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How do you define beauty?

Since Plato, philosophers have been trying to formulate laws for beauty and put this elusive concept into a definite formula. So far no agreement has been reached. David Graves does not give up and submits an original offer


David Graves, "Odyssey"

Socrates: Please, Hippias, teach me what is beautiful. Hippias: A beautiful girl, gold, and to be rich and respected.
(Plato, Hippias Raba)

In his masterpiece, "A Logical-Philosophical Essay", the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein offers the following complex sentence: "There is no value in the world, and even if there was value - it would have no value." And in the same place he even adds that "in the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: there is no value in it".
Here is a starting point for this article. I believe that the natural world - the one that was created billions of years ago and in which the human species developed like the other species - is devoid of values. In nature there is no good and no evil. There is no just and unjust, fair and unfair, beautiful and beautiful. Nature is simply what it is.

The natural world is devoid of values. What happens in it - happens. But somewhere in the course of evolution, a new species was created, Homo sapiens, which developed into the version of man we know, and a few thousand years ago, apparently in Mesopotamia, humans went from a struggle for survival to a "civilized" society. They began to actively change their environment, to engage in agriculture, to concentrate in permanent settlements, to plan for the future and to move from the existence of individuals and small families to a shared social existence.

The more human society succeeded in controlling the threatening natural world around it, the more time man had for thought. The human brain, the most important evolutionary tool developed in nature, allows us to move from a state of survival to a stage of human existence. In the stage of existence, humans do not strive just to get through another day and stay alive. Now they are already beings who are looking for meaning, and they build the meaning together as a world different from the nature around them - the world of culture.

Philosopher Robert Nozick defined man as a "meaning-seeking creature" in the book "Philosophical Explanations" (1981). Many philosophers adopt this definition. Humans want to live in a world that has meaning and value. Since the natural world is devoid of values, we began to build our own world - the world of culture.

In the world of culture, things take on value: pairing becomes marriage, the spirit becomes God, the birth of a male child becomes a covenant, taking becomes theft. Through the legal system we distinguish between killing, murder and self-defense, between what is allowed and what is forbidden and between good and bad. We manage to create all these wonders through the relevant cultural institutions and their rules. In the field of sports, we admire the strong and the fast. In the field of culture defined as art, we create and consume things that charm, attract and excite us. Works of art charm us thanks to a special, central and basic value in the field of culture - the beautiful.

What is beauty?

Since the days of Greek philosophy, beauty has been considered a fundamental value in human life, and art - the field in which beauty is represented. To this day, most of us believe that beauty is the main value in any artistic field. In art, the beautiful takes precedence over values ​​such as the true, the good, the just and the like. However, the debates about the nature of that fundamental, but elusive value, began even then, with the first Greek philosophers, and have not ended to this very day.

In many encyclopedias you can find definitions of the concept of "beauty" in terms similar to the following: "Beauty is a property of an object (including living objects)... which, due to its configuration and organization, causes a person to experience pleasantness and attraction. For the most part, beauty is defined as a characteristic of a structure that has balance, symmetry, proportion and harmony between its various components."

According to popular belief, beauty begins in nature. The world around us has a tendency to organize itself in a harmonious way, that there is no other way but to describe it as "beautiful". The explanation is, of course, Darwinian. Beautiful and eye-catching flowers develop in order to attract insects, which will pollinate them and spread them over the earth. Researchers state that plants that "waste" considerable resources in creating geometric structures and colors, are actually giving information to insects about the quantity and quality of nectar.

In animals things are similar. A significant number of males beautify, especially during the breeding season, so that the females will want to continue passing on their genes. It is commonly thought that male beauty represents strength and power, which are to ensure protection for the female, while female beauty represents fertility, which is important for males in the process of passing on their genes. Zvi Yanai writes in his article "The Secret of Beauty", that beauty and symmetry in the natural world are a marker of genetic normality and physical hygiene.

Yanai makes the mistake that we all tend to make - he assumes that values ​​originate in nature. He assumes that beauty is a natural thing. I accept the argument that symmetry and other traits do serve as an indication of genetic normality. But this does not explain beauty; That explains attraction. A common mistake confuses beauty with sexual attraction. This error stems from the explanation that the origin of values, for example beauty, is in nature. Since I argue that this is not the case, I will try to offer answers to the questions, what is beauty? How does he attract us? And if nature does not create it, who does, and how?

I offer the following definition: the beautiful is the one who embodies and demonstrates the inner logic of his world. Let's watch a football game for a moment - a whole cultural world with its own rules. The moves carried out within it are not random and arbitrary. The rules of the game regulate the activity on the court, almost like the laws of nature in the physical universe. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the laws of nature and the laws of football - we determined the rules of the game ourselves and we can change them at will; But for now I just want to clarify, that the activity carried out in the world of football is not casual and random, but regulated and legal.

The "order" we see in the conduct of the game stems not only from the fact that it has rules, but also from the fact that the rules create a system. What is the difference between a set of rules and just a collection of rules? The answer is that a set of rules has something more that a mere collection of rules does not. This "something" attributes all the rules to each other and is a key to understanding what connects them. I call this "something" "internal logic".

The soccer game is a world in itself, because it is a framework for an activity that has an internal logic. We will also discuss this vague concept, "internal logic", since it is at the heart of my proposal here. Right now I would like to claim that there is a real and clear reason why when we see the striker's amazing scissor kick, which sends the ball between the two defenders, a few millimeters from the goalkeeper's fingers, into the upper right corner of the goal, we all as one man jump to our feet, wave our arms into the air and shout: "How beautiful!" In the right circumstances and with the right execution, one kick can contain within its reach all the wisdom of the football world. One kick may demonstrate the point, the inner logic, the "what it's all about". Such a kick is called a beautiful kick.

Each genre has its own beauty

What is true for the world of football is true for any cultural field. A successful argument in court may excite us. A brilliant move in chess lifts our spirits. A passionate history lecturer who leads his audience to a new understanding gives us a wonderful sense of satisfaction. These are all beautiful things. They are beautiful, because they embody and demonstrate to us the inner logic of the world in which they take place - the world of law, the world of chess and the world of academia.

Still, the concept of beauty has always been linked to the world of art - a cultural field whose main concern is the concept of beauty and its expression in various tools and means. Throughout history there have been ups and downs in the relationship between art and beauty, but precisely the impressive variety of art types shows us that beauty is not a general quality one way or another. Beauty is neither symmetry nor asymmetry. He is not one or another proportion. It is also not a balance or, alternatively, a violation of balance. From the multitude of artistic fields we learn that each genre has its own type of beauty.

And hence, the exact proposition I want to put forward is: what is considered beautiful varies from field to field and from one artistic institution to another. I repeat: what embodies within him and demonstrates to us the inner logic of his world, is the beautiful.

Let's enter a little into the world of art. An impressionist painting is beautiful if and to the extent that it embodies and presents to us the inner logic of its world - that is, of the world of French impressionism (a dominant artistic movement in the middle of the 19th century).

So, in order to determine whether any impressionist painting is beautiful, must one first understand the inner logic of impressionism? I think so. But the logic of impressionism must be learned; It is not obvious. Monet proposed it, Pissarro tested it, Manet argued with it, Renoir pushed it to the limit... It is not a simple matter to invent an internal logic for an artistic genre. However, since it is already formulated, there is not much difficulty in learning it.

Crane to points of light and back to the landscape

At the foundation of the impressionist conception is the idea that the painting should be a plastic imitation of the physiological vision process. In simpler terms, this means that the drawing and the eye will work more or less the same way. To the best of the impressionist painters' understanding at the time, when a person stands on the bank of the river and observes the landscape, the light from the objects that make up the landscape enters the viewer's eyes and breaks up into points of colored light on the retina. The landscape passes as physical information, broken down into points of light, absorbed through the visual system and passes to the brain, where, in the process of processing, the information broken down into points is assembled back into one whole. When the process is complete, the viewer experiences the "view".

The idea of ​​the Impressionists is this: if we imitate in a painting the physiological action of vision as it exists in nature and was described above, then a person who looks at the painting will have the same kind of experience that he would have if he himself looked at the landscape. They called this experience "impression".

So, the impressionist painter stands on the bank of the river and looks at the landscape. Just as the light from the details of the landscape breaks down into points of light on the retina of the eye, so the painter breaks down the image of the landscape into individual points of color on the canvas. This logic of imitating the process of vision explains a great deal to us regarding Impressionism. For example, the fact that impressionist paintings are all composed of discrete brushstrokes, and one can easily see the painter's brushwork - touches of color on the canvas are equivalent to points of light on the retina of the eye.

This logic also dictated a similar way of painting. Trees, sky, water, a woman's body, rocks - all these were painted in the same way and received the same treatment with the brush of the impressionist painter; Everything was broken down into discrete touches. This is how you can understand why there are no lines in the Impressionists.

Simply because there are no lines on the retina of the eye either. It is said, therefore, that an impressionist painting is beautiful, to the extent that it embodies and demonstrates to our eyes the impressionist logic.

Nature imitates art

If my claim is correct, then art embodies and demonstrates to us the inner logic of things. Every artistic genre has its own internal logic. In classical painting we see the world through idealistic glasses. In romantic painting we see the world and ourselves in terms of opposite and complementary forces, which struggle to reach harmony. In realistic painting we see the natural world as a reality that exists "at eye level", without idealizations and without romanticizations. Each genre has its own internal logic, therefore each genre has its own beauty. However, the essential principle of the beautiful remains the same in any case: the one who embodies and demonstrates his inner sense, is the beautiful.

And this leads us to a surprising move, which was made by Oscar Wilde. In a fascinating essay from 1891, called "Intentions", Oscar Wilde develops a thesis about the beautiful, which on the face of it seems quite delusional. Wilde claims that more than art imitates nature, nature imitates art.

Wilde claims that until Monet and Pissarro painted the typical London fog, the fog did not exist at all. "Things are because we see them, and what we see and how we see them, depends on the arts that have influenced us... Now, people see nebulae not because they exist, but because poets and painters taught us to see the mysterious beauty of these effects. There may have been fogs in London for centuries. I imagine there were. But no one saw them, so we didn't know anything about them."

Wilde does not think that Monet and Pissarro created the London fog. But he does claim that until the artists showed it to us, we didn't really see it. I think this is an amazing insight from a person who lived 100 years ago and is not well versed in the ins and outs of postmodern philosophy. In the terms I propose here, I would say that the artists who show us the beauty of things through successful works, actually show us the inner logic of the things they describe. "Looking at something is very different from seeing it. You don't see the thing until you see its beauty. Then, and only then, the thing really exists," Wilde wrote.

This is a wonderful sentence, and what Wilde is saying, in my terms, is that art teaches us to see the face of things through their inner logic. The more art shows us things in a more beautiful way, the more the inner logic of things becomes clear to us. This, I believe, is exactly what he meant when he said that "you don't see the thing until you see its beauty". To see the beauty of something - means to understand its special logic. To see the beauty of a kick in a football game is to understand the logic of the game and actually experience it. To see the beauty in impressionist painting is to understand the logic of impressionism and to feel it in Pissarro's brushwork and Renoir's light.

If so, we can say this: to see a beautiful sunset is to understand and experience the inner logic of nature. That's why we're excited, right? Not true, says Wilde. It is not nature that moves us. The ability to see a beautiful sunset and be moved depends on the arts that we have come to know and internalize - arts that have taught us what a beautiful sunset looks like. It is not art that imitates nature, says Wilde, but nature "imitates" art.

see sunset and die

To say that I know the inner logic of impressionist painting, is to say that I know what a proper and beautiful impressionist landscape should look like. By the same token, to say that I know the inner logic of a sunset is to say that I know what a natural and proper sunset should look like. Where do I get this knowledge from? from the world? From nature? I think not.

This knowledge already exists in our picture of the world, and this picture of the world is drawn for us by the agents of our cultural institutions - mainly by science and art. We learned what beautiful sunsets are from beautiful paintings drawn for us by the great painters. Romantic painters, such as the English William Turner and the German Casper David Friedrich, are the ones who determined for us what romantic sunsets are and what a setting sun is.

The luminists (an American romantic current, also from the mid-19th century) contributed a lot to shaping the popular perception in the West of "what is a beautiful sunset". A romantic worldview has its own internal logic, according to which the world is driven by opposing forces in a constant dialectical negotiation between them. The opposing forces are sometimes male and female, sometimes heaven and earth.

In the romanticism of the 19th century, one of the most common dialectics, one of the constant tensions, exists between nature and man. The romantic strives to achieve harmony between the forces. In the romantic view, nature is vast, terrifying and awe-inspiring. According to this logic, a sunset would be grandiose, full of energy of light, burning... Isn't it possible that we learned to see a sunset with romantic eyes through such paintings?

Could it be that in a very important sense we have learned to see the logic of gray London through Pissarro's eyes? And maybe we learned to see the logic of sunset from Turner? And the true logic of the water lily by Claude Monet? If this is the case, what healthy power do the men of art have, who become almost gods! Many thinkers, from Plato to Delembert and the encyclopedists of the Enlightenment, did fear this power. Judaism was also afraid, and rightly so. The power of the artist's "creation" is impressive and may lead to a kind of adoration and idolatry. The fear always turned out to be exaggerated. Artists (as well as scientists) do not create reality; They only give it meaning and interpretation within their cultural institutions.

This understanding allows us to close the circle: a beautiful sunset will be the one that embodies and demonstrates the inner logic of nature. But we do not recognize the internal logic of nature; We don't really know how nature works. That is why we have theories and hypotheses, which are organized into a picture of the world.

In the course of time the hypotheses, as well as our picture of the world, change many times. In each period and in each genre, different types of images were created - classical, idealistic, religious, romantic, materialist, mechanistic, quantum - each image has its own internal logic. We project these images onto reality, onto nature. Our science explains the picture of the world we construct; Our art shows it to us.

Art shows us the supposed inner logic of nature. Therefore, a beautiful sunset will be the one that embodies and demonstrates to us the inner logic of sunsets according to our understanding. What we understand, we learned from art. Art shows us sunsets according to a certain logic - for example, Turner's romantic sunset. When we see and recognize a similar thing in nature, we see it as a dome.

I think Wilde knew what he was talking about. Over countless generations we have put the cart before the horse. It is not art that imitates nature. On the contrary, nature imitates art. There is no natural beauty. There is no value in nature, we started the article from this assumption. Therefore, the beauty that we do find in nature, and one can see a great deal of beauty in nature, is not "natural beauty". It originates from our art and artists. We created beauty, not nature.

13 תגובות

  1. Kinai makes the mistake that we all tend to make - he assumes that values ​​originate in nature.' - The mistake is in philosophers who are anti-scientific...

    There is science and there is no science; If philosophy is anti-scientific, then there is not much point in it

  2. point
    It is not for nothing that it is said: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
    What is interpreted as beautiful in your eyes, is what your brain has decided according to how the 'ties' within it have been 'tied'.
    Although there is a consensus (because human minds are similar. but not identical) that beauty is 'hidden' within symmetrical patterns, but at the same time, it is the difference between minds that causes the small differences in people's taste towards a certain thing.

  3. Everyone has a different level of complexity and if he deciphers it he will say it is beautiful.
    In any case, it is difficult to see how the beauty of illumination or brilliance is related to the beauty of a woman. Why would one woman be beautiful and her friend who has a XNUMX cm long chin already be considered ugly?

    The answer is that this is how our brain is structured, there is no internal logic there but a collection of random processes that could easily have developed differently and then the ugly might have been considered beautiful and vice versa.

  4. Ohad:
    I suggest you also read theAn article I wrote on a similar topic.
    A significant part of the feeling of beauty is the "fun" we have when we recognize patterns.
    That's why studying actually has a great effect because during studying we learn new patterns and therefore it's easier for us to recognize patterns in works that include a pattern we've learned.
    This is very evident in our musical preferences which are greatly influenced by the cultural background to which we were exposed.

    Host of the Universe:
    Maybe if you read What I wrote on a similar subject You will understand better.

    Read the book "The Golden Cut" by Mario Livio and you will see that this whole link between the ratio of gold to beauty is an urban legend.

  5. I did not understand the reverse logic offered in this article. Even a savage who has never visited a museum and never seen a picture in his life will be able to hug the savage next to him and be amazed by the sunset, or a waterfall. Humans can and do appreciate beauty, and all that remains is to return to thinking that will try to determine how to define it.

  6. An interesting point of view. I don't necessarily agree with everything, or maybe I didn't understand. But in parallel to what was said, beauty is a completely subjective thing, since it depends on our ability to process and give meaning to things. For example, it is easy for me to see beauty in simple physical phenomena (such as the return of an echo from a nearby building), but not everyone is equipped with these tools. Therefore I agree with the assertion of the ability to see and identify things, although I do not necessarily agree that they arise from previous knowledge and what we have been educated on.

  7. Mirom, the sandals are ugly, really, it's true they are very useful and comfortable and fit the foot well, but that doesn't help them look beautiful at all in my eyes, even a cockroach has an internal logic and it's still incredibly ugly, the shape of a patent flyer also reveals a lot of internal logic, but you haven't heard yet Someone says the phrase - "It's as beautiful as a patent flyer"
    In my opinion, the reason something is beautiful or ugly is not only (if at all) the fact that it reveals some kind of inner logic to us

  8. Um... I don't think so
    What inner logic explains the flower to the bee?
    There are some really ugly things, like the sandals I bought, which have a great internal logic

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