an objective definition." That is doubly true. First, her process of defining beauty was objective: She looked at facts of reality and logically drew conclusions. Second, beauty itself is objective, as described below.

In the history of philosophy, a traditional meaning of "objective" is: pertaining to objects, as independent of consciousness (which allegedly "distorts" objects in the process of coming to know them).[2]

Ayn Rand's meaning of "objective" is radically different. In her philosophy, "objective" means: characteristic of the relationship between an external object (such as a tree) and our idea of it, where the relationship is one of using reason and logic. Ayn Rand's concept of objectivity thus refers to three things: an object, a logical method of producing an idea of the object, and the idea itself in context of previous knowledge. Her concept bridges the ancient chasm created by the false dichotomy of out-there versus in-here.

Beauty -- as a viewer's sense of harmony when seeing the features of an object -- is objective. A "sense of harmony" is a couplet of fact and value. "Harmony" recognizes certain facts about an object -- for example, the symmetry of facial features. "Sense" here is an emotional response to an evaluation of those facts.

A face beautiful to a Chinese painter 2000 years ago may not have been beautiful to an Italian sculptor living in Galileo's time or to a Congolese facemask carver today. This does not mean beauty is "subjective," that is, arbitrary and therefore infinitely variable from one individual to another.

As Ayn Rand cautiously notes, beauty is indeed in the "eye of the beholder" -- where "eye" is a metaphor. Beauty begins with an object and ends in an idea and emotional response in someone's mind, in full context of the viewer's knowledge and values.

In Ch. XI, paragraph 5 of Anthem, the hero, Equality 7-2521, reveals Ayn Rand's understanding:

"It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth."

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Aristotle Adventure.
Co-founder, Portland Area Objectivists.

Foot notes:
[1] Click here for information about subscribing to TIA Daily.

[2] An example of this philosophical meaning is: "8. Of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object, or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality," from Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edition, unabridged.