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What is beauty?

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nderstanding the nature and meaning of beauty is one of the key themes in the philosophical discipline known as aesthetics; commonly perceived as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste. Beauty is a characteristic of a person, place, object or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning or satisfaction.

An “ideal beauty” is a person who is admired, or possesses features widely attributed to beauty in a particular culture. The subjective experience of “beauty” often involves the interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a common phrase that expresses this concept.

The composer and critic Robert Schumann distinguished between two kinds of beauty, natural and poetic. The former is found in the contemplation of nature, whereas the latter lies in man’s conscious, creative intervention into nature. Schumann indicated that in music, or other art, both kinds of beauty appear, but natural beauty is merely sensual delight. Poetic beauty begins where the natural beauty leaves off. The philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose aesthetic theory has been influential, noted that beauty seems to possess both subjective and objective qualities. Arguing for the subjective nature of beauty, he wrote, “The judgment of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.” Kant also noted, however, that when someone calls an object beautiful, “he judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things.”

In its most profound sense, beauty may engender a salient experience of positive reflection about the meaning of one’s own existence. An “object of beauty” is anything that reveals or resonates with personal meaning.

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