Is Beauty Real?

Is Beauty real? If it is, what is it and why do we feel it? This is a question I feel I have asked myself but never thought much about. Everyone always says a picture of marbles spread in a rainbow or a painting of an ancient city is beautiful, but what evolutionary instinct would make us feel this way about it? That does not seem to relate to survival in any way, and it would not have any practical purpose. It is a weird concept, and completely unexplainable. So is it real?

I feel satisfaction is generally necessary of beauty, and where we should look first. Is satisfaction happiness? No. It is a feeling of… completion. Satisfaction is a basic feeling of completion. That something is wrong, and now you are relieved it is right. And so completion is completely understandable from an evolutionary perspective. You’re being chased by a wildcat and you run up a tree and feel a sense of relief. A.K.A satisfaction. That feeling carried on, but as our lives grew more leisurely, it was very subtle problems people became relieved from like something that looked uneven or ugly. And them being fixed gave people a sense of satisfaction.

Satisfaction carried into beauty. No longer did people need something to change from bad to good. People began to genuinely admire those good things. This is my explanation for humans admiring beauty, but I feel there is certainly more to the story. I feel there is some societal pressure to admire beauty… and by some, I mean a lot. You are expected to like a lot more than you do, and yet I think only a small circle of people like these paintings. I feel it is hard to come up with all this by myself, so I would love comments to help me think about this!

18 thoughts on “Is Beauty Real?

  1. For me, the classic statement about beauty was made by Goethe: “Beauty cannot be understood. It must be felt, or created.” I first read that not in Goethe in German but in a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay in English.
    I think the term “satisfaction” is too broad, because beauty inspires a more powerful emotion than that. When I was in college, I thought the field of philosophy I wanted to pursue was aesthetics, but it didn’t take me long to realize that all the books and articles on the subject were dismally dull. Goethe would have refused to read them. I gave up. Especially when, in an Art Appreciation class, we were asked to give an example of something beautiful and I naively recalled the moving experience I’d had of looking up through the leaves of a tree. The teacher actually ridiculed me for not mentioning something more in line with our textbook’s categorizations of beauty. (Even though one of those was “photographic realism”!)
    In a family of philosophers it might be impossible to believe that close, logical analysis isn’t always productive. That it isn’t necessary to explain beauty, for instance. Even human art objects rise and fall in relative appreciation. When styles change, feelings alter about old works. A good question would be what makes some works nearly immortal and others fall by the way? I think the answer is probably more social than technical.

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    1. I agree that that logic can’t solve many things… And I think that is an interesting quote. But I was not trying to use logic to understand beauty, but rather to understand why it came into existence.

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  2. Good questions! The philosophy of beauty can be a tangled web… One Interesting documentary which may give you food for thought is episode 1 of “How Art Made the World” (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2pztmx).

    As a historian, three questions/objections I have to Ramachandran’s argument are: 1) Are the “Venus” statuettes truly universal? Are they found on all inhabited continents? 2) Egyptians could make realistic human figures before the Greeks… The documentary’s evidence here has been cherry-picked. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seated_Scribe) and 3) It’s tremendously arrogant to assume that only humans in urbanized societies have an undefined quality of “culture” which supposedly overrides Ramachandran’s theory of innate human instinct; it’s a fundamentally flawed conclusion based on lack of surviving evidence from Paleolithic humans.

    I still teach with this documentary though because, like I said, the evolutionary psychology therein provides much food for thought and perhaps has good potential to be better refined.

    Best wishes!

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  3. One way of thinking about this question–“is beauty real?”–is to ask whether beauty is a property of objects or whether beauty depends on us and our reactions to objects. Here, you seem to assume that beauty depends on our reactions to objects. This is a totally respectable position (one held by Kant and many others), but it is contestable: Schiller, for instance, believes beauty is a property of objects themselves. (Then again, if beauty is a property of objects, but it is a *sensible* or *perceptible* property of objects, it may in a roundabout way end up depending on us and our responses.)

    A further question is what kind of reaction beauty incites, if indeed beauty is a matter of our reactions, or if beauty is a characteristically a cause of certain reactions. You think it incites satisfaction, and this is similar to what others have proposed: Kant famously thinks that beauty elicits “disinterested pleasure” (the “disinterest’ bit is supposed to get at how we don’t appreciate beautiful objects in virtue of their ability to satisfy some appetite or perform some function, or, as you put it, at how beauty “does not seem to relate to survival in any way, and it would not have any practical purpose”). But others have proposed that beauty elicits a different and more unsettling sort of feeling. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” so there is some question about whether satisfaction is really what we feel when we contemplate beauty!

    Hope this is helpful and interesting!

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    1. This was very interesting! You are correct that it is my believe that beauty depends on a conscious opinion… I am a die-hard subjectivist. Though I am certainly not an idealist. I find Kant very interesting though I do not believe that just because we are not evolutionarily programed to do something, we are disinterested. Thanks!

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  4. Macabee,

    I think. Generally, people say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But I’m not convinced. I think many of the things that people “see” as beauty is just what they “see.” On the surface, maybe it’s more complicated. Perhaps what people “see” is something more profound. Things aren’t as they appear. I think, as you mentioned, people feel emotions; people feel satisfaction when looking at something beautiful. What if emotions are the only way we are capable of thinking, or comprehending something we can only brush the surface.

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  5. Our sense of beauty must have an evolutionary explanation, just as our sense of taste and smell do. The best theory I’ve heard is that beauty is a universal (simple) language Of attraction and repulsiveness that animals tap into to differing degrees. Symmetry and golden ratios etc. are part of the story but there is much we don’t understand about it. Peacocks, bees/flowers and so on tap into this language for reproductive purposes. It is revealing that we humans find flowers beautiful, since flowers have not evolved to attract us, but bees.

    The fact that beauty is related to patterns explains why we can find beauty in so many different things – from flowers and peacocks to mathematical equations and poems – as well as the differences in taste. E=mc2 may not look like much to a non-physicist, but with the right interpretation beauty can be found in surprising places indeed.

    Hope this helps you.

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    1. It does help me! I agree that there are many forms of beauty… But I would call the example you gave with E=mc2 admiration. Of course, I cannot judge your thoughts, but this is my feeling to scientific principles such as that.

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  6. Is reality precisely that which can be studied by evolutionary biology or some other physical science? (For the record, I think it’s not; thus for example as a mathematician I would say a real theorem is one with a valid proof; but this validity is not a physical property.)

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      1. I wouldn’t say anything “validated” beauty; I think there’s no test for it the way there’s a test for whether a mathematical proof is correct. I just didn’t understand what it would mean for beauty to be real or not. Such language does seem to be used these days, e.g. in an article called “Is mathematics real? A viral TikTok video raises a legitimate question with exciting answers” (The Conversation, August 31, 2020). But I don’t know what is meant by such language. I think unicorns are real for persons who study their meaning in the “Unicorn Tapestries” in the Cloisters or the “Lady and the Unicorn” in the Cluny Museum; but imaginary for anybody who would set out with a pack of hunting dogs to find one

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  7. I agree with you that there must be more to it than satisfaction. An emotion or sense or combination tjat is not easily explained. I also think people throw that word around because they think they are expected to but don’t really experience the experience of beauty. Great thought! Thanks!

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  8. Perhaps the evolutionary basis for appreciation of beauty is we should appreciate fitness for successfully propagating our genes. This is represented to us through eg symmetrical features. But our brains do many clever things at the same time so our notions of beauty become untethered from biological fitness as a side effect. Just a thought. A criticism of evolutionary psychology is that you can make up any story you like!

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  9. >what evolutionary instinct would make us feel this way about it? That does not seem to relate to survival in any way, and it would not have any practical purpose.

    Since Kant, our understanding of beauty has expanded to include the sublime, which has an aspect of fear. Maybe there is something to this, and the excitement that comes from our fear of the unknown is an important part of the beauty that we yearn for, and which pulls us every-evolving into the future.

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