Philosophy of aesthetics

Introduction Click here
Classical philosophy of aesthetics Click here
Early Christian era Click here
Modern philosophy of aesthetics
Click here
British aestheticians Click here
German philosophers Click here
Romanticism Click here
Contemporary philosophy of aesthetics Click here
Summary Click here
Integration of Kant’s aesthetics with landscape theory Click here
Conclusions Click here
References Click here


Humans have long asked the questions, “what is beauty?” ” why is that scene beautiful?” “what is the nature of the aesthetic experience?” Questions of aesthetics have occupied many philosophers, although less so today than in the past.

Philosophy is a search for ultimate reality. It aims to identify and describe; it does not seek to explain, that being the purpose of science. Philosophy undertakes conceptual investigations (a priori), and again in contrast with science, it does this independent of experience. An a priori concept may be validated through experience. Philosophy has three main areas of enquiry: 1. methodology, which covers the theory of knowledge and logic; 2. metaphysics, which is the theory of the nature and structure of reality; and 3. the theory of value. The theory of value addresses three ultimate values: truth, goodness and beauty.

Aesthetics has been a subject of Western philosophy since at least the time of Socrates. Up to the eighteenth century the focus was beauty but following Baumgarten’s invention of the term aesthetics around 1750, philosophy broadened its inquiry to encompass this more inclusive term.

Philosophers distinguish between the aesthetic object, the aesthetic experience and the aesthetic recipient. An aesthetic object stimulates an experience in the recipient.

Landscape is but one of many aesthetic objects (Figure 1). These include music, art, sculpture, human faces, architecture, poetry and natural objects. Philosophers seek to identify the common principles operating on and determining the nature of the aesthetic experience.

Figure 1 Taxonomy of aesthetics

A judgement is made about the scene, that it is a beautiful scene. The observer attaches a quality to the scene that, in the objective sense, it does not possess. It may comprise soil, rocks, hills, valleys, rivers, fences, houses, trees and animals but no-where does it actually possess a feature called beauty. Beauty is expressed as if it is a tangible quality of the scene. We say, “Isn’t that beautiful”, whereas we should say “I think that is beautiful”. The judgement made is represented as being objectively valid. This judgement is not based on any rational part of our consciousness; no assessment or analysis of the scene is made against some standard of beauty. The judgement is immediate and complete. It is solely a subjective statement. This paradox between objectivity and aesthetic judgement is one of the issues with which philosophers have grappled.

Philosophers have often spent lifetimes thinking and discussing these issues, analysing cases and postulations, and reviewing the contributions of other philosophers. The summary of philosophers’ life’s work which is presented here can scarcely scratch the surface of the depth of analysis and comprehension of the issues they address. It is akin to flying across a range of high mountains and viewing only the top few meters of each peak through the clouds, ignoring the thousands of meters below which provide their foundation and enable them to stand so high.



There are few records of philosophers prior to Socrates (469 – 399 BC). He believed it desirable for youth to dwell in the midst of beauty and thereby be influenced for the better, thus linking beauty and morality.

Plato (427 – 347 BC) was more concerned with the organization of the state than with aesthetics and, as a result, approached the subject from the viewpoint of its role in relation to the citizenry. He regarded art as the imitation of reality, and believed that poets and artists aim to capture the form or essence of the object.

Athens agora
The Agora in Athens (reconstructed)

Plato, like Socrates, viewed beauty as having a moral influence. However, while Socrates argued that whatever is useful and efficient is beautiful, to Plato beauty indicated eternal values. He postulated a progression of beauty – beauty of the human body, of the mind, of institutions and laws (his ideal state), of the sciences (i.e. philosophy), culminating in absolute beauty itself, which is outside of time and space – transcending the visible world. Order and proportion were essential elements of beauty. 

Plato considered that beauty is either contained by certain properties of an object (the definist theory) or it is indefinable but makes itself evident in the internal unity of the object (the nondefinist theory). Such internal unity produces beauty only if unity together with variety is present together in an object. While aware of the likelihood of disagreement over what is beautiful, Plato considered objects to be intrinsically beautiful because they are “always beautiful in their very nature” – which sounds tautological. Objects cannot be “fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair and at another…foul”; in other words, beauty is absolute, not relative.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) further developed Plato’s theory of imitation in three senses: for moral education, for catharsis (i.e. purgation) and for character formation. He believed that Plato’s idealized forms of beauty were immanent in tangible objects. According to Aristotle, beautiful objects had to be of a certain size, neither minute nor vast, in order that their unity and wholeness could be appreciated by the observer.


Plotinus (204 – 269 AD), a neoPlatonist Roman born in Egypt, rejected the Stoic view that beauty was based on a formalism derived from symmetry. Plotinus argued that both a live face and a dead face may be equally symmetrical, but only the live face would be considered beautiful. Rather, he saw beauty as “that which irradiates symmetry rather than symmetry itself.” Beauty does not derive from any single aspect of the object but from the total object.  He used the term “ideal-form” such as a block of stone, which is transformed by a sculptor into an ideal-form. In experiencing beauty, the individual finds an “affinity” with the object, thereby participating in the ideal-form and its divinity. Thus the observer becomes beautiful and divine. This idea laid the basis for mysticism and romanticism in aesthetics.


Plato’s idea of idealized beauty was regarded by Augustine (354 – 430 AD) as existing in the mind of God and given to the observer by Divine illumination, thus relating beauty to religion. On this basis, beauty is not relative but a constant. The concepts of unity, number, equality, proportion and order were central to Augustine’s aesthetics. He considered that the unity of an object derived from its order and proportion. He distinguished between the beauty of an object that forms a whole and beauty that derives from being part of a whole.

Thomas Aquinas (1224 -1274) considered beauty to be a subset of goodness. Beautyaquinas derived from three factors: “integrity or perfection,” “due proportion or harmony” and “brightness or clarity,” the latter interpreted as symbolizing, through light, divine beauty. 

During the Middle Ages, theologians came to believe that, as God had created the world ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), therefore, the visible world displayed signs of its Maker: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen…” (Romans 1:20). Bonaventure (c1217 – 1274) regarded nature as the “mirror of God,” which displayed His perfection to varying degrees. The origins of the eighteenth century natural theology school may be traced to these views.


With the Renaissance’s interest in the classics of Greek and Rome, many Academies reduced their ideas about beauty to “rules” based on the eminent authorities of antiquity.  Marsilio Ficini, the founder of the new Academy in 1462 developed the theory of contemplation based on Plato. He believed that, while contemplating the various stages of Platonic forms, the soul withdraws somewhat from the body, and only in this state, can beauty be experienced. Alberti the architect (1404 – 1472), considered beauty to derive from an order and arrangement such that nothing could be changed except for the worse, a relativist viewpoint.


Cartesian rationalism derived from the works of Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), and was influential in aesthetics, although he wrote nothing about the arts. Instead, he argued for the role of reason – “clear and distinct ideas” in establishing truth, and that knowledge advanced through building on one truth to reach another. Intuition and deduction are sources of truth, intuition being “the undoubting conception of an unclouded and attentive mind …(that) springs from the light of reason alone” (Beardsley, 1966) and deduction being a logical chain of intuitions. Descartes’ method had universal application, being highly influential in aesthetics as well as in other areas of philosophy.

Modern aesthetics developed after the end of the seventeenth century in two centres, Britain and Germany – British empiricism contrasting with German aesthetic idealism. Francis Bacon in England in the early seventeenth century established the empirical foundations of his work on beauty and deformity in the human figure. The eighteenth century saw aesthetics established into an autonomous area of philosophy. The issue of taste in aesthetics and the search for the underlying explanations of beauty was the focus of the British empiricists.


During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British empiricists, John Locke (1632 – 1704), Bishop George Berkeley (1685 – 1783) and David Hume (1711 – 1776) addressed aesthetics as a key question in philosophical inquiry. Called ’empiricists’ because they sought to demonstrate that human knowledge derived from experience rather than deduction, they argued that “the mind at birth is a blank slate, a tabula rasa, upon which experience ‘writes’ through the sensations received.” (Rock, 1984). In 1651, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) wrote, “There is no conception in man’s mind which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense.” (Thomas Hobbes, Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan). Mathematicians would have an issue with this as often their algorithm’s cannot be understood in physical terms but only in mathematical; quantum physics is such an example, but its mathematics has been applied very successfully in the physical. 

The empiricists addressed issues such as the mind-body problem, the nature of external reality, the general issue of how knowledge is gained, and how we see forms, questions to which visual processes are central and which occupied the philosophers then as they do today (Uttal, 1983). There were three basic ideas in British empiricist philosophy (O’Neil, 1977):

  • Phenomenalism: a relation exists between the stimuli of the physical world and the sensory experience (which is the basis of modern psychophysics);
  • Elementarism: complex sensory experience could be analyzed into basic elements – i.e. not further decomposable;
  • Associationism: elementary experiences were combined through a learning process of association.

In his book, Essay Concerning Human Understanding of Ideas (1689), John Locke laid a foundation for British philosophy with his work on knowledge, ideas, language and government. He made the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, the former including solidity, extension, motion and number and being “utterly inseparable from every particle of matter,” the latter including colors, smells, tastes and sounds “which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities.” Locke asserted the difference was based on science, which had been able to deal with primary qualities but not the secondary. Beauty can reside objectively in an object insofar as beauty comprises the object’s primary qualities, but insofar as beauty is evident in the object’s secondary qualities, beauty is a subjective quality. Although somewhat confused, the distinction Locke makes between beauty residing in the object or in the eyes of the beholder became a key question for philosophers over the coming centuries.

Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671 – 1713), the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, envisioned a harmonious world created by God. Believing that human taste favoured things which are both pleasing and for our good, Shaftesbury (as he was known) linked aesthetics with a moral sense and was thus influential in establishing aesthetics and ethics as key issues for philosophy:

“…the most natural beauty in the world is honesty and moral truth. For all beauty is truth. True features make the beauty of a face; and true proportions the beauty of architecture; as true measures that of harmony and music … A painter…understands the truth and unity of design; and knows he is even then unnatural when he follows Nature too close, and strictly copies Life.” (Shaftesbury, 1709. Sensus Communis, An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour in a Letter to a Friend)

Shaftesbury regarded the association of ideas as critical in the aesthetic experience and also emphasised the immediacy of the human perception of beauty. His identification of the aesthetic attitude of disinterestedness laid the basis for Kant’s later development of this key concept. And, with his love of wild nature, Shaftesbury preceded the eighteenth century’s interest in the sublime as an aesthetic concept distinct from beauty.

Francis Hutcheson
Joseph Addison

The Scottish philosophers, Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746) and Joseph Addison (1672 – 1719) built on Shaftesbury’s work. Both regarded beauty as residing in the object. In 1725, Hutcheson published Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design, the first modern treatise on aesthetics. Beauty, he argued, results when certain qualities are present in objects, these qualities being a compound ratio of uniformity and variety: so that where the uniformity of bodys is equal, the beauty is as the variety; and where the variety is equal, the beauty is as the uniformity, thus providing an absolute basis for aesthetics. Addison regarded aesthetic taste as a function of three qualities: sublimity, novelty and beauty.

Hogarth      William Hogarth

William Hogarth (1697- 1764), an artist, published The Analysis of Beauty in 1753, one of many such books of the time that attempted to provide a definitive system to define beauty. He believed linear beauty is produced by six qualities: fitness, variety, uniformity, simplicity, intricacy, and quantity or size. Hogarth introduced the term “serpentine line” which he believed explained beauty in objects. He produced a wavy line that is “the line of beauty” and a three-dimensional serpentine equivalent, the “line of grace,” by which, according to Beardsley, grace is added to beauty.

Although Hogarth’s proposals were ridiculed, they influenced later writers.

Serepentine line

HumeDavid Hume (1711- 76) rejected the objectivist view of aesthetics of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson and Addison. For Hume, beauty resided not in the object but in the mind:

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.” (Hume, 1757).

Rather than look for beauty in the nature of the objects, Hume looked to “the constitution of our nature, by custom, or by caprice”; thus beauty was a function of the characteristics and preferences of the human observer and of the customs of their culture. Hume’s insight that beauty lay in the mind, not in the object, was revolutionary and ahead of his time. He also argued for a standard of taste developed through experience, education and sensitivity to aesthetic qualities.

Burke  Edmund Burke

The final significant British aesthetician of the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) was possibly the most important. In 1757, he published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a work that influenced aesthetic thought well into the next century and beyond. Burke’s book has been described as signalling the point at which English aesthetic taste changed from classical formalism to romanticism (Cranston, 1967). Burke believed aesthetic judgement should differentiate between beauty and the sublime; beauty originates with our emotions, particularly in our feelings towards the opposite gender, while the sublime originates in nature and our feelings towards it.

He defined beauty as “love without desire” which derives from objects that are small, smooth, gently varying, delicate – all attributes of female beauty, indicative of Hogarth’s influence. Beauty was not defined by the properties of harmony, proportion, utility, etc, rather these properties resulted in the human experience of beauty.

Sublimity involves emotions of great intensity – astonishment without actual danger Qualities which can be sublime include darkness, privation and emptiness, uncertainty, confusion, obscurity, vastness approaching infinity, qualities which contrasted with traditional aesthetic standards of harmony, proportion, clarity, and so on. A degree of terror, controlled such as when looking over the edge of a high cliff or inside a dark cave and filling the mind with what is before it, epitomize the sublime. Even ugly objects could be a source of aesthetic interest, thus paving the way for the nineteenth and twentieth century expressionist movements in art, which sought to provoke emotional reaction, but are not necessarily beautiful in the classical sense. Beauty contrasts with sublimity, but they are not opposites in the sense that the sublime is ugly; rather it is an aesthetic experience of a different kind. Indeed, Burke suggested that the ugly can be the subject of aesthetic appreciation. Burke regarded sublimity as more important than beauty.

Burke and Hume, therefore, viewed beauty as the observer’s response to certain properties in the object; yet these do not define beauty; they only provide the conditions for its perception by an observer. It was demonstrated that many of the properties thought to engender beauty in an object, properties such as unity, proportion, uniformity and variety, utility or fitness – were present in many objects, not all of them considered beautiful (Stolnitz, 1961). Moreover, Burke and Hume showed that the “unity in variety” formula lacked content and applied to many objects. Archibald Alison examined the various “principles” and found none acceptable. He wrote, These principles are true to a certain extent, though I believe also, that they have arisen from a partial view of the subject (Alison, 1790). By the end of the eighteenth century, it was concluded that it was altogether impossible to find properties which were common and peculiar to beauty.


The British aestheticians were essentially amateurs –  gentlemen of leisure addressing amateurs but the German philosophers were university professors, addressing learned audiences (Bertrand Russell, 1961).

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), the first of the great German philosophers, is the great giant of eighteenth-century philosophy, and arguably the great giant of philosophy in general (Hamlyn, 1987). Kant, like all the very greatest figures in human culture, sums up a past age and inaugurates a new one. (Hofstadter & Kuhns, 1976). Bertrand Russell was a little more circumspect: Kant is generally considered the greatest of modern philosophers. I cannot myself agree with this estimate, but it would be foolish not to recognize his great importance (Russell, 1961).

With eulogies such as these, it is evident that Kant’s influence was great indeed. He was born and lived all his life in Konigsberg, then in Prussia (now Kaliningrad in Poland) on the border with Lithuania. He remained a bachelor and by all accounts lived an eventless life as professor of logic and metaphysics in the university.

In 1764, Kant published Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime about which Russell wrote:

Like everybody else at that time, he wrote a treatise on the sublime and the beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful; the sea is sublime, the land is beautiful; man is sublime, woman is beautiful; and so on.

Kant acknowledged that the sublime involves an experience with some infinite or boundless greatness that overwhelms the observer. He considered, however, that nature does not contain anything that is boundless but does involve formlessness. The importance of the sublime to Kant is that it incites the mind with ideas that involve higher purposiveness beyond the normal senses (Hamlyn, 1987). To Kant the sublime moves, the beautiful charms (McCloskey, 1987).

Title page of Critique of Judgement                     Immanuel Kant   

In 1781, Kant published his major work, Critique of Pure Reason. He revised this in 1787 and followed it in 1788 with Critique of Practical Reason and, in 1790, with Critique of Judgement which contained his ideas on aesthetics. Kant regarded humans as having three modes of consciousness – knowledge, desire and feeling. The first book dealt with knowledge, the second with desire and the third with feeling. His third critique contributed fundamentally to aesthetics; indeed its opening part is considered to be the classic work in aesthetics (Hamlyn, 1987).

Focusing on philosophical aesthetics, Kant’s contribution was in progressing from the empirical analysis of previous philosophers, to the recognition of the aesthetic as a domain of human experience equal in dignity to the theoretical and the practical (i.e. the cognitive and the moral) (Hofstadter & Kuhns, 1976).

Kant argued his case regarding aesthetics in a series of four “moments” or theses, each of which develops sets of arguments. He summarized the findings of each:

  • First Moment Taste is the faculty of judging of an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.
  • Second Moment The beautiful is that which pleases universally without requiring a concept (i.e. a reason).
  • Third Moment Beauty is the form of the finality (or purposiveness ) of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.
  • Fourth Moment The beautiful is that which without any concept is cognized as the object of a necessary (i.e. universal) satisfaction (or delight).

The four moments may be summarized as relation, quantity, quality and modality (i.e. necessity) (Beardsley, 1967).

The First Moment

The first moment contains two important ideas: the notion of the mind’s representation of the object and the principle of disinterestness. The aesthetic experience involves the reception by the mind (i.e. the noumenal world) of an imaginative representation of the phenomenal (i.e. physical) world. The mind is not concerned with the object per se but with the mind’s representation of the object. It is the object as experienced which exhibits beauty (Zimmerman, 1968), thus addressing the debate of the British aestheticians as to whether beauty rests in the object or in our mind. Kant shows that beauty, which at first sight seems to be an objective property of a beautiful object, is, in reality, a human valuation of it (Golman, 1967).

Because it is a judgement of taste and not of cognition, the aesthetic qualities of objects exist only subjectively. It follows that the existence of the object is of no consequence – even if it were mere illusion, the aesthetic experience would remain the same. Its existence may of course be a practical and moral issue, but these considerations are not aesthetic in nature.

This leads to the principle of disinterest. The presence of interest in an object is of practical or moral significance, but not of aesthetic significance. Disinterest means impartiality, an absence of desire for the representation of the real existence of the object, and that it does not engender a want in relation to the object. Only by disinterest, is it possible to have a free, pure aesthetic experience, uncorrupted by existential concerns. As an example, judges in a court of law are disinterested, i.e. they have no personal interest in the case; if they did, it may cloud their judgement. 

The role of the imagination in the mind’s representation of an object is vital. Imagination is free and without interest. Aesthetic judgement is distinguished from other judgements by the “free interplay of the imagination and the understanding” (Hamlyn, 1987). Aesthetic pleasure is the result of harmony between the imaginative representation and understanding.

The Second Moment

The second moment is based on Kant’s classification of pleasures and the objects giving rise to them:


The first of these is concerned with agreeable pleasures, sometimes termed “animal pleasures,” the second, which concerns aesthetics, is pleasure in things perceived, and the third with abstract, intellectual pleasures. Kant regarded this classification as both universal and mutually exclusive, i.e. it covers all possibilities but an object can generate only one pleasure. Aesthetic pleasure lies between fulfilling “animal” needs, e.g. appetite, and intellectual pleasures, including the rational and the moral. As has been established by Kant’s first moment, aesthetic pleasure has elements of both but is pure experience unrelated to the existence of the object. Clearly, sensual pleasure requires an object, and a moral imperative requires action. Neither can claim universality. Uniquely, the aesthetic experience gives pleasure universally and is unrelated to understanding.

The definitions distinguish the Beautiful from the Agreeable or from the Good (Kant’s categories of pleasure). The following structure emerges from Kant’s classification of pleasures and from his moments (McCloskey, 1987):

  • Pleasure in the Agreeable and in the Good are interested; only pleasure in the Beautiful is disinterested.
  • Pleasure in the Agreeable is private whereas pleasure in the Beautiful and the Good are both universal and necessary pleasures. These are also ‘Communicable’ pleasures; pleasure in the Good is communicable by concept whereas pleasure in the Beautiful is communicable by means of the form of finality (see third moment).
  • Pleasure in the Agreeable and in the Beautiful are both immediate while pleasure in the Good may be either mediated or unmediated.

The Third Moment

Kant’s third moment builds on the second moment’s distinction of the aesthetic experience and asserts that an aesthetic judgement is not a conceptual judgement, i.e. it does not involve or presuppose the concept-producing power of the understanding (Zimmerman, 1968). As the aesthetic experience is pure and subjective, it follows that it is exclusive of understanding.

The central idea is summed up by Kant’s famous phrase purposiveness without purpose, which appears to be contradictory but serves to differentiate the aesthetic experience from the practical and the moral. It denotes an object that is purposive in its form though has no purpose or function – e.g. the beauty of a rose. Beardsley (1966) describes it thus:

“the judgement of taste is intimately connected, Kant thinks, with purposiveness, but it is not, of course concerned at all with particular purposes, for then it would be conceptual and it would not be disinterested.”

Purposiveness without purpose, alternatively described as form of finality, refers to a special type of formal quality dependent upon an object’s perceptual properties, i.e. those which can be sensed about an object rather than any abstract properties.  It is this property of beauty that Kant considers is pleasing. A beautiful flower has beauty, which is free, whereas a beautiful building has a purpose, and therefore, functionality, which is not free. Such utility implies what a building ought to be – i.e. comprised of walls, roof and so on, whereas beauty which is free, contains no concept of what the object ought to be (Kant).

Being free, Kant does not attempt to provide rules for determining whether a particular object is beautiful – “no objective rules of taste can be given which would determine what is beautiful through concepts” and that it would be a fruitless endeavor to seek a principle of taste which would provide a universal criterion of the beautiful through determinate concepts (Kant, in Guyer, 1979). However, Kant does seek for more general rules. These include the design and composition of objects rather than their color and tone, the form of objects rather than what they might represent, and the possible application of such rules to natural objects rather than works of art, which embody purpose. Some have criticized Kant for abandoning disinterest in defining such rules, suggesting the attempt is “seriously flawed” (Guyer, 1979).

The Fourth Moment

Kant’s fourth moment builds on the preceding moments: that aesthetic pleasure derives from the pure experience of an object without cognitive determination and that such pleasure is universal. The term necessary means that if an object is judged beautiful by universal agreement (the second moment), then all others ought also to agree to its beauty, although we cannot guarantee it:

“one is asserting that every human subject would experience an immediately felt aesthetic satisfaction if they experienced the object freely” (Zimmerman, 1968).

Traditional societies have a very different view of beauty so it is not universal. However, because everyone feels the pleasure, it is not a private but a public experience.

Figure 2 summarizes Kant’s theory as a ladder, the principles of disinterest and universality depicted as legs, and principles that influence the outcomes shown as the rungs.

Kant ladder

Kant’s contribution to aesthetics is fundamental and profound. His work has endured and shaped our view of beauty to this day. An example is in the area of art where the “aesthetic movement” recognized that the “aesthetic quality of art is not dependent on its practical usefulness or even its congruence with conventional morality” (Saw & Osborne, 1960), a position which derived from Kant’s distinctions of the aesthetic from the useful, the pleasant and the good.

The following are summaries by several authors of his findings:

“Shorn of its many elaborations, Kant’s analysis of our use of the expression, ‘This is beautiful’, is that it expresses disinterested pleasure which we believe we are entitled to demand of any and everyone because the object judged is discerned to have a certain kind of perceptual form, which is called by Kant the Form of Finality” (McCloskey, 1987).

“…aesthetic experience, i.e. the experience of natural beauty, is experience of the noumenal (i.e. of the mind) world as it filters through the phenomenal (i.e. the physical) world, and that in order to secure the experience of natural beauty, the human mind must act passively in receiving its contents and not actively in organizing them” (Zimmerman, 1968).

“the aesthetic object is something utterly different from all utilitarian objects, for its purposiveness is without purpose; the motive that leads to its creation is distinct, and independent of all others (that is, the free play of imagination under the understanding’s general conditions of lawlessness); and the enjoyment of beauty and of the sublime brings to man a value that nothing else can provide, since it has nothing to do with cognition or with morality” (Beardsley, 1966).

Dewey (1934) who argues for the experience as the basis of aesthetics takes a more sardonic view of Kant’s aesthetics:

“having disposed of Truth and the Good, it remained to find a niche for Beauty, the remaining term in the classic trio. Pure feeling remained, being “pure” in the sense of being isolated and self-enclosed; feeling free from any taint of desire; feeling that strictly speaking is non-empirical. So he bethought himself of a faculty of Judgement which is not reflective but intuitive and yet not concerned with objects of Pure reason. This faculty is exercised in Contemplation, and the distinctively esthetic element is the pleasure which attends such Contemplation. Thus the psychological road was opened leading to the ivory tower of “beauty” remote from all desire, action, and stir of emotion.”

Dewey notes that the effect upon German thought of capitalization has hardly received proper attention. He also criticizes aesthetic theorists who erect “adjectives into nouns substantive.”

Kant has carefully detailed a philosophical analysis of beauty. He found that the aesthetic experience is our mind’s representation of the object and, experienced with disinterest, is pure and is wholly subjective. The state of harmony between an object’s imaginative representation and our understanding yields aesthetic pleasure. Such pleasure is neither sensual nor intellectual; it does not involve fulfilling animal appetites, neither does it involve rationality or reason. It does not involve conceptual judgement. Objects that we consider beautiful have a special kind of formal quality dependent on their perceptual properties, a purposiveness of form but not of function – purposiveness without purpose. Aesthetic pleasure being free and without cognitive determination, is common to all who experience it.

Critics of Kant have questioned the issue of disinterest and his universality argument. As Dewey noted, the eighteenth century was a century of reason rather than passion, objective order and regularity … the source of aesthetic satisfaction. Viewed in this setting, disinterest fits. With contemporary expressionism in art and community concern about amenity issues and influencing policy outcomes, disinterest may seem to us quaint and irrelevant. However, this is to misunderstand it. To Kant, disinterest reflected the freedom to enjoy the aesthetics untainted by existential concerns, which he saw could detract from our appreciation. Conversely, the universality argument has rightly been criticised as untenable, given that culture plays a major role in determining aesthetic preferences.

Schiller and Hegel

Other German philosophers who addressed questions of aesthetics and beauty included Schiller and Hegel.

Friedrich Schiller

Friedrich Schiller (1759 – 1805), a poet of the first rank, was dismayed with Kant’s assignment of the judgement of taste as being essentially subjective. Whereas Kant found freedom as being located in reason, Schiller found that beauty is freedom in appearance, the mediation between the sensible (i.e. perceptible by the senses) and the rational. He compared two states of man: originally natural and sensuous advancing to a state of reason or morality. Schiller proposed the civilizing role of art and beauty, viewing them as the medium through which humanity …advances from a sensuous to a rational, and therefore fully human, stage of existence (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1794). Whereas Kant argued uniformity of human response to the environment, Schiller saw that different types of poets quite simply see the world differently … wherever any form of interpretation or explanation is involved (Elias, 1967). He thus found that cognitive and moral judgements, far from being objective, are as subjective as aesthetic judgements.

Georg Hegel

Georg W.F. Hegel (1770 – 1831) countered Kant’s view that natural objects provided the basis of beauty with the idea that art represents the highest embodiment of the “Idea,” higher even than natural beauty. Natural beauties bear an imprint of the Idea, but a dimmer and lower one than is borne by the works that directly proceed from the human spirit (Lectures on Aesthetics, 1835). To Hegel, beauty is the rational rendered sensible, the sensible appearance being the form in which the rational content is made manifest (Acton, 1967).

Hegel graded art into the symbolic, classical and romantic, and the products of art into architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry. He graded nature, animals and plants as being more beautiful than inanimate objects, although the souls of animals are concealed by features, hair, scales etc. Such grading biases aesthetic appreciation, e.g. a rock will be inferior to a statue regardless of their relative qualities (Crawford, 1993). Hegel ranked natural beauty very low in comparison with human art.


Schiller and Hegel represented the new spirit of Romanticism that came to replace the eighteenth century’s rationalism and classicism. Romanticism dominated European art, literature, philosophy and even politics through to the early twentieth century, and its influence is still with us. It commenced about 1770 in Germany and about 1800 in England and came to dominate the Victorian era.

According to Bertrand Russell, in its most essential form (Romanticism was) a revolt against received ethical and aesthetic standards and was characterized as a whole by the substitution of aesthetic for utilitarian standards (Russell, 1961). Emphasizing emotion in place of classical order, the typical romantic was sensitive, emotional, preferring color to form, the exotic to the familiar, eager for novelty, for adventure, above all for the vicarious adventure of fantasy, revelling in disorder and uncertainty, insistent on the uniqueness of the individual to the point of making a virtue of eccentricity (Brinton, 1967). Romantic poetry embodies a striving for the infinite; it stems from Christianity, and is marked by inner division of spirit, a sense of a gap between actual and ideal, hence an unsatisfied longing (Beardsley, 1966).

Poetry was the art form that best reflected Romanticism. Whereas previously poetry was regarded as imitation, the Romantics viewed poetry as an expression of feeling. The three Lakeland poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey – were Romantics, but Lord Byron was the poet who best epitomized the Romantic ideal – the Romantic hero, hypersensitive and alienated from his society.

Wordsworth initiated a new form of lyric poetry in which the visible landscape symbolized human attributes – the blending of the natural object and human feeling into a single symbolic unity, in which the heart dances with the daffodils, the impetuous West Wind trumpets a prophecy, and the nightingale sings of magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas (Beardsley, 1966).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), a Romantic philosopher, believed that the golden age of humanity was the early communities, based upon the family, where humans lived in small groups, satisfying their basic needs from the products from the forest.

The Romantics loved wild scenery, wild torrents, fearful precipices, pathless forests, thunderstorms, tempests at sea, and generally what is useless, destructive, and violent (Russell, 1961). Russell comments that this continues to influence today – almost everybody, nowadays, prefers Niagara and the Grand Canyon to lush meadows and fields of waving corn. Tourist hotels afford statistical evidence of taste in scenery.


Aesthetics, and in particular, the issues of beauty and natural beauty, fell somewhat out of favor as an issue of inquiry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Santayana                       George Santayana

George Santayana’s (1863 – 1952) in The Sense of Beauty (1896) rejected Kant’s disinterested aesthetics arguing that the central quality of aesthetics is pleasure. He defined beauty as pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing or pleasure objectified. Santayana denied that beauty is an objective property of objects, but rather is the pleasure experienced through the perception of an object – it is a value that can only exist in perception. The pleasure derived is objectified in (i.e. projected into) the perceived object and this is beauty. The pleasure is “objectified” in the sense of being experienced as a quality of a thing and not as an affection of the organ which apprehends it (Olafson, 1967). Santayana thus argued that aesthetic pleasure involves a fusion between the response to an object and the object itself. Reflecting Darwin’s influence, Santayana regarded aesthetic judgements as phenomena of mind and products of mental evolution.

Benedetto Croce

Benedetto Croce (1866 – 1952) in his Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistics (1902) provided a philosophical basis for the expressionism in nineteenth century art, particularly Impressionism, by regarding art, firstly, as expression and secondly as intuition. His central formula was intuition = expression. Croce regarded aesthetic experience as a primitive form of knowledge in which aesthetics is intuitive knowledge, as distinct from logical knowledge (as in science). He considered that something does not exist unless it is known, i.e. that it is not separable from the knowing spirit. Natural beauty is thus not an issue of perception but of an intuition that knows objects as, themselves, states of mind (Dewey, 1934). Beauty is successful expression (Beardsley, 1966). Croce considered there are no degrees of beauty but through inadequate expression, there are degrees of ugliness.

John Dewey (1859 – 1952) focused on experience being a single, dynamic, unified whole in which everything is ultimately interrelated (Bernstein, 1967). Dewey viewed life as comprising overlapping and interpenetrating experiences through which the individual develops knowledge and knowing in a nonreflective way.

Library of Congress          John Dewey

An aesthetic experience to Dewey is a consummate, enjoyable and complete experience, part of the experiences of everyday life. In contrast to Kant, Dewey’s approach requires involvement, engagement, and entering into an experience:

“the distinguishing feature of esthetic experience is exactly that no … distinction of self and object exists in it, since it is esthetic in the degree in which organism and environment cooperate to institute an experience in which the two are so fully integrated that each disappears” (Dewey, 1934).

To Dewey, the aesthetic experience was the product of the interaction of the subjective and the objective (Bourassa, 1991). 

Dewey, consistent with his overall approach towards the role of experience, in Art as Experience (1934), regarded the aesthetic experience as defined by its immediacy and pervasiveness, qualities connecting the various aspects in the experience into a unique whole. To Dewey, beauty is the response to that which to reflection is the consummated movement of matter integrated through its inner relations into a single qualitative whole (Dewey, 1934), i.e., beauty involves the experience of responding to something which is complete in itself. He cited demonstrations in mathematics and operations in surgery as examples of beauty, and the human form as containing sensuous charm and manifestation of a harmonious proportion of parts. Aesthetics and beauty are consummatory and engaged as experience. Dewey’s book has had an “incalculable influence on contemporary aesthetic thinking” (Beardsley, 1967).

Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology         Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer (1874 – 1945), a neo-Kantian philosopher, developed a general theory of human culture and the role played by symbols – myth, language, art, religion and science, symbols by which humans represented the world to themselves. Symbolic representation … is the essential function of human consciousness and is cardinal to our understanding not only of the structure of science, but also of myth and religion, of language, of art, and of history. Man is a symbolizing animal (Korner, 1967). To Cassirer, these symbolic forms are not modeled on reality but model it – they are expressions of the spirit or mind itself. And so the study of these is the study of human power (Beardsley, 1966).

Symbolism in art preceded Cassirer, with roots in the Romantics and the symbolizing of Deity in medieval art. Semiotics, in which one thing functions as a sign of something else, sparks interest in the meaning of all forms of symbolism (e.g. the interpretation of dreams and neuroses, cultural mythology, religious symbolism, linguistics). Semiotics is considered by Beardsley to represent a new level of consciousness in Western culture not previously achieved in any other age. Semiotics has been applied in the analysis of poetry, myth, literature and art. Carl Jung’s concept of “archetypes” or “primordial images” deriving from the collective unconsciousness is an application of semiotics.

Cassirer’s philosophy influenced the philosopher, Susanne Langer (1895 – 1985), who developed the concept of art as “presentational symbol” or “semblance.” Langer was opposed to Dewey’s experiential model because she saw it as being based on an assumption that all human interests are … manifestations of ‘drives’ motivated by animal needs (Langer, 1953). Aesthetics, Langer argued, involves more than meeting everyday biological needs or providing pleasure; it is as important as science or even religion, (and) sets it apart as an autonomous, creative function of a typically human mind.

Wikipedia        Susanne Langer

Langer uses the term ‘semblance’ to represent the way a thing appears to a person. An object such as a rainbow consists entirely in its semblance; it has no cohesion and unity. Similarly, a painting of a scene is mere semblance: if we stretched out our hand to it, we would touch a surface smeared with paint. Semblance is the aesthetic quality of an object. Langer regarded works of art as: single, indivisible symbols, language as a system of symbols. We find art beautiful when we grasp its expressiveness – beauty is expressive form.

On the basis that natural objects cannot be symbolic, others have held that Cassirer and Langer’s symbolic language applied only to art (Saw & Osborne, 1960). Our responsiveness to art derived from intuition – it is not learnt.

The later twentieth century also saw phenomenology and existentialism established as philosophical movements. Beardsley describes the task of the phenomenologist as being to grasp as fully as possible, what is actually experienced and to describe it faithfully, apart from all pre-conceptions and theoretical constructs. The suspension of intellectual consideration is similar to Kant’s disinterest and enables the qualitative richness of the experience to be fully encountered in its completeness.

Heidegger        Martin Heidegger

Existentialism views each human as alone in a world without meaning, save that which the individual imparts out of personal freedom. Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) has examined aesthetics from an existentialist viewpoint. He uses the concepts of world and earth in the notion of “the setting up of a world and the setting forth the earth” when considering aesthetic objects. Using the example of the Greek temple, Heidegger describes “setting up a world” as it is the temple’s religious role, housing a god, providing a focus for the Greek people, and symbolizing meanings through physical things. The “setting forth the earth” is the temple’s physical appearance, the materials of which it is constructed, its setting and in regard to each of these, the way in which the temple highlights and glorifies its earthen roots.


Aesthetics as a subject of philosophical enquiry has been considered by some of the mist brilliant minds in history since the beginning of human thought. Philosophers, as individuals with strong analytical and conceptual skills, are among the best placed to develop a framework for understanding aesthetics which could be widely comprehended and applied. To what extent, then, have philosophers produced a comprehensive framework for the consideration of aesthetics? What has been the sum influence of their work?  Are they able to provide a single answer to the simple question, “what is beauty?”

Table 1 summarizes the approach taken by the various philosophers of aesthetics.  It is evident that each philosopher has constructed his (or her) own framework, to varying degrees building on, or contrasting, with that which has preceded him. The Table identifies whether the philosopher’s contribution takes an objective position, i.e. beauty lies in the object, or a subjective position, i.e. beauty lies in the perceiving mind. The key conclusion from Table 1 is that philosophers have shifted from the objective position which was common up to the eighteenth century to the subjective position in the modern era.

Table 1 Summary of Philosophers of Aesthetics

Table 1

The simple question, “what is beauty?” has produced as many answers as there are philosophers. From the Greeks through the early Christian era and the Renaissance, beauty was considered to be an objective physical characteristic. It was the British empiricist, John Locke, who, in the seventeenth century, was the first to regard beauty as having both objective and subjective qualities. In the eighteenth century, Hume and Burke established beauty as the observer’s subjective response to an object, but it was Kant who established the philosophical rationale for understanding aesthetics as a wholly subjective phenomenon. Kant marked the break between the old and new schools of thought, the former regarding beauty as an inherent, non-relational quality of an object, while the latter saw it as a quality evoking an aesthetic response or experience in the observer.

Kant was the key philosopher who established a comprehensive and credible conceptual base for aesthetics. While the contribution of each philosopher reflected the influence of the culture and times in which they lived, Kant’s approach comes closest to being a framework with application for any time and place. Its difficulty lies in its complexity and hence comprehension in ordinary language.

The net influence of the work of philosophers, in terms of impact on society and community thinking, has not been as great as might be expected. There are exceptions such as Burke and Kant, but overall the writings of the philosophers appear to have been relatively unheeded by the society within which they live. Even among those with an interest in the subject, such as contemporary geographers, planners and psychologists, it is noteworthy that their knowledge of the work of philosophers is scant indeed, which results in their revisiting issues that have been addressed in much greater depth centuries before.  An example is the planners’ and architects’ oft quoted “unity with variety” formula of beauty which Burke and Hume had shown in the eighteenth century to be inadequate .

Much research persists into the intrinsic factors of landscapes giving rise to beauty, and surveys seek to define the aesthetic quality of an area according to assumptions about what is beautiful. Yet the issue of whether beauty lies objectively in the physical features or subjectively in the observer was largely resolved to the satisfaction of philosophers in favor of subjectivity by the end of the eighteenth century.


Kant’s approach to aesthetics is very relevant to landscape quality. Landscape quality fulfils all of Kant’s prerequisites for beauty – landscape quality is without function and there is no ideal or limit; no conceptual judgement is made – the response is immediate, and the pleasure is often shared; the pleasure is gained without desire or want for it; the pleasure is a universal and a common response, and the pleasure is public, not private.

Kant’s approach to aesthetics parallels contemporary evolutionary perspectives of aesthetics, as described by the habitat theory of Orians (1980, 1986, Orians & Heerwagen, 1992, Balling and Falk, 1982), the prospect-refuge theory of Appleton (1975, 1988), Ulrich’s affective theory (1983, 1986, Ulrich, et al, 1991) and the Kaplan’s information processing theory (Kaplan, S. and R. 1982, 1989, Kaplan, S. 1987, Kaplan, S. & R. and Brown, 1989). (see Theory of Landscape Aesthetics)

Kant’s principle of disinterest can be interpreted as similar to the non-cognitive response to landscape beauty, being a response not derived from evaluation and thought. Disinterest can be defined as unbiased by personal interests (Shorter OED) and the non-cognitive response to aesthetic objects carries no such opportunity for bias – at least in the immediate sense, although in evolutionary terms, it can be argued that it is survival enhancing and hence biased.

Kant’s second principle, the universality of beauty, can be seen to parallel closely the evolutionary perspective – if beauty is indeed survival enhancing, then all humans must respond to it. Nor does it appear to be a learned or acquired skill. Rather, appreciation of beauty is innate, although what is appreciated may be influenced by culture.

The rungs in the model (Figure 1) summarize Kant’s moments or theses, and each of these can be explained through an evolutionary perspective. His recognition that it is the mind’s representation of the environment rather than the environment per se places him squarely in the province of perception. It is the ability to perceive accurately the surroundings and to understand and to interpret any threats and opportunities that have been fundamental to human survival.

The immediacy of the aesthetic response has been commented on by many writers. Ulrich et al, (1991) proposed that immediate, unconsciously triggered and initiated emotional responses – not ‘controlled’ cognitive responses – play a central role in the initial level of responding to nature, and have major influences on attention, subsequent conscious processing, physiological responding and behavior.” Herzog (1984, 1985) compared the responses of viewers of scenes given 15 seconds, 1/5 second and 1/50 second. Though not identical, the responses were surprisingly similar, supporting Kant’s thesis that the pleasure is immediate, although it is unlikely that he envisaged periods as short as 1/50 second.

Kant’s thesis that pleasure involves no conceptual judgement can be viewed in the light of Zajonc’s assertion (1980) that preferences need no inferences and is supported by Ulrich (1986), Ulrich et al, (1991), and Ruddell et al, (1989). Kant’s thesis that beauty is without functionality, purposiveness without purpose, reflects the non-cognitive perception of aesthetics, the functionality of which is rooted in the evolutionary past. Its function is survival-enhancing, but this does not enter our conscious awareness and is only now being illuminated through the theories of the Kaplans, Orians, Appleton and Ulrich.

Finally, the lack of determinant rules for beauty can also be seen as survival-enhancing, because rules reduce flexibility of response when faced with new circumstances and therefore do not enhance survival.

Accordingly, Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics has close parallels with contemporary theories of aesthetics based on an evolutionary perspective. Kant was unwittingly identifying, nearly a century before Darwin, principles which can make sense through their survival-enhancing qualities. The universality of Kant’s aesthetics is reinforced by its parallels with contemporary theories of landscape aesthetics.


Typologies of landscape studies have identified a variety of ways in which landscapes can be classified and the objective and subjective paradigms presented here are a further construct, which may be used to classify the studies at a fundamental level. Basically, these paradigms contrast treating landscape quality as an inherent physical attribute (objective) versus treating landscape quality as the perception by the human brain of the physical landscape (subjective). Both paradigms have long histories, having their roots in the contribution of philosophers over many centuries.

The Cartesian revolution, which separated “what is out there” from “what is in here” (i.e. nature and mind), undoubtedly had a major influence on the shift from the objective to the subjective. The influence of the psychological perspective in the latter half of the nineteenth century further consolidated the subjective paradigm as the dominant philosophical paradigm of aesthetics today.


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