Lexicon of Meaningless Words: “Beautiful”

You think I’m beautiful?  Really, I guess I was hoping for something more… meaningful.

Beautiful: (adj.) A word which by its very nature lacks a distinct conceptual meaning.

I submit that beauty is one of those things that philosophy has managed to codify in a way that is perfectly compatible with both folk philosophy and personal experience. Kant’s third critique, the Critique of Judgment begins with an account of beauty.  True to his overall methodology Kant subdivides categories of enjoyment so as to tightly define what exactly he means by beauty.  Thus, he associates aesthetic judgments–or judgments of taste–with four qualities.  They are disinterested, universal, necessary, and purposive without purpose–or final without end.

Aesthetic judgments must be disinterested, meaning that the pleasure felt when something is judged beautiful is not tied to the continued existence of the thing.  That is, when one feels pleasure in something because one judges it to be beautiful there is no necessity that the thing exist or continue to exist so as to sustain our feeling of pleasure as the pleasure only follows from the judgment rather than the judgment resulting from the pleasure one feels.   If one judges something beautiful because of the pleasure one feels–like I do when I enjoy the beauty of a darn good pie–darn good, they are making a judgment of the agreeable.

Judgments of the beautiful are both universal and necessary. Judgments of the beautiful are not constrained by some preference in the subject who judges or constrained by some quality or concept associated with the object, thus anyone judging them would come to the same conclusion–that is they judgment would be universal.  The necessity of the judgment is enforced by this universal character–neither constrained by any personal stake in its existence, nor for some interest in the object conforming to a concept–any person experiencing it would be forced to judge it beautiful–even if they found it neither agreeable nor good.

Aesthetic judgments of beauty appear purposive without purpose or sometimes translated as “final without end.”  That is, one’s judgment of the object is not due to its utility–that it is good for some purpose.  An aesthetic judgment tied to the purposiveness or utility of an object is a judgment of the good.  Something’s utility can only be judged in light of the concept that defines it.  For example we might say that a hammer is “good”–that there is a fittingness between its nature and the concept we have for its use–only because we have a concept that completely encapsulates what purpose a hammer should fulfill.  However, no such concept can be found for an object judged to be beautiful.  Part of the experience of beautiful objects is that while they might seem to exist only to please us, they please us only because they are beautiful without any purpose.

So, a judgment of the agreeable is one in which we call the thing agreeable because we enjoy the feeling of pleasure that it brings us and even seek more experiences of those sorts of things.  This pie is agreeable–darn good pie, darn good!  May I have another slice?

A judgment of the good is one in which we call the thing good because it conforms to the concepts that apply to it.  This is a good hammer.  I never have need for another hammering tool as this one conforms perfectly to what a hammer ought to be.

A judgment of the beautiful is one in which we call a thing beautiful because it seems to exist only to please us–but has no actual purpose–and because while we feel the need to try to explain our enjoyment of it, we cannot because it exhausts and outpaces all the concepts we try to apply to it.

Therefore, when I call something beautiful there is no content in the claim–no concept or meaning that the adjective refers to.  Alternately, I could say that to call something beautiful is too full of content–there are too many concepts that it applies.  A judgment of the beautiful means a little of everything and therefore means nothing.  If this seems like some philosophical sophistry, try it at home.

First: Think of something that you find “beautiful.”

Second: However, if you need the thing to continue to exist in order to find it beautiful–that is, you really find it agreeable–or if it serves some function for you–that is, you really find it good–then think of something else that you find “beautiful”–until it actually is a judgment of the beautiful.

Third: Having found that thing that is truly beautiful explain why.  You will find that you have nothing to say that is not due in some way to its existence or purposiveness or that no formulation seems allows you to stop, feeling satisfied that you’ve fully explained your judgment.

So, what does “beautiful” mean?  Nothing period or nothing definite–either way beautiful is a word without meaning.  Disagree with me or I’ll keep on being right.

Tomorrow’s Post: “Moral”


2 comments on “Lexicon of Meaningless Words: “Beautiful”

  1. Robert Minto says:

    I like the concept of the beautiful. You should have a gander at two books (but maybe you already have): (1. Gadamer’s Truth and Method (2. Beiser’s Diotima’s Children. Might be a good counterpart/antidote to all your Danto…

  2. maphman says:

    I read Truth & Method with Taz my last semester in undergrad. I haven’t read Diotima’s Children–although I do have it on my Amazon wish list. I like the concept of the beautiful too, I just find myself agreeing with Kant that it is terribly, irrevocably indistinct once one peels out the agreeable and the good. Gadamer’s phenomenological view of the way in which beauty enlivens one to the experience of the world actually seems to me to typify the incommensurability of the beautiful with any one concept, but inscribes beauty as the convergence of myriad qualities. If anything Gadamer’s position actually decreases the possibility of pinning down the content to which the beautiful refers–as we must now worry about–not only the subjective experience of the viewer–but also the intention of the author and constituting world into which the object finds itself a part–all of which are replete with complimentary and disparate perceptions.

    Now, I do think that a sustained argument could be made against my assertion that the “beauty” that embraces a myriad of concepts, but is not wholly explained by none individually would necessarily be synonymous with a “beauty” that means nothing. For example, one could argue that every word’s intension underdetermines its extension (contra Gottlob Frege). That is that every word’s meaning as an expression underdetermines the range of things to which it might be applied. However, the fallout from such a argument would include the idea that meaningful or functional linguistic definition itself is at least implausible–if not impossible. Although, the person who argued such a case would likely suggest that a functional set-theory is all that would be necessary to define beauty.

    So, yeah, beauty is a great concept–but not a very distinct one.

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