Is beauty something that is objective, or something that is subjective? Or, as a more basic and a more primary question – what exactly do “objective” and “subjective” mean, in this context? And what sort of arguments would lead us to decide if beauty is a thing that is “objective,” or a thing that is “subjective?”
Those are the questions that I’d like to resolve in this post, and it is the second question that I’d like to take up first: what do “objective” and “subjective” mean, exactly, in the context of a discussion of “beauty”?
To begin with, we can say that a predicate is “objective” if it describes something about the character of an object, while a predicate is “subjective” if it describes something about the way that the object affects us (or, the way that it affects the “subject”).
For instance, “shape” is an objective predicate. When I say that a rock has a certain shape, I am describing the object, and not the way that the object affects me. Even if I didn’t exist, the rock would still be there, and it would still have the shape that it has. Thus, shape is an objective predicate, and not a subjective one.
By contrast, “sour” is a subjective predicate. When I say that a lemon is sour, I am describing the way that the object affects my tongue – how it affects me, as a subject. But, the lemon is not actually “sour,” in and of itself. In reality, the lemon just has a certain molecular structure, which causes us to feel the sensation of “sour,” when we place it against our tongue, but which might cause some other species of animal to feel a different sensation entirely, like “sweetness,” or “spiciness”. For these reasons, the lemon doesn’t have “sourness” as a part of its own being (independent of our own existence), but it is only said to be sour because it affects us in a certain way. Hence, sour is a subjective predicate, and not an objective one.
It is worth noting just how much our subjective statements look like our objective ones. For example:
“This rock is spherical.”
“This lemon is sour.”
These two statements have exactly the same grammatical structure, which can mislead us into thinking that they are each expressing the same kind of thought. But in reality, the form of the thought conveyed by the first sentence is quite different from the form of the thought conveyed by the second. For while the first is a thought about what the object is, in and of itself, the second is only a thought about how the object affects us – and not about what it actually is.
It is also worth noting that, even if all beautiful things have certain real features in common, in and of themselves, this would still not yet mean that beauty is an “objective” predicate. For to return to my example from before, it might be the case that each lemon has the same molecular structure, and that this structure is the very reason that each lemon seems to us to be “sour.” However, this would in no way imply that this structure is “sourness,” or that “sour” is an objective predicate. Likewise too, then, it might be the case that each beautiful thing has the certain features, like symmetry or orderliness,and that these features are the very reason that each beautiful thing seems to us to be “beautiful.” However, this would in no way imply that these features are “beauty,” or that “beauty” is an objective predicate. For these features might just be the reason that each of these objects affects us in a certain way – even though it is still the way that the beautiful thing affects us that makes it beautiful, rather than what it actually is in and of itself.
With that all of that said as a preface, then, the question of whether or not beauty is “subjective” or “objective” can now be re-phrased in this way: in a sentence like, “this song is beautiful,” is “beautiful” an objective predicate, or a subjective one? In other words, is “beauty” a part of the being of a beautiful thing, in the same way that “shape” is a part of the being of a body? Or is saying that a thing is “beautiful” just a way of describing how a thing affects us, without saying anything about what the “beautiful” thing actually is, in and of itself?
Now, when the question is put in this way, I believe that it is more or less evident that beauty is subjective, and not objective.
For, part of what it means to say that a thing is “beautiful” is that the thing in question pleases us, or moves us, in some way. For example, a beautiful song is pleasing to hear, and a beautiful movie is pleasing to see, and a beautiful action is pleasing to contemplate. Further, the fact that they are pleasing is not just a contingent fact – like the contingent fact that a waterfall is pleasing – but part of what it really means to be “beautiful.” For if these things were not pleasing, or if they did not move us in any way, then they could not possibly be the beautiful things that they are. Yet, this means that, in order for a thing to be “beautiful,” it must have a certain kind of effect on us, as subjects. For no matter what properties we might imagine a work of art having, if that work of art did not also please us, or move us, in some way – if it did not also have a certain kind of “aesthetic” effect on at least some of its spectators – then it would be meaningless to say that that work of art was “beautiful.” Hence, even if there are some real features that beautiful things do happen to share in common, in and of themselves, to say that a thing is beautiful still just describes how its features affect us, and not what that thing is in and of itself. Thus, beauty is a subjective predicate, and not an objective one.
Thus, when we say that a thing is “beautiful,” we are not actually saying anything about the object – about what the beautiful thing is, in and of itself. Instead, we are only saying something about how the object affects us, as a subject. But a thing cannot be beautiful, or be ugly, in the same way that it can have a certain shape, or have a certain structure.
For this reason, “beauty” is always relative to the one(s) for whom it is beautiful, in just the same way that “pleasing” is always relative to the one(s) for whom it is pleasing. For just as the word “pleasing” expresses nothing by itself, but only has meaning once it is specified for whom the thing is pleasing, so does the word “beautiful” express nothing at all, until it is specified for whom it is beautiful.
However, even if beautiful things are relative in this way – relative to the one(s) for whom they are beautiful – this does not mean that a beautiful thing could not be universally beautiful. For even if beauty is relative, a beautiful thing might still be relative to the whole human race, such that it is beautiful for every single human being. In that case, the beautiful thing would be beautiful universally, even though it would also be “relative,” in the sense that I am using that term. In other words, even though each beautiful thing is subjective, and is only beautiful because of how it affects us, there may be some beautiful things that affect all of us in about the same way – like a beautiful sunset in New Mexico, or a beautiful show of the Northern Lights. Thus, the position that I have taken here does not rule out the possibility that some kinds of beauty might be “universal.” It only rules out the possibility that he property of “beauty” could be a part of the beautiful thing itself, rather than a statement about how the beautiful thing affects us, as a subject.
That much, then, about whether beauty is objective, or subjective, and about what “objective” and “subjective” mean, as applied to the idea of “beauty,” and about how a beautiful thing might be “universal,” even though it is “relative.”