A Little Bit About Aesthetics

To say that an object is beautiful or ugly is seemingly to refer to a property of the object. But it is also to express a positive or negative response to it, a set of aesthetic values, and to suggest that others ought to respond in the same way. Such judgements are descriptive, expressive, and normative or prescriptive at once. These multiple features are captured well by Humean accounts that analyse the judgements as ascribing relational properties. To say that an object is beautiful is to say, in part, that it is such as to elicit a response expressing pleasure in certain observers. The observers in question must not be ignorant, biased, insensitive, or of poor taste, and they must not base their evaluations on aesthetically irrelevant properties of the subjects they judge” (Goldman, 1990).

Aesthetics is a word which is used a lot within an art context. We commonly hear phrases telling us a painting has a particular aesthetic, indeed my project aims to explore the “painterly aesthetic” seen in 17th century Dutch paintings.

But what exactly does the word “aesthetics” mean? I think a relatively small number of people actually have some knowledge in this area, and could provide a decent, credible definition of the word – it is after all, a very complex and specialised branch of philosophy. I also think it’s a word that a lot of people hear, and then repeat, without really going back to basics and doing some research to establish the meaning – I think it “assumed” knowledge.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms defines aesthetics accordingly:

“The philosophy of the beautiful in art and “taste”. The present usage of the term originates from its adoption in 1735 by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten to distinguish the study of the sensory, the beautiful, from that of logic, the study of reason and intellect” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms, p. 5)

The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definition:

“The philosophy of the beautiful or of art; a system of principles for the appreciation of the beautiful, etc.; the distinctive underlying principles of a work of art or a genre, the works of an artist, the arts of a culture, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2017).

So, we have at least established that “aesthetics” is three things: “the philosophy of the beautiful”, “a system of principles”, and “distinctive underlying principles”.

Sibley suggests that aesthetic qualities, such as grace, power, balance and originality, require “taste” on the part of the observer in order to be ascribed to an object (Sibley in Goldman, 1990). However, Goldman argues that, without a knowledge of what “taste” is, this is a less than helpful definition.

Kant posited that whilst there are no universally shared principles by which aesthetic qualities are ascribed to objects, judgements which ascribe qualitative descriptors to objective properties are more universal (Kant, 1966). Kant goes on to suggest that because the pleasure derived by “disinterested observers” (i.e. those deemed not technically qualified, or educated, to make philosophical judgements) is based on commonly held human faculties, the ability to ascribe aesthetic qualities should also be commonly held – in essence, there are no guiding principles. An objective property, universal to all beautiful objects, does not exist. To determine whether an object is, or is not, beautiful, pleasure must be derived from perception of the object.

What of “taste” as referred to by Sibley and the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms?

Sibley’s usage of the word seems to suggest that taste is a sense, present only in limited circumstances, in addition to the standard five senses.

Alternatively, taste might simply be interpreted as meaning a sensitivity to aesthetic properties.

Taste, however, can also suggest that an ability to perceive all the non-aesthetic qualities of an object is not, by itself sufficient to judge the aesthetic qualities of the same object: to perceive an object’s aesthetic qualities, one must first perceive the non-aesthetic. The ability to perceive non-aesthetic qualities does not preclude the inability to perceive aesthetic qualities.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines taste accordingly: “mental perception of quality; judgement, discriminative faculty” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2017).

“Taste”, therefore, can refer to a predisposition to evaluate in a certain way. Ascribing aesthetic qualities to objects is relevant to our evaluation of those objects – aesthetic judgements are justified by using qualitative descriptors as a standardised reference point.

Any aesthetic qualities which are assigned to an object are relational, that is they compare the non-aesthetic properties of an object with similar properties in other objects, which may be similar or dissimilar. Such properties include structural characteristics such as tone, shape, and colour.

A comparison of physical non-aesthetic properties is, therefore, the basis, and justification for, the ascription of aesthetic qualities, which in turn is the basis and justification for aesthetic judgements. As Bender informs us “we might say that aesthetic attributions function either to offer critical evaluations of an artwork or to offer the reasons supporting those evaluations” (Bender, 2005).

Whilst aesthetic evaluations are subjective, the characteristics upon which they are based are, nevertheless, real. In philosophical terms, “real” refers to the ability to be recognised and agreed upon by a non-qualified consensus – e.g. a car is a car because that is what we are commonly taught, and it is universally agreed and accepted that a “car” will have a chassis, four wheels, an engine, etc. Recognition of such characteristics, by nature, is independent of the observer’s opinions.

The ascription of qualitative descriptors is, however, context based: “‘powerful,’ when applied to a locomotive, generally refers to a nonaesthetic property; when applied to Beethoven’s Third or Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, it refers to an aesthetic property” (Goldman, 2001).

In conclusion, aesthetics can be regarded as a system for the qualitative, if subjective, evaluation of objects – most commonly works of art. Evaluative aesthetic judgements have as their basis, non-aesthetic characteristics which are normally the physical properties of an object. The observed characteristics of an object are compared with characteristics in other similar, or dissimilar, objects – in doing so they provide a standardised point of reference. Such characteristics are “real” in that they are commonly recognised and agreed upon by non-specialist observers.



“aesthetics, n.”. OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017 [Online]. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/293508?redirectedFrom=aesthetics (Accessed 08 April 2017).

Bender, John (2005) ‘Aesthetic Realism 2’, in Levinson, Jerrold (ed.) ‘The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics’. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Clarke, Michael (2010) Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Oxford University Press

Goldman, Alan (1990) ‘Aesthetic Qualities and Aesthetic Value’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 28, No. 1 (January 1990), pp. 23 – 37 [Online]. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2026797

Goldman, Alan (2001) ‘The Aesthetic’, in Gaut, B. and McIver Lopes, D. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. London: Routledge

Kant, Immanuel (1966) Critique of Judgment. Translated by J. H. Bernard. New York: Hafner

“taste, n.1”. OED Online. Oxford University Press. March 2017 [Online]. Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198050?rskey=ZIgoCw&result=1#eid (Accessed 16 April 2017)

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