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Friday, October 21, 2011
The Possession and Recognition of Beauty
I have here a treat for all of you who have diligently been following my blog. You may not know, but I am currently a Psychology & Philosophy double-major at Stony Brook University. The psychology is for career purposes; the philosophy is for pleasure. The treat (which you may not all think of as a treat) is, instead of giving you all a mere excerpt, I am posting an entire philosophical paper I have spent most of the day slaving over. It is called "The Possession and Recognition of Beauty" and deals with my own theory on beauty. I make reference to several well known philosophers within the text and its considerably thorough. Its pretty extensive, so rather than attempting to summarize it, I'll just let you all take a crack at it. Let me know what you think by sounding off in the Comments section or by responding on the Facebook page/group. Enjoy!
The Possession and Recognition of Beauty
by The Sven-Bo!
Concerning the section entitled Love of Beauty of Plato’s Symposium, I do not think that beauty is some superior, absolute, pure concept or entity, independent of any particulars. Indeed, there is a saying I have adhered to that occurred to me in my teens: “Beauty is not defined by those who perceive it – it is defined by those who possess it”. The gist of such a quote is in direct opposition of the classic, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. George Berkeley famously wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, “To be is to be perceived”. So too might the acquisition of beauty – that is, the subjective observation, acceptance, recognition or assertion of beauty – be dependent upon our ability to perceive it, such that beauty does not exist independent of perception. This, of course, compliments the “eye of the beholder” argument.
However, the perception of beautiful objects is vastly more subjective than the perception of mere objects, for there appears to be more general consensus when perceiving a common object, while the perception of beauty within that object is much more variable. I do not speak here of mere objects as Martin Heidegger does of mere things in Thing and Work, but objects generally that do not invoke beauty. Certainly, the man who collects pens perceives the pen with a certain degree of beauty that someone who is equally familiar with pens (though perhaps not as intimately) may not himself perceive. We can of course argue that any object has the opportunity to be perceived as beautiful, something Immanuel Kant seems apt to accept. Yet, even the man who collects pens holds certain individual pens with a somewhat heightened degree of beauty than others, though it can be said he finds the form of the pen beautiful (if we are to invoke Plato’s theory of Forms, though these forms lie beyond human experience). Kant will argue in Artistic Genius that beauty lies neither in the object that invokes nor in the person who judges beauty, but in the universal experience of beauty. Beauty, than, seems independent of the particular.
Nevertheless, I believe beauty is dependent upon the particular. To disregard perception for a moment and to focus instead on the object as an object, every composite in the universe (or any object composed of particles) is unique, for no two objects, no matter how similar in dimension or appearance, are ever exact representations of one another. No two objects in the universe contain the same atoms of matter! To draw a more familiar inference, in the case of human beings, though two individuals may share the same DNA sequence (monozygotic twins), their personalities differ, the scars they acquire in the course of their existence are randomized, and memories, experiences, mutations, and ailments never coincide. Even emotions or experiences that in our swoon we call beautiful have a chemical basis within the brain and are unique, for they are released in an instant and are recycled or destroyed in another, with each burst never the same as the last nor the next.
To speak of perfection, these purely individual aspects attest to the perfection of each object, for no other object is an exact replication of any other object, and therefore represents the singular representation of itself, making it perfect. The beauty that is contained within each individual object is than likewise uniquely composed, for each part may indeed be somehow beautiful, but when brought together to form the object as a whole, they simultaneously construct its unique beauty, for individually they cannot represent the object – that is to say, the perfection of an object as evidenced by its singular construction attests to its particular beauty.
If one conforms to Plato’s theory of forms mentioned before, they may point out that the true beauty of an object as a whole lies with its Form or the idea of the object contained in true reality beyond our sensuous experience. Each individual part, so also conforming to its corresponding Form, possesses a singular beauty as well. We, being creatures trapped in a sensuous world, are subject to its confinement and cannot access the true beauty of an object, but can only infer it subjectively, leading to inconsistencies. To challenge this, I would present the possibility of an object that is ambiguous in form. We may be able to recognize certain aspects of the object, but as a whole we cannot even grasp what the object is; there is disagreement of what we are looking at. This is the case with many contemporary art sculptures. We cannot agree on what the object is or what it depicts, and yet we can still find the object beautiful. A counterargument may be that the object’s true Form exists and that we simply cannot access it and its beauty, but than how can we access its beauty if we cannot access what the object is, for in true reality I would imagine its beauty and its Form to be synonymous? Once more, we are left only with the object and its beauty.
To return to the role of the observer, the recognition of beauty appears entirely subjective. However, as Elaine Scarry attests in her On Beauty and Being Just, there are moments when an object formerly perceived as non-beautiful suddenly becomes illuminated and is seen as inspiringly beautiful. Even Heidegger, writing in The Work and Truth, writes that, “Beauty is one way in which truth occurs as unconcealedness”, where truth is conceived as a kind of revealing of the true nature of a thing (perhaps Plato’s Forms). This suggests to me that the unique beauty possessed by the object of perception has existed since the existence of the object and the observer’s recognition of that beauty is evoked by some illumination or sudden realization on the part of the observer. But what of instances where the beauty is lost? Once more, the recognition of beauty within an object may fall out of favor due to changes in the perception or preference of the observer. Kant’s testament that beauty is really the shared experience of recognizing beauty may have something to say here.
Yet, there appears to be a difference between a declaration of beauty and the experience of beauty. Certainly, anyone can call something beautiful, but is my experience of beauty identical to anyone else’s? Do I experience beauty in the same manner as the next person? When I recognize a flower as being beautiful, that is not the same beauty with which I recognize a car. Though they may both be blue, even the same shade of blue, and I may recognize the blue as a beautiful aspect of both objects, my experience of the blue of the flower and of the blue of the car is not the same, for the blueness of the flower belongs to the flower and is dependent upon the flower and the blueness of the car belongs to the car and is dependent upon the car. The characteristics that make an object of beauty beautiful are dependent upon the object of beauty. In a like manner, my experience of beauty is dependent upon my ability to experience it, as Barkeley wrote. Similarly, I cannot collectively experience the beauty of one car and another car, even if they are identical, and the same goes for flowers. If I eventually no longer find a particular car or flower beautiful, my experience of that beauty has been lost. If sometime later I again find the former car or flower beautiful, I cannot experience the same experience of beauty as before, but a different experience of beauty, though the beauty remains identical. All of which is to say that Kant’s universality of the experience of beauty is flawed due to the transient nature of the recognition of beauty.
For we as objects in nature as well are subject to change and decay just as the objects of beauty are. We are reborn in every instant, such that I am not the same man as I was when I began this essay; indeed, when I began this sentence; indeed, when I began this word! We are changing in each and every moment, our beliefs evolving, our emotions maturing, our knowledge growing vaster, and our fears smaller. Our acceptance and acquisition of beauty, therefore, is likewise subject to change, thus we lose the recognition of some beauty to gain or even regain others (though not the same recognition as before). In like manner, stone erodes, wood molders and colors fade, abandoning the beauty they once possessed. And yet, the beauty that is lost gives way to a new beauty. The object is no longer the same, its pieces fallen away, and thus the beauty is no longer the same. The beauty of the dilapidated mansion is not the same as the beauty of its prime. The relationship between our continuing acquisition and recognition of beauty and the ever-changing nature of beautiful objects, ebbing and flowing through one another, gives rise to this notion of beauty as subjective, non-universal, and “in the eye of the beholder”.
As has been mentioned, multiple layers of beauty may be found within the same object of perception, but these multiple layers cannot equate to the beauty of the whole. Though an object may be seen as beautiful for certain aspects, those aspects may fall out of favor within the observer and the beauty lost, while the observer may discover or rediscover later other aspects of the same object that rekindle, though different, an awareness of beauty. Yet, the beauty of the entire object and each aspect remains untouched, and if the observer cannot regard the object as beautiful as a whole, than it has been lost to them. There appears to be than both a possession of beauty within the object independent of the observer (as well as other objects) and a subjective awareness of beauty on the part of the observer at play in the recognition and possession of beauty.
Objects as a whole are beautiful by means of their construction as composed of atoms found no where else in the universe. Each individual component of an object may be perceived as beautiful, but cannot singularly attest to the beauty of the object, only collectively. Each object as a singular representation of itself is, by virtue of that fact, perfect. Any change in an object is accompanied by a change in its beauty, for it no longer represents itself but something else, which is itself a singular representation of itself, and is therefore perfect (though in possession of a perfection that is not identical to its former self, which has been lost along with its beauty). We, as creatures who are continually in a state of change, are continually opening up to and closing ourselves off from the beauty of objects, are becoming aware of certain aspects (and thereby their beauties) within an object and the beauty of an object as a whole due to the changes within us. The beauty, however, both of the pieces of an object and the object as a whole, remain untouched and immaculate. So too is the perfection of the object.
The role of the observer, than, is learning to recognize the beauty that exists in all things, both individuals and objects. Each person is beautiful in his or her own rank. Rank indeed, for even the flaws, the mistakes, the negative acquisitions of the individual contribute to their beauty just as much as the goodness, the serenity, and the benevolence. As cliché as the declaration may seem, we are each unique in our construction; the combinations of human characteristics are infinite. So too is each object, whether its art, nature, a structure, or a piece of rubbish, every object that exists and has existed contains within it its own beauty and perfection that we rarely ever observe in its entirety. Perhaps, for a fleeting moment, we do, but it never lasts – still the beauty of the object remains eternal. It is never changing, until the object changes, whereupon it dies and a new beauty is born, like nothing else before or since. Our responsibility as observers of beautiful things is to recognize the beauty that is contained within all things. It is not a selfish act, it is not what is beautiful to us, it is recognizing beauty in general – it is learning to accept, respect, and appreciate the beauty that exists within each and everything, alive or otherwise. That is the challenge; that is the secret to the possession and recognition of beauty, for "Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is in that which can be beheld".