Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Some Student Definitions of Beauty

I have long thought that there is much of value in even the beginner's attempt to answer one of the great philosophical definitions.  Remember that Plato would often begin his dialogues not with a definition offered by Socrates but one offered by someone who is philosophically naive.  True, such definitions are always shot down -  but they do provide Socrates with a starting off point.  I am more positive about student definitions, seeing them as perhaps glimpsing part of the truth.   I usually have my students try to define beauty on the first day of class, and I usually find some food for thought in their definitions.  Here are some examples.  How these may actually stimulate thought or capture part of the truth about beauty is not always clear to me, but many at least rise to the level "interesting, although I do not know why."

Student A says that beauty is "what makes you learn something new about yourself.  It enlightens and inspires you to achieve the seemingly impossible."  Although this is not really a definition but rather a possible feature or characteristic of beauty, it is interesting that A believes beauty involves both learning about oneself and motivation for great personal achievement.  Has this connection been ignored by contemporary aesthetics?  B defines beauty as "finding comfort, lust, and a sense of what life is all about in a specific person, place, or thing."  So beauty for B is an activity, not just an attribute, and one that has meaning content, which is "what life is all about."  C says that it is "something that catches your attention and possibly mesmerizes you with its appearance or what it consists of.  [It] can either be an object, a person, a thought, or concept."  I have long thought that beauty has a component which goes beyond merely catching one's attention to something like being "mesmerizing."  D thinks beauty is "any positive emotion or feeling that benefits humanity on a large or small scale and leads to personal growth and love."  The idea of connecting beauty not only with the good but with the good of humanity is relatively unique, but interesting.  That its perception leads to "personal growth" is similar to what we find in Plato's Phaedrus.  E  says "beauty is something that is pleasing to a person's tastes or senses - sight, smell, sound.  It can involve things that are familiar or comforting to that particular person, e.g. "that girl looks like my mom; she's so beautiful"  The first part of this definition is not unusual, although we do not often say that a smell (or a taste) is beautiful.  The second part is obviously true, although the explication leads us to think that it might mean that beauty ties in to something very intimate and already experienced, like the beauty of one's mom....that it has a built-in memory component (often associated with nostalgia)...a kind of recollection as Plato would put it.  F says it is "one's perception of an ideal object, moment, sound, action, or art."  Beauty is often defined in terms of an ideal perceived. 

It is interesting that most of the classic definitions of beauty show up in a college classroom on the first day of class.  Often the definitions are highly subject-oriented, seeing beauty in terms of subjective experience.  An example of this is G's "a word used to describe a moment or feeling when you appreciate or enjoy an experience or moment."  Others have both an objective and subjective dimension, for example H's "An object or experience that provides positive emotions and makes you appreciate the object or situation."

Students often associate beauty with happiness as in I's "Beauty is a perception from a person's point of view that makes them happy or feels good."  Definitions that feature pleasure are not as common as one would think, although we have J's "Beauty is specific sight, smell, or experience that makes you feel pleasure or type of positive emotion."  Other internal feelings associated with beauty are joy and contentment, as in K's "an outside stimuli that creates a feeling of joy or contentment." L mentions "makes you feel in awe."  Again, pleasure is often combined or modified in a way that makes it more personal as in M's "Beauty is anything that pleases any single one of your senses in a good or happy way." 

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