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Is Beauty Objective?

October 24th, 2007 | 7 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

If you are like most people alive today, you believe 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder.'

This is exactly what I was taught and grew up believing -- but no one ever told me that (in view of history) we are the sad minority. Most thinking people in most places at most times have believed in the three great 'transcendentals:' goodness, truth, and beauty. Most thinking people in most places at most times (especially in the West) have believed that beauty was one of those objective realities "out there," that can be discovered, toyed with, hated, loved, or otherwise disregarded, but cannot be denied.

That may be the majority view, but is it true? Studying the luminous works of Jonathan Edwards with my high school students this week, I am again revisiting this most important of questions. If beauty is not real, then there are no objectively "beautiul objects" or "beautiful ideas." Depite our sentiments, we must nobly and strictly reject all forms of fantastic nonsense in the ongoing pursuit of scientific and philosophical purity. In philosophy, we must pursue truth and not eloquence; in science and math, truth and not elegance; in theology, truth and not grace. No matter how beautiful the falsehood, it is still false.

On the other hand, if beauty is real, then it is the ground of one's "aesthetic life," as truth is the ground of one's intellectual life. And the recognition of beauty would become essential (in some cases) my ability to discover the truth. For if reality is beautiful, the argument goes, then a person cannot know the truth about reality unless that person knows it as beautiful. Even more importantly, if beauty is real then according to Edwards it is also the ground in some sense of one's morality and happiness. If reality is beautiful, then neither can a person be a good, upright, upstanding person who neglects the "sweet mutual consents" between himself and others.

Is beauty objective then? The question should be broken into two parts. The first has to do with the status of the being of beauty. What should its status be in our ontology? The second has to do with its status in our epistomology. If it is truly "out there," then how do we get knowledge of it...? Is there a science of beauty?

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