Beauty: A Very Short Introduction
Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.
Yet judgements of beauty concern matters of taste, and maybe taste has no rational foundation. If so, how do we explain the exalted
place of beauty in our lives, and why should we lament the factâ€”if fact it isâ€”that beauty is vanishing from our world? And is it the case, as so many writers and artists since Baudelaire and Nietzsche have suggested, that beauty and goodness may diverge, so that a thing can be beautiful precisely in respect of its immorality?
Moreover, since it is in the nature of tastes to differ, how can a standard erected by one personâ€™s taste be used to cast judgement on anotherâ€™s? How, for example, can we pretend that one type of music is superior or inferior to another when comparative judgements merely reflect the taste of the one who makes them?
That familiar relativism has led some people to dismiss judgements of beauty as purely â€˜subjectiveâ€™. No tastes can be criticized, they argue, since to criticize one taste is simply to give voice to another; hence there is nothing to learn or to teach that could conceivably deserve the name of â€˜criticismâ€™. This attitude has put in question many of the traditional disciplines in the humanities. The studies of art, music, literature and architecture, freed from the discipline of aesthetic judgement, seem to lack the firm anchor in tradition and technique that enabled our predecessors to regard them as central to the curriculum. Hence the current â€˜crisis in the humanitiesâ€™: is there any point in studying our artistic and cultural inheritance, when the judgement of its beauty has no rational grounds? Or if we do study it, should this not be in a sceptical spirit, by way of questioning its claims to objective authority, and deconstructing its posture of transcendence?
When each year the Turner prize, founded in memory of Englandâ€™s greatest painter, is awarded to yet another bundle of facetious ephemera, is this not proof that there are no standards, that fashion alone dictates who will and who will not be rewarded, and that it is pointless to look for objective principles of taste or a public conception of the beautiful? Many people answer yes to these questions, and as a result renounce the attempt to criticize either the taste or the motives of the Turner-prize judges. In this book I suggest that such sceptical thoughts about beauty are unjustified. Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world. My approach to the topic is not historical, neither am I concerned to give a psychological, still less an evolutionary, explanation of the sense of beauty. My approach is philosophical, and the principal sources for my argument are the works of philosophers. The point of this book is the argument that it develops, which is designed to introduce a philosophical question and to encourage you, the reader, to answer it.
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|May 30, 2020|