Wednesday, November 28, 2018

On The Perception of Beauty

(Rome, Feb 1, 1998, Faculty of Philosophy, Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum)


Anyone who has contemplated a masterpiece of art and felt that you could stay and gaze upon it for hours without tiring, or who has found real joy in a piece of music that seemed to elevate the soul, or found peace in the blazing symphony presented by nature in every sunset, knows that a textbook knowledge of beauty doesn’t seem to fully explain these aesthetic experiences.

What is beauty? How do we really know beauty? What are its characteristics? Is beauty really “in the eye of the beholder”, that is, only a feeling, each person choosing for himself what is beautiful? Or is it strictly objective, with known criteria?

These are some of the questions that moved me to choose this theme for my elaboratum. They pose the philosophical problem to be reflected on in this paper. The beautiful, in abstract, and in its concrete manifestations in the world around us, is intriguing to man and is one of the few things that really make a man stop and ponder a moment about something “higher” than his daily distractions.

In this study I have followed a simple outline, first introducing the beautiful and its definitions commonly stated, and its base in being. Then follows a part on our knowledge of beauty, both transcendental and perceivable, not that I wish to introduce a strict separation, but as a means to treat the theme with order. Perceivable should be understood as including sensible and intellectual beauty. I will cover a little both intuition and cognitive knowledge of beauty. Then follows an explanation of the aesthetic experience and knowledge, and some of the characteristics of a beautiful object. Then I go into a little more depth with respect to one of the means through which we know beauty, i.e., knowledge through connaturality, as mentioned by  Thomas Aquinas.

One of the interesting points that I found in this research was the lack of consensus among authors, not so much in the main doctrines, but in the finer shades of explaining them.  This leaves room for one to explore and think with a sense of personal freedom perhaps a bit wider than in other themes.

My aim, what I hope to achieve, is to put together in one paper the path available to man to know the beauty of reality, transcendental, intellectual, and sensible. Thus although it is not within the scope of this paper to go into extreme depth on these aspects, it is not because the theme does not merit such in depth research, but is due to the extension of this work.


1.1. Perceivable beauty 

Our daily experience gives us ample evidence that there are many beings which strike us as beautiful, and equally so many that lack any sensible beauty. In order to determine what it is that makes certain beings beautiful and others less so, I think we can turn to the common explanation of  Thomas Aquinas that the beautiful is, “id cuius apprehensio placet”[1] or also, “quod visum placet”.[2] The terms apprehensio and visum are to be taken in a broad sense as referring to seeing, perceiving or understanding.

In these definitions we see two aspects which reveal the nature of beauty: apprehension and pleasure. The first, apprehension, shows the relation of an object to the intellectual and cognitive faculties of man. This apprehension consists in a certain intuition of the external and internal senses, always united to the intellect.[3] It is an immediate apprehension of a singular being by contact with the senses. From the sensible species formed, the intellect then abstracts the quiddity and forms the universal concept of the object. In summary this is what is meant by apprehension. It is not only of the exterior form of the object but also of the essence.

The two go together, the pleasure is to be understood as deriving from the knowing, there is an immediateness in it. We saw that this apprehension is accompanied by a certain pleasure in the act of perceiving the object. The apprehension of the object brings with it the joy in the same object. This is the relation of the object to the senses, both external and internal, and ultimately to the will which perceives the goodness of reality. Once the object is removed the pleasure ends and is replaced by desire for the object now absent. We see that the mere idea of the object in the mind is not sufficient to provoke this joy, it must be accompanied by the apprehension of the senses. Thus we can call these the two poles of detecting the beautiful, each one referring to the other: apprehension and pleasure, or ultimately, the object in relation to the intellect and to the will. 

1.2. Transcendental beauty 

The dialectic process of the idea of being reveals a gradual series of discoveries of the transcendental properties of being, from unum to verum to bonum. The oneness of being is found in the indivision of being[4], the truth and the good are both revealed in the relation of the intellect and the will with being[5]. By integrating the concepts of true and good, seeing them united in relation to the intellect, we end the dialectic process of the idea of being in the beautiful. This relation to the intellect and will shows the roots of beauty in being, as one of the transcendental properties of being, convertible with being. In this level beings are beautiful precisely according to their existence, i.e., its act of being is beautiful in relation to the mind which constitutes the relative transcendental property of Beauty. Every being, in as much as it participates in the totality of being, is beautiful, since being as being is true and good and thus beautiful. The beautiful is the perfection and union of the transcendentals[6].


2.1. Intuition of beauty 

We look again to the definition of beautiful by  Thomas Aquinas, “id cuius apprehensio placet”[7]. By referring to the word apprehensio (as seeing, understanding, etc.)  in the definition, the perception of beauty is put in the intellectual order, for no abstraction ends in the senses. But precisely with the word pleasure (including also gaudium of the mind) it is referred to the senses external or internal, as we mentioned before, not simply as the starting point but as a required presence accompanying the intellectual activity. The perception of the beautiful is a union of the spiritual and corporeal faculties. With our reasoning abilities we can see that all things that have being are beautiful, but this is a purely intelligible reasoning. What we actually see in daily life is that some beings are actually ugly to us. For us to see the beauty of all reality would require an intuitive manner of knowing, we would have to be able to perceive intellectually the essence of the object without abstraction - as angels do. But our intellect knows only discursively, by abstraction from the senses. Our intellectual activity is always universal, based on universal concepts of the reality around us. The only manner of intuition that we are capable of as souls united to the body is that of the senses. The senses apprehend by immediate contact with their object, they “know” by intuition, without mediation. Thus by including the word placet in the definition we can say that at least on the sensible level to perceive beauty requires intuition. The mind apprehends, but united to the senses. Therefore when it is stated that the participation of the senses is necessary during the entire time we are perceiving a beautiful object, and that the understand or seeing of the intellect is the bearer of this pleasure, this means that in the perception of beauty we approach intuitive knowledge. 

2.2. Beauty and the cognitive sense 

In the study of our manner of abstraction we see that in between the senses and the intellect are the internal senses. The highest of these is what we call the cognitive sense. Considered in relation to our knowing in general, the cognitive sense is as a bridge. It is a type of “intellect” because with it we decide and choose behavior in concrete circumstances, and it is “sense” because it is the sum of the sensible experience and always remains in the particular[8]. This same faculty belongs to animals and is used by them to evaluate and appraise a given situation. In man the cognitive sense enables us to make the abstract concrete, and the universal particular. Uniting in this way the intellect and the senses, it is likened to the manifestation of being (esse) in action (agire). [9] 

If we return then to what we said about the perception of beauty being the union of knowing by the intellect with the sensible or intellectual pleasure, it is easy to see why it is possible to basically attribute almost all the aesthetic activity of man to the cognitive sense as a specific and originating faculty[10]. It is the place where the apprehensio and the placere co-penetrate each other. 

2.3. The aesthetic experience 

This aesthetic activity has its summit in the so-called aesthetic experience, the manner by which we attain the maximum cognitive harmony between subject and object. It is the experience of oneself and the object as being connatural one with the other, and more than connatural till one seems taken beyond to something higher. The object that provokes this is the beautiful. The intellect perceives the unity, truth, and goodness of an object which is present to it, but it is abstract knowledge. It perceives them by means of reflection on the idea of being and on its relation to reality. To truly “see” it we would need intuition. But in the intellectual apprehension of the beautiful, united to the intuition of the senses, we experience this intuition in as much as it is possible in this life, (although the possibility of intellectual intuition is disputable.) It is the most perfect knowledge possible to us as beings united to the body, for it complements abstraction. The senses and the intellect penetrate together; the senses become “knowing”, and the intellect “senses”[11].  Once we are separated from the body after death all of our knowledge will be intuitive, and in this sense will be aesthetic, but this enters into the area of faith.

But we are not the only participant in creating this experience. The aesthetic experience, this co-penetration of the senses and the intellect, is provoked by the object contemplated. Beauty is not simply “in the eye of the beholder” if this is meant that it is solely determined by the subject. Thus the object must be such that it simultaneously pleases both the intellect and the senses, each one finding that which is connatural with it in the object, and that which is beyond its connaturality. The intellect looks for the order and takes pleasure in the order found in the object, an order of the form of the object, the mind grasping this form. This is the objective side of beauty. But the senses find their pleasure in the diverse external qualities, and this may differ from subject to subject, due to the variation to which the senses are subjected, giving beauty its subjective side.

Thus on the perceivable level the beautiful is found in an object in which the order occurs within the qualities that please the senses[12]. (But also on the transcendental level beauty is not completely unperceivable, for nothing is so contingent that it doesn’t contain something of the absolute.) It is in this way that the beautiful differs from the good, by the addition of the truth of the object, and is thus called splendor veri or verum delectans[13].

Therefore the aesthetic knowledge, or aesthetic experience, whose object is the beautiful, and which is provoked in the subject by the object, reveals the connaturality that exists between the whole mind (intellect and will), and the whole of reality (being). Thus the subject becomes aware of his own unity when he becomes aware of his connaturality with the object[14].

At the same time the subject becomes aware of the truth and intelligibility of reality at a level that is fuller than abstract knowledge alone, since in perceiving the beautiful he “approaches” intuitive knowledge, or in our case as incarnated spirits, quasi intuitive.

It reveals also the goodness of reality because the aesthetic experience takes place in the presence of the object which provokes it, and creates desire for the presence of the object when it is removed or absent[15]. Only in the presence of the beautiful is our connaturality with it revealed or confirmed. In the following numbers I will analyze this order and pleasurable qualities that belong to a beautiful object. 

2.4. Characteristics of beauty 

Thomas Aquinas describes the beautiful object as a fusion of three aspects: integrity or perfection, proportion, and clarity[16]. 

Integrity and perfection mean free from defects and mutilation, that the object has all the parts that normally belong to it, (or that it does not have parts that don’t belong). This integrity by itself does not make the object beautiful, and even in some cases a beautiful object or work of art could be lacking some perfection due to it and still be beautiful, if the lack is such that it doesn’t impede the mind from completing the image by using the imagination[17]. Think of the Venus of Milo and other greek and roman statues, so many of which are missing parts previously in place. They lack integrity but they surely are not for this reason ugly. From this aspect of perfection and integrity belonging to the beautiful we get also the notion of the Ideal. That for which one strives for is the Ideal, conceived as the perfection of its nature, lacking nothing and thus worthy of imitation.

The proportion of the object means the equilibrium of the qualities and is often summed up in various subcategories such as symmetry referring to vision, harmony referring to audition, and rhythm referring to movement. All of these terms are then applied analogously to many objects, including the cosmos as a whole[18].

Lastly clarity is the third aspect. Clarity means a certain relation with light and thus with the sense of sight. What we perceive above all with our sense of sight, when there is proper illumination, is color, and the more light there is the brighter and more vivid the colors seem[19].

But the aspect of clarity refers not only to sight but also to the intellect. We often make the comparison of knowing with “seeing”. All intellection seeks to dispel confusion and make its object clearer, or “enlighten” the thinker. We could even say that the intellect is like an internal light, and indeed if we look to the philosophies of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas we see that there is this aspect of light attributed to the intellect. It is what they called the intellectus agens which illuminates the sensible species and makes possible the passage of an object from the sensible to the intelligible[20]. Therefore an object can also be said to have clarity if it is so ordered as to be easily intelligible.

These three aspects work together and are all interrelated among themselves within the unity of the object. They are also related to the form of the object from which they receive their existence. In this way it is seen that they have their ultimate root in the being of the object, as an essence composed of form and material. The sensible beauty has its base in the ontological beauty[21].

   [1]      ST I-II, 27, 1 ad 3.
   [2]      ST I, 5, 4 ad 1.
   [3]     Cf. A. Lobato,  Ser y belleza, Ed. Herder, Barcelona 1965, p.69.
   [4]     Cf. F. O’Farrell, Metafisica Generale, P.U. Gregoriana, Rome 1971, p.41.
   [5]      Ibid., pp. 56, 65.
   [6]      Ibid., p.93.
   [7]      ST I-II, 27, 1 ad 3.
   [8]     Cf. S. Babolin, L’uomo e il suo volto,  P.U. Gregoriana, Rome 1993, p.215.
   [9]      Ibid,. p.215
   [10]      Ibid,. p. 215-216
   [11]     Cf. F. O’Farrell, Metafisica Generale, p.88-89.
   [12]      Ibid,. p.90.
   [13]     Cf. A. Lobato, Ser y belleza,  Ed. Herder, Barcelona 1965, p.122.
   [14]      Cf. note 15.
   [15]     Cf. F. O’Farrell, Metafisica Generale, p. 91 :O’Farrell calls aesthetic knowledge the means to know the maximum extension of the transcendentales of unity, truth and goodness. The unity due to the connaturality; truth, because intuition is more perfect way of knowing than abstraction; and good, because the desire for a good that is absent is enough to verify its foundation in being. But refering to the beautiful he says that to perceive it by means of the aesthetic experience demands its presence. 
   [16]      ST I, 39, 8.
   [17]     Cf. A. Lobato, Ser y belleza, p.88.
   [18]      Ibid,. p. 93-94.
   [19]      Ibid,. p. 97.
   [20]      Ibid,. p. 98. (One could see Aristotle, De Anima III,5, 430a10 and ST I, 79, 3-5.)

   [21]      Ibid,. p. 103.