Beautiful Functionality

Glenn Parsons and Allen Carlson have done us a valuable service in their just-published book, Functional Beauty (FB hereafter) . In it they provide substantial groundwork for a theory of functional beauty. I want to focus on a particular, but central, aspect of their theory which falls directly under the title, namely their conception of aesthetic appreciation of functionality as being directed upon the look of fitness . For brevity I will deal only with the application of their theory to natural organisms.

Their account is built on the biological concept of a proper function of a trait of an organism, say, the wingedness of a bird. The qualifier “proper” is intended to pick out functions that belong to the organism rather than being utilities a trait just happens to serve. 1 Here is their final statement of the concept.

X has the proper function F if and only if X currently exists because, in the recent past, ancestors of X were successful in enhancing fitness because they performed F, leading to reproduction of the genotype for trait X. (FB72) 2

Thus having wings of a certain sort (plus the anatomy to make use of them) has the proper function of flight (a performance characteristic) if and only if in the recent evolutionary past such wings enhanced the fitness of their possessors by enabling their possessors to (say) escape predators, leading to reproduction of the genotype for such wings. 3 The advantage conferred on the organism depends also on relevant aspects of the organism's system and the environmental conditions. Presumably (though this is not said) the magnitude of the advantage determines the excellence of the functionality of the trait (I will refer to this as how highly functional the trait is). Leaving aside the various qualifications needed to turn this formulation into a full definition, let us take a giant step to the aesthetic payoff, namely our authors' account of the aesthetic appreciation of functionality.

Parsons and Carlson do not judge the functional beauty of an organism, say our winged creature, straightforwardly by the degree of actual enhancement of fitness contributed by the wings (that is, by their functional excellence), but by the effect of knowledge of their past functionality on the present look of the organism. When we know that a creature's wings enable it to fly and that flight has enhanced the fitness of its recent ancestors (etc.) we supposedly find that for us now the creature has a look of fitness (in a certain respect) which we aesthetically admire. (FB 45ff., 103ff., 120ff.)

Several questions immediately arise concerning this theory.

1. Why should the functionality of an individual be judged exclusively by the extent to which it can exercise its the proper functions (or looks as if it can), in view of the facts that (a) those functions refer to conditions that may not obtain at present and so not now be beneficial; and (b) that a substantial part of the functionality of an individual may not be transmissible to progeny and yet may plausibly contribute to the functional beauty of the organism?

2. Why should aesthetic admiration (discernment, enjoyment) be limited to the look of fitness (or functionality: I use the two terms interchangeably) rather than extending to fitness itself? Whatever aesthetic merit there may be in the look, what reason is there to think it greater than the merit of the actual fitness? Is there not more reason to think the merit of the look less substantial than that of the real thing? 4

3. What is needed for the look of fitness to belong to an organism? In particular what epistemic condition must the “knowledge” referred to in the statement above satisfy? In particular how genuine and how comprehensive must the knowledge be for the look to be a look that really belongs to the trait as opposed to one stemming from viewer ignorance or error?

4. How productive of aesthetic value is the functionality of an organism, whether that be actual functionality or the look thereof? Is that value rich enough and accessible enough to make functionality a full fledged domain of aesthetic value for humans, by which I mean one that admits of well-graduated and well-founded aesthetic appreciations and judgments?

My purpose is to examine the answers found in the text, consider their sufficiency in relation to actual examples, and suggest such changes in the theory as seem warranted by that examination.


Examples will help focus our thought. Particularly instructive are those where a case can be made for their constituting a true domain of functional beauty because aesthetically capable observers find it possible (in fact irresistible) to engage in well-graduated, well-founded aesthetic appreciations and judgments. I believe this condition is currently satisfied most signally by domesticated animals whose functionality is subject to demanding performance standards. High performance horses, for instance. Look up the criteria for judging horses for dressage 5 or quarter horses for stock herding tasks (cutting out, reining, etc.) and you find an impressive fund of knowledge of what traits contribute to high functionality and what traits diminish that functionality. A frequently cited example is balance. In this context balance refers most essentially to a performance characteristic, namely the ease with which an animal is capable of moving in a variety of relevant ways. Balance considered as a merit of conformation is the complex structural property that enables such performances. It consists largely of structural relations beyond those normal for the breed: the way the horse's legs relate to its hip, the way the neck joins the chest, the size and configuration of the chest in relation to the rear quarters, the way the neck joins the withers and back, and the length and form of the back, and much more that is seldom mentioned, e.g. well-developed musculature. Horses optimally configured in these respects have, other things being equal, high performance balance-potential. Green horses with that potential are the best candidates for the training required to develop high functionality under saddle and bridle in the tasks at issue. Horses less well endowed in balance can also succeed up to a point given proper training and high motivation, but their comparative deficiency in balance forces them to expend greater effort, which in turn results in quicker fatigue, lesser endurance, and over time a sour disposition. This easily translates into differential fitness (for the relevant tasks). The look of fitness which is derivable from the standard “conformation” examination is what people usually have in mind, and what our authors seem to have in mind, when speaking of the look of fitness in such a case.

It is important to realize that the conformation routine for fitness discloses more than what is observable when the horse stands at rest. How it moves at a walk and trot on a lead is a significant supplement. The latter is a partial disclosure of actual, not just probable performance, a point of great importance. 6When it comes to judging overall fitness (again by the conformation routine) experts are also influenced by the appearance of health and favorable psychological disposition (high-spiritedness, intelligence, and human-friendliness).

With our authors' stress on the look of fitness in mind, let us examine two cases. To the inexpert but interested eye the two horses shown below 7 labeled 1A-2A look equally fit, and if

that look were enough to establish functional beauty (in respect of balance), the two should be placed on a par. But the discussion that transpires about those horses makes plain that the inexpert eye is far from commanding such close acquaintance with the functional beauty relished by the expert. The first horse is rated a potential champion, the second is judged mediocre. The relevance of this to our third question is obvious. The only look of fitness that has any hope of being reliable as to functional beauty is the one garnered by the expert eye. The knowledge required for such a look is the product of extensive and painstaking experience of performances (viewed and engaged in) and of the indicators of probable performance that have emerged from the totality of that experience. The inexpert eye, even if it be aesthetically ever so refined for other beauty discernments, is unavailing.

Since the fitness of the animal involves all the factors bearing on performance, many factors not observable from the outside are required for genuine fitness. This separates actual fitness from the look even to the expert, since it is impractical to take these hidden factors into account when judging the look of fitness from, say, the conformation routine. Rather the judge assumes normalcy. 8 The look is to that extent qualified. That is, it is not the look specifically of those aspects. Another dimension of relativity concerns environmental conditions. Where the relevant ones do not obtain the judgment of actual or apparent functionality is moot.

Functional looks are therefore looks of probable functionality under a rather complex set of suppositions. A horse looking well-balanced within the conformation context entails that under those conditions it will probably perform in a well-balanced way. Such looks of fitness are fundamentally different from looks that do not depend in this way upon probabilities. 9 The sad look of a tree or the joyous-looking “dance” of buttercups in a meadow have no relation to actualities in the same property-category. (In my view these looks are still epistemically conditioned, but by a quite different order of conditions.) Arguably this category of look includes the spoilers on non-racing cars, an example given by our authors (FB 96) to illustrate how knowledge of functionality can add an aesthetic property to an object. The “racy look” imparted to, say, a Honda Accord is precisely not a genuine look of racing-fitness but at most one of racing-wannabe-expressiveness. 10 It is particularly important to recognize this difference since many take looks of the latter sort to be the only sort that can elicit genuinely aesthetic appreciation. If this is accepted then functional looks, looks based on probable possession of the property, in this case fitness, cannot be aesthetic looks, i.e., objects of aesthetic appreciation and judgment. 11 This would be fatal to the theory proposed by our authors. But as I will argue, there is good reason to resist such a narrow conception of aesthetic appreciation.

The reason our authors gravitate toward looks as the immediate object of admiration of functional beauty harks back to the supposition, entrenched in mainstream aesthetics, that aesthetic values are ones that can be immediately perceived, matters of appearance only. 12 Their position, let it be noted, is not as extreme as that strand of the tradition which relegates aesthetic experience solely to immediate sensation (or that plus imagination) as opposed to the “intellectual” or “conceptual.” For they agree that the knowledge of actual functionality has an essential role to play in our experience of functional beauty. But still, functionality per se is counted by them as a species of beauty only in a derivative or trickle-down sense. Nor is the knowledge of it in and of itself sufficient for aesthetic appreciation. The latter is only a base from which beautiful properties can emerge, specifically the look of fitness and sundry formal or expressive properties. ( Ch. 4.2) 13

For the moment let me simply point to the counter-intuitiveness of this position, judging from the testimony of expert appreciators of organic functionality; and also to call attention to the epistemic conditions applicable to looks that count with expert judges of functionality.


Before venturing further into the theoretical issues I wish to guard against a possible misunderstanding stemming from the example used above. High performing horses are domesticated animals, bred and trained for human use and managed by a human. (Still, some of their traits are subject to selection and become part of the genotype. 14) I adverted to them mainly because the available literature provides far fuller documentation of their functional excellence than can be found for any wild animal. But wild animals are no less plausibly able to be differentiated intra-specifically on grounds of functional excellence. The reason the literature is sparse is merely that humans have not cared as much about refined judgments of wild animals as they have of the domesticated animals with whom humans have special and intimate, cooperative interactions. The cheetah's hunting functionality is a good example. It might be thought that the formidable sprint of the cheetah closing on its prey is uniformly excellent. This might be plausible if the success rate were very high. But in fact it is no better that 50%. This leaves it highly

probable that there are significant differences in the performance of individual cheetahs, comparable to the performance differences among (say) cutting horses. Small differences in conformation likely have some effect on these performance traits. Accordingly it is reasonable to suppose that an individual's functional beauty will be to some extent reflected in small eminences in the relevant conformation characteristics (including the performances of young cheetahs). Of course here as with horses there are other factors affecting success, especially the skill and patience with which the animal stalks, since that will determine how long the final sprint has to be. So a careful judgment of sprinting-fitness must make allowance for these factors as well. The essential point is that it is more than probable that systematic observation of hunting by cheetahs over years comparable to what equine experts have given to horses would produce comparably refined perceptions of the functionality of individual cheetahs. And it seems unlikely that anything less than such knowledge would give one access to reliable looks of cheetah hunting-fitness at any stage of a cheetah's career, just as in the case of horses. A cheetah would qualify as having a genuinely beautiful look of cheetah-sprinting fitness in proportion to the epistemic reliability of the look. It would be (more or less) beautiful-looking in respect of sprinting-functionality and, to a lesser degree, in respect to overall hunting-functionality.

This example seems to me representative of functional beauty in nature. Peregrine falcons are formidable birds of prey yet their success rate in hunting dunlins, a small wading bird that flies low over the water, is also less than 50%, a rate that also suggests differential shades of functionality. ( Dekker and Ydenberg 2004) Any species that performs complex and demanding tasks will provide examples of the same differential functionality relative to those tasks, and the finer shades are in principle accessible to us if we take the trouble to learn the relevant (highly complex) facts. How much of a given functionality can be reflected in different looks is a crucial question for any account of their functional beauty along the lines laid out by our authors. 15


This takes me to the crucial Question 4 concerning the possibility of aesthetically experiencing functional beauty. How do expert horsepersons experience equine functional beauty? Not just by conformation examination and purely conceptual knowledge of anatomical and performance functioning. That supplies only a partial, presumptive indication. No, they spend their lives immersed in hands-on, direct experience of the complex and well-nuanced realities of dressage or other specific performance as well as in collecting a wide variety of other information, e.g., about equine anatomy, conditioning, disease and dysfunction. Much of this knowledge is perceptual in the broad sense that includes all relevant modalities. But a significant part is conceptual, without the nonconceptual specifics that only perception can furnish. But everything relating to functionality is useful.

At a given moment by far the greatest part of the knowledge that a horseman draws on in assessing balance is not concretely sensory. However, much of that part is immediately accessible to the viewer's thought and furthermore, importantly, to the imagination. The expert can quite specifically envisage the reach of the horse's legs in performance and the subsequent ease of the movements executed. Such envisagement comes spontaneously. Likewise the expert can rehearse the variables of performance within the normal balance-testing environmental conditions and can also anticipate the endurance or early fatigue of the horse. The expert knows how the horse feels to the expert rider because of having felt it personally. The envisagement is, as we might say, semi-sensory. It is delicately attuned to the immediately observable features of the animal being studied and to that extent extensively (if not comprehensively) reflective of the actual functionality the eye of the expert projects.

Furthermore an important dimension of richness consists of paradigm examples of aesthetic properties. A well-balanced horse under optimal conditions exhibits readily apparent grace, itself an aesthetic property, which is typically described in figurative language: sweetness, fluidity, lightness. Equally apparent are formal values of relations holding among functioning parts, processes, and operations. High balance-functioning is like well-integrated music.

Given all this it is hard to find any reason to doubt that typical ensembles of “knowledge” are specific enough, complex enough, and packed with enough hedonic interest to sustain aesthetic appreciation. 16


But one might ask, does this not conform to the theory Parsons and Carlson set forth? For envisagement is in large part visualization of the “expression” of the functionality. Isn't that accessing looks (sensory appearances) of fitness? Well, it is and it isn't. It is more naturally described as accessing actual and presumptive displays of functionality. Accordingly the “translation of knowledge into perceptual qualities” is in large part recuperation and projection of perceptual acquaintance with the functioning in question. Functioning entails functionality. In witnessing functioning I witness the functionality it manifests. I am thereby in contact with the reality, not just the look -- presuming I am ever in contact with any reality! Likewise, by envisaging aspects of functioning I envisage aspects of the corresponding functionality. In such a case the only limitation of my experience relative to the reality is the incompleteness and time-spread character of my various envisagements and the presumption rather than proof of their correctness in the case before me. To refer to all this as merely the look of fitness would be seriously misleading, and our authors give no indication of having anything like this in view when they speak of the look of fitness. 17

I close with a comment about the Problem of Indeterminacy, which looms large in the authors' argument. This problem arises when an organism or a trait serves a multiplicity of disparate functions to different effects, well in some cases and badly in others. (FB 49ff., 84ff.) It is thought impossible to gauge functional beauty if we are tugged in opposite directions by diverse functionalities. The authors' solution is to restrict the aesthetic judgment to proper functions, as defined above. I have no quarrel with proper functions as defined. But organisms have multiple (even myriad) proper functions and so the problem of multiplicity remains. Summation problems continue to arise when some functions are performed well and others poorly. 18 For my money the solution is to accept the essential relativity of all functions and judge beauty accordingly, whether the functions be proper ones or not. Overall comparisons of compound cases are possible in certain cases and where not, no real loss accrues. Rightly managed there is neither paradox (as when X is both functionally beautiful and ugly in the same respect) or truly disabling indeterminacy. For natural organisms the key value governing functionality at large (proper and other) is the flourishing of the individual and the species (not at all the same thing). Finally, as in assessment of beauty everywhere it is essential to attend scrupulously to the proper object of functionality: whether trait or organism or larger ecological unit (system, really). An organism's susceptibility to a predator may be a functional asset for the food chain and perhaps even for the species though not for the individual. And so forth. 19

There is more (there is always more) but it must wait another occasion.

Supplementary notes

1. Re. Aesthetic experience as nonconceptual and disinterested. Contributors to philosophical aesthetics in the 18 th century were divided as to nonconceptuality being a constraint on aesthetic experience (called experience of beauty). Hutcheson, for instance, took the internal source of aesthetic experience to be the sense of beauty, but he believed that the object of that sense might be fully conceptual, as in the case of theorems. Intellectual beauty was therefore no paradox for him. Kant divided the perceptual from the intellectual but without making a reasoned case against purely intellectual beauty, even though the latter had an honored provenance all the way back to Plato. Nor is it easy to see why Kant would think that the strong hedonic effect of the paradigms of intellectual beauty should not count as sufficient testimony to their entitlement to admiring contemplation and therefore to the epithet of beauty. This difficulty is compounded by his account of disinterestedness. In truth the enjoyment of purely intellectual beauties depends no more on personal interest than does that of decorative visual patterns, one of his stock examples of “free” beauty. What it depends on is the sense of intellectual ease and mastery induced by a beautiful proof, for instance, comparable to the sense of the sensory manifold being made for comprehension by our cognitive powers (imagination and understanding). The experience of free beauty (enjoyment of the harmonious free play of the two powers) is a forecast of that suitability. Had Kant thought through these parallels more thoroughly, likely he would have realized that his exclusion of purely intellectual beauty was unsustainable, even within the main lines of his critical philosophy. Guyer (2005, 104) envisages some such possibility in the “free play of concepts.”

Later writers, notably Schopenhauer, developed the jaundiced notion that intellectuality was purely practical in the sense of devoted to creature comforts. Concepts were thereby inherently tainted, creatures of the demoniacal Will. Aestheticians who were unsympathetic to the exact and even the physical sciences fell into line and mainstream aesthetics gravitated toward an exclusive preoccupation with sensory appearances, though not without dissenters. This result had the effect of also compromising functional beauty, since that involves (inter alia) satisfaction of a set of conceptual constraints. What the mainstream failed to appreciate is that when such constraints are satisfied in admirably ingenious and elegant ways the enjoyment derived bears all the essential marks of the aesthetic. It is not necessary for the functional aims to be viewed as personally profitable in order for them to excite admiration for the manner in which they are met and for that admiration to be finely discriminating in relation to the details of that manner.

For this reason I reject any privileging of the sensory over the intellectual (or conceptual) in theoretical aesthetics. At the same time I agree that substantiating the entitlement of intellectual “objects” to aesthetic admiration depends on genuinely aesthetic appreciation. This means that a credible story must be told of the aesthetic character of that experience, i.e. of what that experience is like.

2. Looks and looks: esp. my belief that the looks that count are those that have some claim to validity. This runs counter to the position of those who take looks to be inherently and radically subjective. Of course I do not contest the truism that lookingness-to-a-person-P is entailed by the fact that a thing looks that way to P, and that this may have no epistemic standing whatever relative to whether the thing is as it looks. Undoubted aesthetic looks include such things as the diaphanous look of mountains in the mist, which appear as if made of mist. Here the aesthetic efficacy of the look presupposes that we believe the mountains are not diaphanous but solid. Our entitlement to say the mountains really have that look may have some connection to probability (of actual diaphanousness) but it is certainly not that the mountains before us are deemed probably so. Similarly the diminutive look of people and houses seen from an airplane 2000 feet above the ground gives no reason to think they are diminutive. Other paradigmatically aesthetic looks are not just non-indicative but logically (or at least metaphysically) inapplicable to the thing which has the look, as for instance the warmth or shrillness of a color and the fury of the wind battering the house. The capacity of these looks (in the broad sense of impressions) in a suitable context to be beauty-making (or the reverse) depends on the literal inapplicability of the properties to which the looks refer. In my view it depends rather on the charm of the special exertion of the imagination in creating the impression.

Some of the looks commonly cited as being aesthetically relevant are stereotypical or emblematic. The lions emblematic of the British Empire are supposed to look fierce but noble, fair, and majestic: hence to have the look of an ensemble of performance and moral characteristics. The sculptors do the best they can to convey these qualities. Observers sympathetic to this intent may accept the look as having that content, i.e. of presenting that richly specified look. In doing so they impute specifications to the look that the image does not by itself justify. Here we have a choice. We can say that absent wishful thinking the content of the look is more generic than the emblem-makers intend. Or we can say that the content is richly specific because of the uptake achieved among the relevant population. In the latter case we implicitly relativize the look to the cultural context. In the former we deal with a more universal look. Standards of validity are correspondingly different. The essential lesson is that the provenance of the look matters.

3. In the foregoing I have contended that for an organism to be highly functional is for it to be beautifully functional. What determines the degree of functionality implied by this use of “highly?” An organism may function perfectly in relation to its ecological niche by exercising its proper functions in a species-normal way. Is that enough for it to be beautifully functional or must it meet a higher condition that sets it apart from the routine or ordinary, such are met by the elite performers I have used as examples? On this point one might claim, as I suspect our authors would, that the selection-filter is so fine that only beautifully functional species get through it. So whatever additional functional beauty may be found in elite performers, any individual that functions up to the species norm is certifiably functionally beautiful. Yet there are several lines along which one may argue against this kindly supposition. First the fact that at least 95% of all species have lapsed into extinction seems to suggest that their functionality was less than beautiful, or at the very least less than perfectly beautiful. Had it been better, would they not have survived? Some few species have survived. Does that mean that they are more beautifully functional than the ones which didn't? Also, biologists often speak with special reverence for species that are “advanced.” Hölldobler and Wilson speak thus about the eusocial species, with their elaborate social structure and sophisticated systems of communication. Perhaps then we should accord greater beauty to the functionality of these organisms. Such questions have not been fully enough explored to predict what answers will ultimately prove most satisfactory. Until significant progress is made toward that goal functional beauty will not yet be an established (functioning) aesthetic domain.

4. The organisms cited in the body of the paper are ones humans find it easy to empathize with partly because their excellences have counterparts in our own behavior. The aim and the operation are both similar. We can envisage the functioning and indeed vicariously experience it in the case of horses and cheetahs. Doing so is enjoyable in part because of its similarity to our own capabilities. It is far less easy to empathize with or vicariously experience the functioning of myriad creatures from other orders. This difficulty may be a real problem in aesthetically appreciating them. Bats are high performers we are very likely to find very difficult to experience intimately. Even worse are most insects and practically all annelids. I suspect this difference would sink any attempt to obtain high aesthetic satisfaction from the look of these creatures in the conformation situation. How compelling a look of fitness could be elicited from inspection of an ant or worm even if one has extensive knowledge of the functioning of the species in question? Perhaps part of the skepticism about functional beauty stems from the life of these creatures being so hopelessly foreign to us.

5. Beautiful functionality vs. the beautiful look of functionality. Presumably beautiful functionality is at a minimum high functionality. It is less easy to say what a beautiful look of functionality (or fitness) is. I have supposed it is the look of beautiful functionality. But anyone doubtful about the aesthetic credentials of functionality as such might seek to preserve those of looks by positing a wider separation. So the question arises whether there could be a beautiful look of a mediocre functionality. Could the beauty of the look consist, for instance, in how revealing it is, regardless of the eminence of the quality revealed? (A more cautious modification of the question would limit the candidates to looks of positive qualities, excluding looks of defects or deficiencies.) Could a cheetah be a beautiful looking specimen of moderately fast sprinting-functionality? For those like myself, who take functionality to be the primary object of beauty of this sort, this question leads on to the truly unsettling possibility of beautiful-looking sprinting-mediocrity coupled with beautiful actual sprinting-functionality. Of course a cheetah at leisure might present a misleading appearance of mediocrity while actually being a champion. (Seabiscuit allegedly did this in the field of flat racers.) But it is very hard indeed to envisage that appearance being a beautiful one. If this is so, there is reason to believe that the look and the reality are logically linked in their aesthetic aspect as follows: there can be no beautiful look of a property P unless P itself is a beautiful property. I believe this principle to be true (for properties in general, not just functionalities). This goes along with my privileging actual functionality over the look.

6. A proper analysis of functionality as an aesthetic merit must of course distinguish the sub-aesthetic basis from the value-loaded aesthetic property that supervenes upon the basis, whether beauty or some other. Challenging questions arise. Is the excellence of functionality an aesthetic property? If so, how is its sub-aesthetic basis to be defined? Quantitative measures of success can be devised for the hunting-functionality of a cheetah. Any such would, I believe, be candidates for the sub-aesthetic, strictly empirical basis, or at least part of the basis. (Here I depend on the idea that aesthetic properties are qualitative, not quantitative (Sircello 1975).) Any particular measure of overall success is likely to be controversial since it assumes answers to summation questions concerning net success when different goals are involved. Net success, in short, is not a crisply empirical property. Particular dimensions of success are more unproblematically empirical, e.g., the kill rate, the food yield, the exertion measure, the attrition measure, etc., all of them operationally defined. Stages or aspects of the hunt (e.g., stalking, overtaking, capture, killing) also have their empirical particularities. Aesthetic value properties emerge from such empirical properties. How exactly they do takes us to the most fundamental level of aesthetic theory, and I will not try to spell out the true story here. But one factor that separates the straightforwardly empirical from the aesthetic is that the latter takes into intuitive consideration the relation of the functioning in question to the well-being of the organism as a whole, in a word to its flourishing. The latter property is not, in my estimation, amenable to operationally definable empirical reduction, but is itself an aesthetic concept.


Bob Avila and Sue Copeland 2007. “How to Spot Balance in a Horse,” Horse and Rider (May 2007):

_______________________2005. “What does a horse's topline tell you about his performance potential? Plenty, says world champion Bob Avila. Here he evaluates two reiners and two pleasure horses,” Horse and Rider (August 2005):

Betsy Berrey 2006-2008. “Getting more 10s on the 6.5 dressage horse,” Dressage dimensions (website):

Dick Dekker and Ron Ydenberg, “Raptor predation on wintering dunlins in relation to the tidal cycle,” The Condor 106, 2 (May 2004), pp. 415–419.

Peter Godfrey-Smith 1994. “A modern history theory of functions,” Nous 28,3. (Sept. 1994) pp. 344-362.

Paul Guyer 2005. “Harmony of the faculties revisited” and “Free and adherent beauty: a modest proposal,” in Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Vicki Hearne 2000. Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name. Pleasantville , N.Y. : The Akadine Press.

Lievens, Filip, Juan I. Sanchez, and Wilfried De Corte 2004. “Easing the inferential leap in competency modeling: the effects of task-related information and subject matter expertise, Personnel Psychology 22Dec2004.

Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Glenn Parsons and Allen Carlson 2008. Functional Beauty. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Roger Scruton, ‘Natural beauty” in Beauty. Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press.

Guy Sircello 1975. A New Theory of Beauty. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

William Steinkraus 1997. Reflections on Riding and Jumping: Winning Techniques for Serious Riders. New and revised edition. North Pomfret , VT : Trafalgar Square Publishing.

Alan Tormey 1987. Concept of Expression: A Study in Philosophical Psychology & Aesthetics . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kendall Walton 2008. “ ‘How marvelous!:' Toward a theory of aesthetic value” in Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts. Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press.

The WEG2006 Freestyle Dressage Final performance of ANDREAS HELGSTRAND on BLUE HORS MATINE

Wikipedia 2009, “Cheetah,”

T.M.Williams et al 1997 “Skeletal muscle histology and biochemistry of an elite sprinter, the African cheetah,” Journal of Comparative Physiology [B] 167: 527-535.

Nick Zangwill 2001. The Metaphysics of Beauty. Ithaca and London : Cornell University Press.

Later additions

1. Nick Zangwill, The Metaphysics of Beauty, argues that functionality is not an aesthetic value because, he holds, it is conceptually and not sensorily determined. This has two aspects. To be aesthetic it would have to be the case that its functionality could be beautiful although unsuccessful according to its concept. We could then say the mode of operation (or the design, or whatever) operates (or handles a problem) beautifully though dysfunctionally. Thus an organism could function beautifully only if its way of functioning would be beautiful even if it were dysfunctional. Likewise a proof could be elegant only if it could be beautiful though invalid. The second aspect is that beauty has to be determined by the thing's sensory aspects.

Now in regard to the first aspect beautiful functioning can be plausibly pried apart from success when failure comes from contingencies beyond the pale. Organic or artifactual functionality is relative to parameters, in my view. Hence even when it fails it may not do so because it is functionally defective for its kind. No functionality can be infallibly successful regardless of any and all contingent circumstances. Its success always depends upon conditions not being unreasonably hostile. Within parameters success is a fairly reliable mark of functionality.

Perhaps a similar possibility exists even for abstract things: even proofs can be elegant yet invalid if their invalidity is not such as was recognizable by the best minds of the time; and theories can likewise be beautiful though false if their falsity is impossible for the culture of the time to discern. The Ptolemaic model of the universe may be an example.

The relation of the functionality of particulars to sensory manifestations is also more complicated than Zangwill thinks. It is a capability for physical (or mental) functioning. Its relation to the sensory varies with the case, but there is always some direct or indirect sensory access to its manifestations, and to its latency too, as I have tried to establish in the paper. For abstracts our access is by experiences of envisaging, thinking, reasoning, understanding and the like. To what extent this is sensory is uncertain. But at least it is experientially specific and I fail to see why that does not suffice.

2. Functionality and utility. A distinction is in order, whether or not customary, between utility and functionality. Utility most comfortably applies where the question concerns adequacy for practical purposes (all vague terms!). Functionality includes utility but extends well beyond. We can appreciate this if we imagine an automobile as a utilitarian device for comfortable, safe and efficient transport. The story is fairly complicated, but these terms will give the general idea. A superior motorcar may have functional excellences that go far beyond these amenities. Its engineering may produce virtual silence for the occupants, so flawless and sensitive are its inner workings even at high speed. To speak of this as a utility is false or at least misleading. It is a functional grace well beyond utility. So also are any number of other refinements. They can be counted utilities only in the sense applied, say, by utilitarians for whom the term signifies anything that promotes happiness. Yet they are indisputably functional excellences – excellences beyond utility. They function to the end of the flourishing of those fortunate users of the vehicle. It is such eminent functionalities that I wish to call beautiful, not the lesser functionalities that are classed as utilities.

The example I used is appreciated in part because of the pleasure it gives. But the means used to achieve that pleasant effect involves precise engineering and therefore super-efficiencies of a number of kinds. These are admirable in their own right independently of the silky silence they produce. I believe this excellence is also beautiful, not just a utility. A motorist who underwrites the production of such a machine would be rightly proud of it not on grounds of its utility, since it is only marginally better than an ordinary car in that respect, but as an example of stratospheric automotive engineering. She enjoys owning such a vehicle in part because it is such a superior machine.

Note I am referring only to the working parts and structure of the automobile. Appearance and interior décor is not in question except insofar as relates to functionality – e.g., extending the life of surfaces by plating to resist corrosion. Further the admiration I have in mind concerns only engineering, not anything non-functional or just for show. And the engineering itself is limited to what does in fact increase the efficiency of the machine to some degree, decreasing wear, extending durability, enhancing safety and so forth. 20

3. Functionality and formal beauty. It is easy to find conflicts of functional beauty and formal beauty. Flounders and other bottom-dwelling flatfish have both eyes on the same side, producing a distinctly ungainly appearance. But the arrangement is functionally good, given the niche the creatures occupy. Plausibly the arrangement is good enough to be functionally beautiful. But it is not easy to find good reason for appreciating it on formal grounds. The reason is that we normally assess formal beauty on the basis of how a thing looks if it is visible, and on how it sounds if it is auditory, as in the case of music. In short we are judging good-lookingness, an eminent degree of which is beautiful-lookingness. The appearance in these cases is presumed substantially veridical.

Thus a bat's face is grotesque from a formal point of view, however functionally beautiful it may be. Such contrasts are essential to the very idea of different species of beauty.

4. When we come to assess the overall beauty of a thing, however, the neat relations applicable to the beauty of aspects may best be surrendered for a more composite calculation. We tend to recoil from counting the bat as beautiful because the formal ugliness of its face is so offensive. Some will say that this merely shows how prejudiced we are – how anthropocentric. But I think this view is probably wrong. To the complaint of anthropocentrism I reply that nothing I have said precludes organisms superior to humans in overall beauty and in beauty of appearance. Endless tribes of creatures of super-human abilities have been imagined in science fiction. Here are possible aesthetic judges who might challenge our view of human formal beauty. I am not aware of any account which imagines them putting forward a competing rank-ordering, especially one in which beautiful human faces rank lower than a bat face of any variety. And regardless of that complaint one may reasonably invoke a criterion of overall beauty that disqualifies a thing from a beauty rating if it scores below a threshold in any species of beauty. Thus extreme formal ugliness may keep the bat from overall beauty however high it may score in other respects. Of course there are many further questions as to how to score beauty overall. Should all the major species of beauty be counted equally when they fall within the minima?

5. Functional ugliness. If there is functional beauty there must be functional ugliness. What sort of dysfunction would fill this bill? I think merely not functioning would not. That is not good, it can be frustrating, but it hasn't quite the bite that ugliness has. Sheer failure to work is often more like the low end of the plainness or blandness analogue in more familiar forms of beauty. I suggest that functional ugliness is a condition that involves enough functioning to do serious harm, such as a knife that cuts the hand that wields it or a trick limb that threatens an animal with death when it flees from a predator. I know of no discussion of the variety of faults from an aesthetic point of view. The subject invites development.

6. Functional and formal beauty again. In considering mechanical functionality it is hard not to bump constantly into what seems like a variety of formal beauty or at least goodness. For parts have to be precisely shaped, proportioned and sized in order to perform their roles in the operation of the machine. Must there not then be a certain formal coordination of them, and is that not a species of aesthetic goodness? If not, why not? When all the parts of a watch, say, work smoothly and steadily in their different ways, is that not aesthetically superior to the thrashing and clanking of an ill-made mélange of wheels and sprockets, gears slipping and arms flailing until finally the mechanism jams? Of course the watch's works may not look so beautiful. Generally it's not easy to see them, they are so tightly packed. That means it's hard to appreciate their formal relations. The device was not meant to be readily appreciated for its formal relations. But that doesn't mean the relations are not formally elegant. For that one would have to know what the constraints on structure are placed by the functional requirements. Where do we find people meeting this condition? Among watch designers, no doubt. Have any aestheticians ever sought them out and put relevant questions to them? Not to my knowledge.

Examples of tourbillon mechanisms:

Many of my aesthetic colleagues will protest that the prodigious complexity and precision of such a mechanism (no more complex than the outcome requires) is just mechanical excellence, not aesthetic – not beauty just extreme mechanical goodness. But I doubt that any credible reason can be given for this distinction. The engineer who can rehearse in her imagination the myriad movements of the mechanism succeeding each other in flawless order and resulting in the several outcome functions will have an experience that I think is indubitably aesthetic. True, it is repetitive, unlike music (even Philip Glass's music). It is not narrative, but (as it were) eternal.

7. Functional beauty and the promise of happiness. Nehamas' provocative book deals with major beauties in the sense of ones that promise a global good for the appreciator. Does functional beauty have this status? Perhaps in the case of organisms it does. The appreciation of stellar performers can easily be so construed. Their allure is the allure of indefinitely great and absorbing good. They awaken dreams of encountering indefinitely conceived charms of movement, coordination, fluidity, grace. Our engagement with such goods can also function as an allegory for other parts of life. Even automobiles conjure up such dreams though perhaps with less justification. And stellar devices (ignore the pun) like The Hubble Space Telescope can surely inspire such a sense in engineers. Such exquisite functionality promises a life of continuing discovery and inventiveness, using the universe to enlarge one's understanding of the universe. I can buy this up to a point, but I still want to distinguish the highly beautiful from the lesser ones, the ones that will finally disappoint, let us down.

8. Kendall Walton's collection of essays, “‘Marvelous Images,'” contains a highly suggestive account of aesthetic experience and aesthetic value that bears on functional organic beauty as well as on everything else. It is highly desirable to square my account with his or else to explain the difference in a credible way. The major element in his theory is that of the pleasure of admiring or feeling awe or wonder at the object of one's regard. So it is not just the capacity of an object to elicit pleasurable regard that underwrites its aesthetic value. The main thing is the capacity to elicit pleasure taken in one's admiration of or one's feeling of awe or wonder at the object. So the experience has a layered structure. One takes pleasure (sometimes displeasure) in a thing and also, yet more crucially, takes pleasure in one's response. The second pleasure involves an implicit judgment: we take pleasure in our judging the object admirable, awesome, wondrous or at least good. This pleasure is directly aimed at our attitude and indirectly at the object of that attitude.

On this basis functional organic beauty is aesthetically valuable because it is appropriate for me to enjoy admiring it or feeling awe or wonder at it or judging it to be good. There is no special restriction here to the look of fitness as opposed to the fact (in relation either to the context of adaptation or to recent or present circumstances). It is only needful that I admire or feel wonder (etc.) at and take pleasure in my doing so appropriately. This can be done in relation to the fact of functionality as well as (and perhaps more appropriately than) to the look of it.

One wonders, however, does this account allow for enjoying judging a thing faulty or vicious (or ugly or ill-made)? Likewise does enjoying wondering or feeling awe at the magnitude of evil or destructiveness qualify? It can certainly be satisfying when one reaches a firm attitude toward a subject even if the attitude is negative. This is especially so when one sees what is evil or unlovely about it. One has a satisfying sense of cognitive accomplishment. One has successfully taken its measure. As to being awed by evil, Hannibal Lector is a plausible case. But this awe at the demonic does not in any way welcome or endorse the evil (or ugly). Possibly awe implies superior properties that are in themselves good, such as resourcefulness (skill plus coolness in a crisis) and only demonic when turned to evil ends. Perhaps absent this element in our consideration it is not awe we feel but only horror or disgust.


1. By this definition a species serving as a food source for a predator is a non-proper function. If it becomes a food source for a given predator as a result of its having wings, then that is a non-proper function of its wingedness. On the other hand insects pollinating flowers could be among their proper functions if the resulting diffusion of flowers helped the insect species survive. Such reflections as these (and they are legion) testify to the complexity of the concept and its applications in nature.

2. A variant of this is devised for artifacts where market-place reception takes the place of genetic selection. FB 148.

3. Though not stressed by the authors, functions are specific as to type: wings of a specific sort provide a particular mode of flight with specific survival-propagation advantages and limitations within a particular environmental niche (or range of such). The enormous variety of such specifications for different cases (species, varieties, breeds, etc.) can hardly be overestimated. Another essential point is that the trait must enhance overall fitness for survival of the species. Flight, in short, must have no disabling side-effects. Further, a highly functional trait may undermine the overall long-term fitness of the species by wiping out its only food supply. There are abundant instances of this.

4. The authors do not explicitly exclude real functionality from aesthetic appreciation, but they studiously avoid asserting it. For a frank avowal of the beauty of real functionality see Sircello 1975, Section 23. Beauty and Utility, 73-76. I do not accept all of Sircello's examples, many of which do not in my opinion rise to the level of significant functional beauty. Mere suitability or fittingness is not in my view sufficient. The function served must be complex and demanding enough to permit a large range of less-than-beautiful gradations, some of which work tolerably well but not beautifully. This reflection applies also to Roger Scruton's skepticism about architectural functionality being beautiful (FB 45). The problem with the strainer arches he mentions being beautiful is that they are functionally adequate but in no way extraordinary, as is obvious when one dips into the relevant literature. The strengthening function they serve is too elementary to allow of it being served beautifully by such means. How different are the high performance functions discussed below or that of John Harrison's beautifully ingenious chronometers. The key to the beauty of the latter is that they keep good time under extraordinarily unfavorable circumstances.

5. For a breath-taking exhibition of beautiful dressage functionality view the video The WEG2006 Freestyle Dressage Final, website link given in the references below.

6. The token performance in the conformation situation is an indicator-performance, in contrast to the performance at which the whole operation aims, which we can call the target-performance. Both are constitutive of balance to some degree. The target-performance is (so far forth) definitively constitutive.

7. Avila and Copeland 2005, 2007. The criteria employed apply to Western horses, ones for reining, cutting out, and pleasure riding. Dressage requirements are interestingly different and breeding goals accordingly vary. High performance jumping horse requirements are again quite different. Good balance, however, is required for all.

8. Buyers often require an examination by a veterinarian in an effort to narrow the gap between the manifest and the totality. But of course many determinants of true functionality still remain undisclosed.

9. I cannot enter into a detailed discussion of different sorts of looks. See the supplementary note 2 for more on this difficult and largely neglected subject.

10. Parsons and Carlson feature the less superficial example of a spoiler on a muscle car, that is, one made with NASCAR events in mind, such as the Pontiac GTO. A recent article (NYT2009) contains interesting testimony about the aesthetic appeal of such cars. One source is their “cool” look, which is largely the product of glamorous macho film heroics, as by Burt Reynolds driving a Trans Am in Smokey and the Bandit. The other is their “hot performance” reputation. How much of the latter is a look of functionality is a key question for the present subject. To what extent would that look survive comparison with the look of a car that had demonstrated superior hot performance but lacked the cool factor? Any discriminating aesthetic assessment of looks would need to press that question home.

11. Something like this limitation seems to me entailed by the distinction drawn in Sircello 1975, 125f. and analogous distinctions introduced by many other writers, e.g., Tormey 1987 re. expression vs. expressiveness.

12. As opposed to knowledge of causes, in the classical 18 th century statement. Parsons and Carlson connect this with the concept of disinterestedness, which in my view is a mistake. I agree that the phenomena of functionality must be appropriately accessible for aesthetic appreciation to occur, but what forms of accessibility suffice for aesthetic experience is a matter quite separate from how interested or disinterested the attitude of the experiencer is.

13. Perhaps the issue is confused by the difference between functionality and the knowledge of functionality. What our authors say is that knowledge of functionality needs to be “translated” into perceptual looks. But it is hard to see how actual functionality (what is there to be known) can be fully reflected in any exterior look of the sort the authors seem to have in mind, namely the look of the animal examined in something like the conformation situation by the inexpert. The real difficulty even for the experts in the case of elite (Grand Prix) jumpers is so formidable that one of the best, William Steinkraus (Steinkraus 1997, Ch.12), despairs altogether of judging from the physical conformation. Only close observation of performance gives much indication. But even given that basis, the most careful estimates are subject to manifold exceptions. The impression left with this reader is that there is no conformation look of fitness that could qualify as a look of beautiful Grand Prix class functionality. Horsemen have certainly given their all in search of a reliable look of fitness because the prices commanded by proven performers are prodigious, and if there were reliable early looks buyers would be delighted. It turns out that the only sure test is superior functioning in rigorous performance tests, which is to say by a sizable segment of the horse's career of high functioning.

14. Breeders do their best to perpetuate highly functional traits, of course. Steinkraus observes that one key property of high jumping functionality, talent, seems to be genetic: “a very high percentage of foals seem to come from the womb knowing how to jump.” (Op. cit.,183) But talent is only one element. In general the level of functionality achieved by high performance horses is not transmissible. The functionality is a refinement of, or a hyper-development of proper functions. For me it counts as a beautiful functionality precisely because it exceeds the level of the proper functionality, that is, what the animal could achieve without interacting with human culture. The literature gives abundant evidence of the horse's flourishing being enhanced by such advanced functionality. (Hearne, e.g., Ch.6)

15. I do not mean to exclude beautiful functionality that is normal to a given species – i.e., the proper functionality of that species. Here the comparison is with other species. Thus the barn owl's ability to locate prey by hearing is a paradigm example. Other avian predators could profit from having that functionality. All judgments of functional beauty need relativizing to comparison classes, as do judgments of any sort of beauty. (Interestingly there is no conformation look of barn owl hunting fitness accessible by any but a specialist, who would have to examine the details of ear structure to obtain a relevant look.

16. Included among the constituents of functionality are the hidden factors such as the strength of bone and the soundness of the respiratory and coronary systems. In principle these can be envisaged semi-sensuously if one has the relevant anatomical knowledge. Such envisagement can in principle draw upon all the diagnostic resources of science: electron-microscopy and all the rest, and the fullest, most enterprising aesthetic appreciation would give them a role. Certainly no narrow limitation to the modes of observation most commonly invoked for aesthetic delectation can have any theoretical standing. A priori privileging of the radically limited traditional modes of observation is as benighted as it would be to limit aesthetic appreciation of the heavens to what can be observed by the naked eye from the surface of the earth.

17. See endnote 2 on looks. Relying on loosely specified or stereotypical looks runs the risk of failure similar to that of “competency modeling” in business organization. See Lievens et al 2004.

18. There are also serious problems in determining just what the effect of these functionalities is on the survival of the species, that is, precisely which are selected for and which are simply not selected out.

19. Natural organisms and species have such complex and varied functionalities that skeptics would be right to aver that nothing like an exhaustive account can be expected of their myriad constituents. Thus there is no likelihood of our ever being able to assess the functionality of all of their subsystems. But this is parallel to the impossibility of assessing strictly all of the artistic merits of, say, Rubens' oeuvre or of Baryshnikov's dance performances. It is also true that at least at present we are no position to say precisely how beautifully functional an organism is beyond the minimum needed for it to have survived and propagated. To do that we would have to be able to understand both it and the systems that produced it well enough to know what would have made it more functional overall given the environmental conditions, i.e., to know how an improved version could have evolved given its ecological context. It is doubtful in the extreme that we will ever be able to do that. (Extreme consequence: we can probably never disprove that this is the best of all possible naturalistically produced worlds! Perhaps this is a point of difference between the natural and the cultural, since can easily imagine how one of the ancient thinkers might have hit upon a better conception of motion, say.) The great problem of aesthetically appreciating natural functions is building up a sufficiently extensive acquaintance with them. There is this much truth in skepticism about functional beauty: it is harder to appreciate aesthetically than the sensory surfaces of things are.

20. A surprising number of design factors relate to functionality broadly speaking. Visibility puts constraints on design of windows and indeed on the form of the cabin. The comfort of driver and passengers constrains the design of seats. Door lock design pertains to safety. Overall body design affects the ease of entrance and egress. And so forth.