PHIL 332 Philosophy of Beauty -- Fall 2016 -- Materials -- Methods - Lecture Outlines

Instructor: John H. Brown Office: Skinner 1118B. Tel. 301-405-5702. Email: Office Hours: TTh 11:30-1:00 and by appointment. Classroom: SQH 1121. Class meetings: TTH 9:30-10:45.


1. Roger Scruton, Beauty (to be purchased)
2. John H. Brown, Theories of Beauty from Plato to the Present, in reduced form, referred to simply as TOB hereafter. Free on the web. Go to the instructor's personal internet home page at and click on the relevant items: 332 Philosophy of Beauty, Intro/Part II, Part III, etc. I recommend that you print out the assigned core text materials. You may find using legal size paper is an advantage in doing this.

Supplementary Materials:
the following files on the same website as the above contain much material from past semesters to which I will refer to from time to time, as well as new mateiral that is entered as the course progresses. In each file there is a table of contents that is updated regularly.

1. 332 Beauty Supplement

2. 332 Scruton

The character of the course

1. Presuppositions

Some basic familiarity with aesthetic criticism in some cultural domain (art, music, literature, etc.) and in life at large; and interest in enlarging that familiarity.

Interest in discovering a theoretical basis for aesthetic criticism.
Interest in historical and contemporary theories of beauty and other aesthetic values.

An open mind concerning whether beauty is a real property.

2. Basic problems of the course in a few nutshells

a. Is beauty (and aesthetic value in general) an objective reality, or is it merely "in the eye of the beholder" -- i.e. a subjective psychological response that reveals nothing about the real world?
Common formulations of the negative answer to this question:
- Everyone has his own idea of beauty.
- Beauty is entirely a personal (or individual) matter.
- Beauty is entirely a matter of feeling.
- Judgments of beauty are entirely subjective.
- What you call beautiful is merely what you happen to prefer.
- Beauty is merely a social convention, not a reality.
b. If beauty is an objective reality, what sort of reality is it, and how can it be known? In particular how is its existence related to the aesthetic pleasure felt by those who appreciate it?
c. If beauty is not an objective reality, is there any rational basis for our aesthetic preferences? Can one person's aesthetic judgment be better than another's? Can a person's aesthetic judgment improve over time?

3. Ways of addressing the problems

a. Collecting the bits of knowledge we have of the concept of beauty and of its most compelling instances, positive and negative.
b. Fashioning a coherent account of the basic "logic" of beauty.
c. Studying the attempts by philosophers past and present to produce a credible theory of beauty.
d. Working out what conditions beauty would have to satisfy in order to be a genuine reality.
e. Reviewing what is known about the world to see if those conditions are actually satisfied.
f. Exploring ways in which even a subjective beauty might be more or less rational.

4. Course requirements

a. One short paper a week throughout the semester (explained below). 50%
b. Class participation (See explanation under that title below). 40%
c. Final exam 10%

Weekly Papers

After years of standard term paper assignments, plus midterm and final essay exams, last year I tried a different scheme and the result fully justifies continuing that scheme. Grades are determined mainly by short (1-2 pages) weekly papers commenting on a topic in the reading assignment for the current week. This focuses everyone's attention on the subject that is up for discussion that very week, which should make the class much better informed than the traditional scheme did. It also encourages students to think for themselves about the material, since the instructor's views aren't yet given.

The instructor returns a written response to each paper and a grade that reflects the overall quality of the student's thought and expression. Obviously at the beginning of the course it isn't expected that the comments are based on deep knowledge. But it is still possible to judge how intelligent and thoughtful the beginner's comments are. Over the course of the semester the knowledge gained will be expected to show to advantage.

The initial papers may be supplemented by responses which are handled in the same way. The point is to conduct a conversation about the points raised in the initial papers. Grades on the papers will be revised upward where justified by later submissions.

This plan gives the student a running record of his or her performance in the course. No one will be unaware of how well he or she is doing at any stage of the course so far as written work is concerned.

Class participation

Attendance and sign-in. Attendance will be taken by a sign-up sheet. If it goes around before you arrive, sign in at the end of the class.

No laptops, no text messaging. Along with many of my colleagues I am adopting a policy forbidding operating laptops, messaging on cell phones, and in general the use of other such gear once the class has begun. The same goes for doing crosswords or reading printed materials instead of attending to the class presentation. This leaves note taking, listening to the lecture and other students' comments, and entering into discussion as the only forms of allowable intellectual behavior. We shouldn't have to lay down these rules but enough students have become accustomed to violating them that it is necessary to do so if the classes are going to be fruitful.

Since lectures will normally last for not more than 50 minutes, there will be about 25 minutes for students to discuss the problems set by the lectures and the reading in groups of four or five. The instructor will act as roving facilitator. Since each student will have written a paper (see above) on the current reading for the week, there should be no difficulty in the groups finding plenty to talk about. The lecture just given will supply other topics. Views should be exchanged and considered by the participants. Reasons should be sought to support the views put forward. A consensus may emerge or not, as the case may be. But all parties to the discussion should end the session with a better understanding of the matters discussed.


Lectures will be connected to the lecture outlines but will not try to cover all the points on them. A selection will be discussed and the rest left for students to use as prompts for papers and discussion. Lectures are open to comments, requests for clarification, display of works illustrating the points made, and so forth. Thus the lectures will not be set pieces to be absorbed by silent, scribbling auditors. Rather they will be stimulants designed to connect with auditors' aesthetic experience and facilitate coherent thought about it.

The lecture outlines are entered into the course website in this file, "Syllabus."

5. Weekly assignments

Aug. 29: TOB, Introduction down to "Ancient theories of beauty" and Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 1, "Judging beauty," through p. 13. Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's reading assignment (or in the first lecture material) by end of day Sept. 3.

Sept. 5: Scruton, Beauty, the remainder of Ch. 1, "Judging beauty." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's reading assignment by end of day Sept. 5.

Sept. 12: Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 2, "Human Beauty." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in Scruton Ch. 2 by end of day Sept. 12.

Sept. 19: Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 3, "Natural Beauty." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in Scruton Ch. 3 by end of day Sept. 19.

Sept. 26: Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 4,"Everyday Beauty." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in Scruton Ch 4 by end of day Sept. 26.

Oct. 3: Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 5, "Artistic Beauty." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in Scruton Ch. 5 by end of day Oct. 3.

Oct. 10: Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 6, "Taste and Order." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in Scruton Ch. 6 by end of day Oct. 10.

Oct. 17: Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 7, "Art and Eros." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in Scruton Ch 7 by end of day Oct. 17.

Oct. 24: Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 8, "The Flight from Beauty," and Ch. 9, "Concluding Thoughts." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in Scruton Ch 8 before class Tues., Oct. 24.

Oct. 31: TOB, Part I, "Ancient theories of beauty" and TOB, Part II, down to "Applications." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's assignment by end of day Oct. 31.

Nov. 7: Section in 332Beauty Supplement relating to James Kirwan, pp. 73-76 and TOB II, pp. 42-46 on Plotinus. Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's assignment by end of day Nov. 7.

Nov. 14: TOB, Part III through p. 8 plus the sections in Beauty Supplement on color, pp. 56-63. Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's assignment by end of day Nov. 14.

Nov. 21: TOB, Part III, down to Hutcheson's Section II: "Original and Relative Beauty." Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's assignment by end of day Nov. 21.

Nov. 30: TOB, Part III, the remainder of Hutcheson's Theory. TOB, Part III, "Hume's criteria" to p. 19 of Part III. Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's assignment by end of day Nov. 30.

Dec. 5: Beauty Supplement, items under Sense of Beauty matters through Aesthetic appreciation/judgment, pp. 83-97 plus remainder of the expanded TOB III. Submit a short paper electronically commenting on a topic in the week's assignment by end of day Dec. 5.

Final Examination: Thursday, Dec. 15, 8:00-10:00 a.m. in the classroom. Note the coursemail advisory on the various exams for different categories of students.

Final Examination

The final exam is a take-home exam to be transmitted to my e-mail address by the official date of the exam, December 15. You should copy out and sign the standard avowal of the work on the exam being yours. Then choose between the following two options:
1. Short exam (roughly equivalent to 3 brief papers in length, counting10 points out of 100 in the course grade)
            What parts of the full updated theory of beauty offered by the instructor do you think would be hard to convince serious, well-backgrounded and open-minded students of beauty are correct. By hard to convince I don’t mean impossible to convince, but parts that would meet with initial resistance. Say something about how you would go about convincing them.
2. Long exam (roughly equivalent to 9 brief papers in length counting a maximum of 25 points out of 100 in the course grade)
            Recapitulate the updated theory of beauty offered in the course, proceeding from the bottom up. Be sure to include all the details. Once that is done, proceed to answer the question posed on the short exam above.

Note 1: In both cases you need not include the part of the theory that relates to abstract beauties (math et al) since that part has not been explicitly presented to you. But your exams will be graded largely on the basis of the accuracy of your report of the theory itself in all its complexity.
Note 2: Missing weekly papers, or revisions of those papers, will be accepted though the date of the final exam, viz. December 15.

University Policies

 A student-facing page of UM policies and resources covering the various aspects of student-instructor relations is posted at:


Lecture Outlines (subject to revision a week before they apply)

Lecture 1

Prima facie reasons for doubting the reality of beauty

Long history of disagreement about beauty, individual and cultural.
Conspicuous differences of aesthetic taste, culture to culture, person to person, simultaneous and historical.
Difficulty of making another agree (or enabling another to see) that something is or is not beautiful.

Prima facie reasons for believing in the reality of beauty

Obvious cases of beauty/ugliness exist, even if many cases are disputable.
Aesthetic education seems to improve taste by broadening it and sharpening it.
Panels of expert judges are commonly used where aesthetic decisions are needed, with a good deal of public acceptance.

(Examples shown in class of beautiful humans and of imaginary ugly creatures. See also Beauty Supplement, pp. 29-35)

Bad reasons for rejecting aesthetic realism in favor of relativism or subjectivism

The following are common reasons (sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not) for the popularity of some form of subjectivism. In each case a little thought should convince you that the reason has no logical force. That is, even if the facts alleged are as claimed, they provide no evidence that subjectivism is true. The most they can do is show how tempting it is to think that beauty is merely "in the eye of the beholder."

1. Diplomacy (tact, kindness, gentility; desire for public harmony, avoiding all controversy)

2. Pedagogical benefit (encouragement of beginnners to develop preferences without worry about "correctness")

3. Confusion about facts and values ("opinions")

4. Desire for aesthetic freedom (resistance to aesthetic dictation)

5. The demands of creativity (finding "one's own beauty")

6. The irreducibility of beauty to a set of rules

7. The unattainability of absolute certainty regarding many beauty questions

8. Conviction that agreement is of little practical use.

9. Not wanting to be bothered.

What is a theory of beauty? What must such a theory do?

How does one get started in building a theory?

Course Material Website:

Plausible examples of ugly animals:

Dubuffet's off-beat beauties: See Beauty Supplement 1.4 for Dubuffet's aesthetic credo.

Lecture 2: Scruton's Beauty 1

The work is best regarded as a treasury of opinions and appreciations rather than a fully developed theory of beauty.
     Highly relevant to the theoretical enterprise.
     But no attempt is made to build a fully reasoned case for answers to the basic ontological and epistemological questions.
     Scruton does take a position on the objectivity-subjectivity issue.
          Beauty is "a real and universal value."
          Beauty is deeply connected with our "rational nature."
     And on many other important issues.
   The text serves a theoretician admirably as a set of reminders, suggestions, and challenges.
   Yet his cultural agenda needs to be kept in perspective. Movie about Scruton: Beauty and Consolation:

Preface and Chapter 1

1. Beauty's impact. How well-rounded is Scruton's opening description? Doubts:
       Lots of beauty seem to be unrecognized by cultures.
       Immense diversity of undiscovered beauty.
              Is beauty unlike other value properties in this respect?
              Not likely. And any robust realism about beauty has to bet on this (similarly for moral goodness).
      Easy/obvious beauties do have universal impact. Uglinesses also.

 2. Beauty compared with goodness and truth as ultimate values

3. Beauty as a "transcendental" value: a strictly universal +/- value.

4. Scruton's platitudes about beauty that go beyond 1-9 in Lecture 1.

5. Scruton's paradox: beauty and reasons

6. Scruton on minimal beauty: star-quality vs. workaday beauty.

Note that there are other relevant constrasts, e.g.

7. Beautiful vs. pretty, charming, elegant, exquisite, lovely, cute, good-looking, neat, suitable, fitting, harmonious, expressive, powerful, functionally excellent, etc. These combine:
                Grades of beauty
                Species of beauty
                Near relatives of beauty
Note the complexity and casualness of ordinary language, its fluidity, slipperiness, subtlety, etc. Aesthetic theory needs a technical vocabulary. (Beauty Supplement, p. 86)

8. Scruton's suggested two concepts of beauty:
                Beautiful = artistically successful
                Beautiful = purely-enrapturingly-ravishingly-consolingly beautiful (or some degree of this)
                Exemplary cases: Orlando di Lasso, Bartok, Faure. Lasso Bartok Faure

But note that reserving "beauty" for the highest grade would be theoretically ruinous.

10. Intrinsic value vs. instrumental (functional) value

11. Beauty and individuality: wanting X for its beauty. Rachel and her peach: No equally beautiful peach will do. (Is that really so?)

12. Scruton on form and function in general:

13. Scruton on form and function in architecture:

14. Scruton on beauty and the senses

15. Disinterested interest = interest in a thing "for its own sake," i.e. not for our sake. (for its qualities, for what it is, not for what it can do for us).

16. Beauty = what we can pleasurably contemplate as an individual (or quasi-individual) for its own sake and in its presented form taken as the full and final focus of our mind.

Scruton's historical discussion can be left until later when we study the history of aesthetic theory

Lecture 3. Scruton, Beauty, Ch. 2: Human beauty

Scruton's critique of evolutionary aesthetics

Lecture 4. Scruton Ch. 3, Natural Beauty

How beautiful are sunsets? How do we tell? Here are some examples:

Lecture 5. Scruton, Ch. 4, Everyday beauty

Lecture 6. Scruton, Ch. 5. Artistic Beauty

What does it take to be, or to become art? Problem cases that generate the baffled question: Can that be art?

Lecture 7. Scruton Ch. 6, Taste and Order

Scruton, Ch. 7, Beauty and Eros: how can art present an object of sexual desire as an object for contemplation and hence as beautiful?

Lecture 9. Scruton Chapter 8. The Flight from Beauty (1)

Lecture 10. Scruton 8. The flight from beauty (2)

Lecture 11. Plato's theory of beauty (1)

Lecture 12: Plato's theory of beauty (2)

The musical equivalent of Des Esseintes' extreme aestheticism: Glenn Gould playing the aria in Bach's Goldberg Variations:
Can you imagine Des Esseintes' scent and flavor organs producing comparably artful complexity?

What is the best known example of artlike cuisine? Ferran Adrià (videos); Beauty Supplement, p. 25. If this fails, try: (article)
If cuisine is capable of becoming a genuinely fine art, it will have to be like this.

Adrià's stated goal: "provide unexpected contrasts of flavour, temperature and texture. Nothing is what it seems. The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner." Also "the ideal customer doesn't come to El Bulli to eat but to have an experience."

But there seem to be basic deficiencies of structure in odor and flavor space, compared with visual and auditory property space, that affect form and content. Beauty Supplement, pp. 63-69. Of these the most pointedly relevant is the last.

So perhaps the conventional wisdom on the subject is right.
Though unquestionably cuisine of this caliber is an art of some lesser significance.

Lecture 13: Plato's theory of beauty (3): Plato's Symposium and the Ascent of the Soul to Beauty Itself; beauty and love.

Lecture 14: Plato's theory of beauty (4) -- Platonic normative aesthetics

Additional cases worth accessing re. Apollonian vs. Dionysian

Postscript to Lecture 14: More examples of Dionysian qualities.

Lecture 15: Plato's theory of Forms confronted: How to make it credible? How to apply it to beauty?

1. Questions about Plato's basic ontology


2. Questions about the ontology of beauty (assuming it is supervenient and admits of degrees)

3. Questions about knowledge of beauty

4. Major questions about Plato's normative theory of beauty

5. Master Question for Platonists: Is there a property that meets all the essential Platonic conditions for Beauty Itself?

Prologue to Lectures 16. Examples, examples.


Lecture 16. After Plato: Plotinus and the Neo-Platonic Tradition

1. Plotinus on the elusiveness of Beauty: the need for a "remoter principle" -- does this help with any of the Platonic problems? TOB, pp. 42ff.

3. What drives the Platonic instinct to "seek a higher principle"?

Lecture 17. James Kirwan on Neoplatonic beauty - Beauty Supplement, pp. 77-81.

Overture to Lecture 18, looking back to Plato's normative aesthetics:

Lecture 18. The Sense of Beauty Theory 1

Sense of Beauty basics

Lecture 19: Sense of Beauty theory 2

I. Review of the preceding: ontology and epistemology of sensory properties: points needing special emphasis:

Lecture 19. Sense of beauty theory 3: Application of the color model to the case of beauty:

Hutcheson's sense of beauty theory: Hutcheson's almost full-scale application of the color model to beauty (ontologically as well as epistemologically)


2. Filling in the argument (justifying the premises and the conclusion) -- a sketch of tasks and proposals:

3. The resulting ontological interpretation of beauty: Beauty = the disposition to elicit a beauty-response from a sense of beauty in such a way that the accuracy of the response can (in principle) be intersubjectively validated.

Overture to Lecture 20

Lecture 20: The sense of beauty theory 4

Hutcheson's normative theory: beauty is created by (the right ratio of) uniformity amidst variety

Uniformity -- sameness/similarity of certain properties or relations holding within an object or scene or event.
Variety -- number of elements (or complexity?) in an object or scene or event.

How could a change in the ratio increase the value of things (in a certain respect)?

A better idea: Variety as number of uniformities

The variety of kinds of uniformity creates serious problems in scoring overall beauty. Are all of equal importance?

Ptolemaic vs. Keplerian planetary systems

5. Optimal outcome (Hume and beyond):

Lecture 22. Sense of beauty theory 6. More about uniformity and variety.

Lecture 23. Sense of Beauty 7: Yet more about the key concepts.

Lecture 24. Sense of beauty 8. Final points, observations, and questions.

Lecture 25. Subjectivism and realism

Lecture 26. Conclusions: reminders of home truths plus applications

Back to Normative Aesthetics: kinds of beauty, beautiful aspects, etc.; more truisms about beauty

1. Individual human beauty : What makes an individual human b'ful?
        B'ful aspects, b'ful ensembles, b'ful totality
       Beauty of different aspects of persons:

  • Facial and bodily beauty (proportions, features, skin texture, hair, muscle tone etc.)
  • kinesthetic beauty (movement, gesture, etc.)
  • beauty of personality (good tempered, understanding, etc.)
  • moral beauty (beauty of character: honest, kind, etc.)
  • intellectual beauty (quick, insightful, rational, etc.)
  • Beauty of persons overall -- obvious complications when we try to sum up. Many beauties are roughly on a par.
  • Duerer's proportions and Michelangelo's David. Overhead displays.
  • Clearly unbeautiful bodily condition: anorexia
  • How beautiful can extreme obsesity be? The case of nomadic Mauretanian marriage criteria: Beauty Supplement, p.47.
  • The chief factor seems to be fat sex and marriage advantage.
  • How much appreciation of bodily beauty does that suggest?
  • New truism derived from thinking about this case:
  • New Truism 1: Beauty is not identical to, and not dependent on, sexual attractiveness or practical advantage.
  • Problematic bodily distortions: labrets (Beauty Supplement, p. 52)
  • Contrast these with genuinely good-looking tribal body décor:
  • [If this site is blocked, look up Hans Silvester photographer and look through some of the images that are displayed there.]
  • Can we suppose the people who delight in body painting and decor like this delight in the same way in the labrets?
  • Cosmetic surgery, bare face vs. made up
  • Plastic surgery gone bad:
  • What role do causal factors, cultural or evolutionary, sexual or other, have in determining what is beautiful?
  • New Truism 2: A person’s reason for admiring a thing for its beauty is never the same as the causal explanation of that admiration. See Beauty Supplement, p. 98)
  • Non-human animal beauty: what criteria apply?
  • Suggested beauty-criteria: Beauty Supplement, pp. 36-40.
  • Examples: Ppt. Ugliness in Nature; on the positive side see the beauty of disvalued creatures: on the positive side of things that are usually unappreciated:
  • Do appearances under nonstandard conditions affect the beauty of a thing? How do we determine what conditions are "standard" for different categories of things?
  • Ask what natural or cultural kind the thing belongs to. E.g. a painting: what sort of lighting is relevant?
  • New Truism 3. In judging the beauty of a thing, the category to which the thing belongs is important.               
  • 2. Event beauty (aside from the event-aspects in the above)
             Cultural events: music, dance, light shows, fireworks, etc.
                    Athletics See also Beauty Supplement, p. 26.
            Natural events: weather phenomena:
            Landscape, foliage, blossom events, seaside phenomena, etc.
    3. Mathematical beauties, e.g. neat geometrical proofs of Pythagorean Theorem, Beauty Supplement, pp. 16-17.
             Examples in Beauty Supplement, pp. 12-14.
    4. Astronomical beauties, e.g. Saturn fly-by animation:
            Unbeautiful planetary object: Hyperion, moon of Saturn; ppt. NYTimes Micro Photos 12-14.

    Many other categories of beauty remain to be surveyed: think of beauties of literature, for instance. Then those of aromas or flavors; those of architecture and the countless other divisions of design; those of games like chess; and so forth and so on.

    How to deal with the huge variety of beauties: a few pointers.

    In confronting a candidate beauty, do not fixate on the question of its overall beauty.

    Rather, ask what is beautiful about it. What beautiful properties does it have? This should lead to a close examination of its properties, to be sure one has taken them all in.

    Consider the beautiful property question as impersonally as possible, independently of what practical advantage the properties would give oneself, including one's self-esteem. New Truism 1.

    In short, evaluate it in terms of what deserves to be admired about it. Try to ascertain how admirable it is compared with the well-established paradigms of beauty.

    Do the same for properties that are not beautiful.

    In this process the default should be trust in one's positive aesthetic intuitions. But one should expect one's intuition to improve with experience.