Two Concepts of Beauty

Sometimes the following things are true:

1) Person X is beautiful;

2) Feature A of person X is not irrelevant to 1.;

3) If person X had feature B instead of feature A, they would be no more or less beautiful – or equivalently,

3a) Feature A is not beautiful considered in isolation from any particular person.

As examples of ‘feature A’ I’m thinking of ‘the particular pattern of freckles on person X’s right arm’ or ‘the way person X smiles’. These are not things which are simply unimportant (i.e. that satisfy 3. but not 2.) – they are integral parts of person X’s beauty.

On the other hand, sometimes the following things are true:

1) Person X is beautiful;

2) Feature A of person X is not irrelevant to 1.;

3) If person X had feature B instead of feature A, they would no longer be beautiful – or equivalently,

3a) Feature A is beautiful considered in isolation from any particular person.

Obviously ‘feature A’ might be a whole group of features taken together. I’m thinking of things like rock-hard abs, pouty lips, large breasts, a well-groomed moustache, etc.

The conclusion follows that there are two concepts of beauty in people. The first (beauty1) works by the initial judgement that person X is beautiful being used to directly imply the beautiful character of their particular features: their features and their body and their movements, are beautiful precisely insofar as they are theirs.

The second (beauty2) works by the initial judgement that feature A is beautiful being used to evaluate the beauty of the people who either have or do not have that feature: a person is beautiful insofar as their features and their body and their movements are beautiful independently.

The two concepts, one might suspect, can only be distinct because people are more than the sum of their parts: the beauty of a collection of pre-packaged body parts and mannerisms is not the same as the beauty of an individual person. This fact is, indeed, also the requirement for there to be individuals at all.

Obviously these two sorts of beauty are mixed up to various degrees in practice – it is easier to “love someone insofar as they are the person they are”, when the person they are is not the elephant man. Nevertheless they are distinct and ultimately, I think independent – the beauty of the elephant man is not impossible.

Neither can really be praised or condemned: people’s feelings are what they are. But beauty2 is, of course, a vector through which racism, classism*, and endless gendered body-hatred can be propagated. So a society that strengthens and reinforces it, for example by the presence of a vast ‘beauty industry’, is likely to not be fantastic.

*NB: classism is the analogue to racism – prejudice and discrimination against individuals based on their accent, mannerism, wealth, and general ‘cultural class’. The real issue with class of course is not classism, but the very presence of (antagonistic) classes at all – in a way that differs from racism.

Posted in Philosophy. Tags: . 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Two Concepts of Beauty”

  1. Awais Says:

    I think these two concepts might roughly be seen as the subjective and objective aspects of beauty. Its probably not likely that the objective side can be completely eliminated, because there seems to be an indication that it has a basis in our genetics; but in any case environment does play a dominant role in developing the aesthetic sense of people, and what they consider to be beautiful. And you have rightly pointed out that society can strengthen certain stereotypes of objective beauty and that it can lead to various sorts of discrimination.

    I cannot help but admire the clarity of your thoughts. You have a genuine gift.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I cannot help but admire the clarity of your thoughts.”
    😀

    “I think these two concepts might roughly be seen as the subjective and objective aspects of beauty.”
    I can see why we might call them that, but I feel like ‘objective’ carries a lot of baggage – I don’t think I want to say that well-muscled men are ‘objectively’ more beautiful than others. It also gives a sense of universality, of everyone having the same standards, which isn’t always true – different people can have different standards, and they still both be standards in the sense on beauty2.

  3. Is Heterosexuality Unnatural? « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] to ‘our ideal’. There are these two different logics of attraction going on, as I’ve posted about in the past. The two co-exist uneasily though: in spite of the huge amount of money poured into encouraging […]


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