How should we think about beauty? Most of us do think about it, if not overtly no less frequently. Beauty is a common feature of our existence and a common reference of our praise. We praise the beauty of art, of sunsets, of poems, and of lovers. But how do we decide which things are beautiful and which are not? This is not a simple question to answer, rather it is one that has challenged philosophers since the dawn of philosophical inquiry. In his “very short introduction” Roger Scruton suggests a path for ascertaining true standards for beauty, while covering a rather astonishing diversity of subjects. This concise book gives readers a broad introduction to all the various components of a philosophy of aesthetics.
The book does not so much offer us a definition of beauty, as a pathway for thinking about our judgments of the beautiful. For Scruton beauty is determined by two elements: (1) consensus, and (2) disinterest. Following Kant, he argues that on the one hand we are seeking agreement in our judgments, and on other hand we are seeking the object itself, not what it might do for us. He writes:
When our interest is entirely taken up by a thing as it appears in our perception, and independently of any use to which it might be put, then do we begin to speak of its beauty. (14)
In particular, Scruton connects our judgment of beauty to contemplation. Disinterest arises from contemplation of the thing in itself and the pleasure we take in that contemplation. Again, he writes:
…we call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its present form. (22)
These principles become foundational for Scruton’s description of standards of beauty.
The book unfolds by looking at a variety of things that we may call “beautiful.” It examines “human beauty, as an object of desire; natural beauty, as an object of contemplation; everyday beauty, as an object of practical reason; and artistic beauty, as a form of meaning and an object of taste” (p. 124). Scruton explores sexual desire, the role of function, and taste as part of his analysis. He interacts with a variety of philosophers, discusses music, painting, and architecture in this very short introduction as well. For its brevity there is no lack of breadth.
Of particular interest is the manner in which Scruton connects beauty to morality. The rational basis for judgments of beauty is grounded in the desire for “fittingness” or “order” in our world. A door frame may look more or less “right” to us. The design of buildings on a street too may be well-balanced or possess an obtrusive an unnatural feature. A piece of music too may resolve “rightly,” to our ears. Such judgments, though manifesting as a sense of taste, are actually grounded in a universal and objective desire for “harmony.” Three chapters in the book devote themselves specifically to the relationship between art and morality. Here he discusses how good taste is ultimately rooted in the moral character of the critic. He then explores how both pornography and, in his opinion, post-modern art pervert beauty. These chapters are compelling and convincing in many ways. Even where more informed readers will question some of Scruton’s conclusions and assertions, they will find good reasoning and often unique approaches to the subjects at hand.
Beauty is intended to be an accessible primer on philosophy of aesthetics. As such readers will be encouraged to find a much broader approach to beauty than merely an interest in artistic expression. As a primer it is rather broad in its discussion and diverse in its interests. Certainly the chapters on art take up the most space, but there is still a wealth of interests covered in this exceedingly short work (164 pages, but the pages measure only 4½ by 6¾ inches). Even while there is certainly room to develop the content here more fully, and there are some questinonable assertions, this is an excellent introduction to aesthetics. I highly recommend Beauty: A Very Short Introduction to interested readers.