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Molly Zhang

The Break Down of the Beautiful

Something pondered by philosophers, pursued by photographers, and profited by

pornographers, the idea of physical beauty is confusing, elusive, and desired by all. While the

term ‘beautiful ‘ is often thrown around in a very broad sense as anything that is aesthetically

pleasing, german philosopher Immanuel Kant describes beauty as something that always must be

completely pure and universal (Hawken, 2013). A central figure in modern philosophy, Kant

breaks down the definition of beauty in his Critique of Judgement. His ideas echo the earlier

ones of greek philosopher Aristotle, who is considered one of the most influential figures and

respected intellectuals of all time. Aristotle, in his publication of Metaphysics, explores the

factors that make someone beautiful. Plato, another greek philosopher, encourages the notion of

how beauty is a prime example of a form, which is defined as non-physical ideas that represent

the most accurate reality. He puts emphasis on an ideal-form, which in the sense of beauty, is a

being that completely encompasses what true beauty should be (Pappas, 2016). It is through the

concept of form that the idea of the feeling of beauty becomes common, with Scottish

philosopher David Hume proposing the idea that the feeling of experiencing something beautiful

is extremely extensive. Through philosophers pondering the elusive and unique nature of beauty,

comes the golden ratio, a scientifically proposed number calculated by the proportions that one

holds, which helps define how beautiful one is (Bourne, 2017). The study of aesthetics, which is

“the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the

comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts, with a view to establishing the meaning and validity of

critical judgments concerning works of art, and the principles underlying or justifying such
judgments” (The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition), paves the path in which

the concept of universal beauty is introduced and studied. Though deemed silly and shallow by

many, the study of beautiful people is something that helps drive societies and economies in

more ways than most can even begin to imagine. When seeing someone for the first time, the

main focus is how they look. The idea of beauty defines how people interact with each other, and

plays an especially large role in our society and time. In a generation and culture of tabloids,

billboards, and social media, there is no shortage of beautiful people in everyone’s lives, and

while beauty is often considered subjective by many, the foundation of being beautiful is in fact

the opposite.

There are ideal characteristics that are experienced when beauty is thought of or seen.

The feeling of experiencing something beautiful invokes a common emotional response.

Thus, the definition of beauty is universal across borders, cultures, and time.

When considering universally beautiful people, it comes down to a formula. In Immanuel

Kant’s Critique of Judgement, the unique nature of beauty and it’s commonalities are explored

and analyzed. Kant looks at how he believed that art and beauty should be judged by its formal

features. In order for an aesthetic response to be triggered, both good and bad, there must be

harmony, unity, balance, or lack thereof, respectively . He then goes on to claim that aesthetic

judgement must concern itself with form, such as shape, arrangement, and rhythm rather than

sensible content, such as colour and tone, as the latter has a deeper emotional connection

(Ginsborg, 2013). This is highly evident in the modelling industry, in which the symmetrical
nature of one’s face is often the main focus point. In order to be desired and plastered on

magazines, all over the web, and on sky high billboards, one must have sharp, defined, and even

features. The proportional value is of highest importance, as it is what triggers the feeling of

seeing something beautiful (Saad, 2010). Aristotle’s theories further support Kant’s claims, in

stating in Metaphysics that “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness,

which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree.” There is even a highly

coveted mathematically developed ‘perfect face’ in many industries, determined by the ‘golden

ratio’. This ratio measures horizontal symmetry in your face, the ratio of nose length to ear

length, eye width, the length of your nose, the width of your mouth, the proportion of your arms

to your legs to your torso, and more, backing the concept that the form is of great importance

(Bourne, 2017). In terms of basing beauty from sensible content, disregarding colour and tone

dismisses all beauty judgement affected by racism or prejudice. Therefore, it is incorrect to say

someone is beautiful based on their skin tone, as then it is no longer an issue of beauty as it is an

issue of personal preference with a more emotional basis. Plato, though based on a different

foundation, backs up the idea that beauty has characteristics that are desired, believing that art

should mimic reality and nature (Paquette, 2003). He argues that the standard of beauty is set by

the natural world, stating, in terms of art, that “the artist can do no better than to try to accurately

portray the universe in its infinite variety” (Barrett). As part of nature, people are among the most

beautiful in the world, and natural beauty is something that is often encouraged and emphasized.

With technology and creativity at a peak, the number of eccentric makeup artists and styles are

increasing. However, while the different eyebrow styles and eyeshadow colour schemes tend to

change, the idea of a natural face and body is often coveted by many. A natural look is timeless
and global, typically with a greater appeal in everyone’s minds when thinking of beautiful

people. There is a common standard for beautiful people, and while everyone will develop their

own different opinions on eye colour and body type, there will always be preferred attributes and

characteristics that all for a universal beauty to be possible.

Not only is the visual aspect of beauty universal, the feeling of seeing and experiencing

something beautiful is also prevalent when ever, where ever, and with who ever. There is a clear

distinction between seeing true beauty, and other experiences, which as thought by Immanuel

Kant, makes beauty more pure. There are no ties with beauty; it is something that lies in the

middle of desire and morality, it is something that is free of logical ideas and personal conditions,

it is something that is whole and natural. Kant explains it as the only emotion that can be felt by

everyone and anyone without any communication, making it one of the most universal concepts

to exist (Hawken, 2013). The feeling of seeing a beautiful person can almost be described in a

biological sense, in which we, through evolution, are attracted to features that are best for

reproduction. Heterosexual men often want youth, feminine features such as high cheekbones,

and an hourglass figure; all traits that indicate said woman will be healthy and fertile to bear

children and pass on a man’s genes. Heterosexual women are attracted to men who are taller,

with masculine features such as a square jaw; all traits that indicate said man has good health and

strength (Alkon, 2010). Seeing these features that are meant to be attractive features invoke the

same sense in everyone, spanning across cultures and generations. David Hume echoes Kant’s

ideas through proposing that it is only the feeling and not the thought that allows us to

distinguish between what is truly beautiful. Prior to the thought of any praise or admiration in the
person, there is a very specific sentiment that is felt upon seeing them when it comes to beautiful

people (Paquette, 2003). Plato emphasizes the unique nature of beauty when describing it as a

prime example of a Form, being a highly evaluative and disputed concept. It is a Form that he

states, everyone wants to know and to experience, and because we cannot physically experience

an Ideal Form, we must experience it emotionally (Sartwell, 2016). Beauty comes with a

pedagogical effect and a goodness that is unmatched by no other emotion, and has such a distinct

feel that it can be recognized apart from other emotions in everyone. There is a confusion that is

associated with most other feelings, in which people can’t distinguish true happiness for their ex

from jealousy, or anger towards their friends from sadness. Beauty on the other hand, is much

more distinct. When seeing someone beautiful, you know what you’re feeling. Even unspoken, it

is the same feeling your neighbour feels, the same feeling someone hundreds of miles away

feels, when seeing someone beautiful.

A difficult thing to define, it is highly debated whether or not beauty truly is objective

with a universal definition, or subjective and based on personal experiences, values, and

upbringings. The idea of beauty has been passed down through generations and cultures,

seemingly taking on a new meaning under countless circumstances. In our modernized western

society, we are in a time where we yearn for women with thin waists and a prominent figure, and

tall men with strong builds. Halfway across the world, there are many cultures who believe the

larger a woman is, the more attractive she is. There are cultures who believe there is beauty in

scarification and crooked teeth, and times where extremely small feet were the goal. Light, fair

skin can be seen as a blessing and a curse, and while many in America spend hundreds of dollars
to perfect their spray tan, most in China will shy away from the sun and lather themselves in

sunscreen to stay pale (Achieng, 2017). The differences in beauty standards is studied by many

philosophers whom believe in the statement that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ French

philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, published in 1979, argues how

a fixed concept of beauty is inaccurate and questionable. He concludes that the beauty

perspectives that formed and sculpted the very foundation that the 18th century western society

was built on is no longer applicable, bringing the concept that beauty is no longer based on an

aesthetic model, but a societal model, into popularity (Paquette, 2003). Bringing empiricism,

which is the “view that all concepts originate in experience” (Duignan, 2016) into the beauty

argument, Lyotard, among others, believe that it is interests, desires, concerns, prejudices, and

other purely experience based emotions that define beauty. In a worldly perspective, it is the

culture that defines who you find beautiful. In China from 551 to 479 BCE, in the time of

Kongfuzi, otherwise known as Confucius, and his followers advocated the notion that moral

goodness shaped what was found beautiful. Art and beauty was connected to integrity, harmony,

moral conduct, self-improvement, and public virtue. In India, beauty is defined by Hindu

religious aspects and traditions, in which beauty is based off the divine nature of the gods.

Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti explored the notion that analytic theory cannot be used to

discover the truth about beauty; it can only be found through observation, personal experiences,

and an understanding one’s own mind. Another philosopher, John Dewey, further emphasized the

empiricism view on beauty through stating that beauty cannot be analyzed, therefore essentially

expressing his belief that it cannot have a set definition; it is a direct result from experiences and

reflective thoughts that support these experiences (Paquette, 2003). A mother has to find her new
born baby beautiful out of pure love, and it is almost obligatory to believe your significant other

is beautiful. Someone who grows up around eccentric makeup artists and a high fashion

community will often find those who wear layers of makeup extremely beautiful, and someone

who had their heart broken by someone with dark brown hair and green eyes might forever

despise anyone else they see with dark brown hair and green eyes. Through believing that one’s

opinion on beauty is derived from experiences, it is impossible to set a universal standard of

beauty, as there is no doubt in anyone’s minds that everyone has different experiences.

While the empiricism aspect holds some truth with beauty being in the eye of the

beholder, it is often times not truly a feeling of beauty, but a feeling of personal preference. Many

times, other emotions are mistaken for the belief that something is beautiful. What many forget

to distinguish is, as emphasized by Immanuel Kant, that beauty should be void of all other

emotions and feelings. In his Critique of Judgement, Kant mentions how for something to be

beautiful, it must have specific characteristics, one of which is for it to be disinterested. The

judgement of true beauty cannot hold logical ideas or personal conditions; someone is beautiful

without reason other than the fact that they are beautiful. He expresses the differences between

someone being beautiful, good, and agreeable. If agreeable, those who see someone beautiful

desire them, in a form of love or lust. If good, those who see someone beautiful have a moral

attachment to them, seeing them as either good or bad, and making the physical judgment from

that (Hawken, 2013). Mothers love their children, and thus believe their newborn babies are

beautiful. People love and lust over their significant others, and thus believe they are beautiful.

However, as explained by Kant, it is not a feeling of beauty, but a feeling of agreeability. In the
same sense, it is not uncommon to find someone more attractive the more you know them and

like them. Again, it is not a feeling of true beauty when this occurs, but a feeling of finding that

person good. In order for one to see someone as truly beautiful, their uses and characteristics

cannot be present in their mind, and due to this, it is often difficult to distinguish objective

beauty from subjective preference. When philosophers state that beauty is dependant on

experience, it is a flawed theory in a sense that it is no longer true beauty that is being felt; it is

something else. The term ‘beautiful’ has been taken and twisted to mean a variety of different

things, with ideas of being beautiful both inside and out, and ideas that everyone is beautiful

becoming increasingly prevalent in our society, it is easy to forget there is a difference between

someone being beautiful in a common every day sense and someone being beautiful in a sense

where they radiate true beauty. This feeling of true beauty thus must stem from something, and it

is the ideal characteristics that bring upon the feeling. Ideal characteristics that are studied by

photographers and replicated by makeup artists, with the recognition of these characteristics

rooted deep in our biological senses. You are born with the idea of true beauty in your mind, and

while what is good and who you love and where you go impact the inclination to admire other

people, there is nothing that changes the idea of true beauty. The power of true beauty drives

nations and societies into progressing. Everyone will consciously and unconsciously strive to be

beautiful, to reach an ideal-form, and while the ideal-form cannot be defined, it not for a

universal definition of beauty, the idea of an ideal-form would not exist. It is the feeling of

beauty that every single person, no matter when or where they live or have lived, recognizes. It is

the concept beauty that every single person strives for, whether they are aware of it or not. It is

beauty and only beauty that connects every single person who has ever and will ever live.
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