Concepts of Beauty: A Feminist Philosopher Thinks About Paradigms and Consequences

Christine Koggel

Beauty Symposium

March 23, 2004

My plan is to provide a brief overview of some of the main theories of beauty as defended by philosophers over the ages and to then use feminist critiques of these sorts of theories to move the discussion of beauty to the contemporary context where concepts of beauty have moral and political consequences for people who are encouraged to fit a norm of beauty imposed on them from without.

I begin with what has been called a realist conception of beauty, one that is evident in works as early as Plato. Under Plato’s account, beauty is inherent in the object itself — it is real in the sense of containing an essence prior to and apart from human interpretation and reflection. Plato’s Forms capture this idea of an essence. Such everyday objects as beds and noses found in the ordinary world are individual instances of Forms laid up in the heavens and capturing the essence of a bed or nose or table or even concepts like justice or piety, and so on. Instances of beauty, for Plato, also have a Form laid up in the heavens and from which beautiful things partake in or imitate the essential features or essence of Beauty Itself. But there is more going on with Beauty for Plato than this notion of a universal Form that captures the essence of Beauty and is imitated by beautiful objects. Beauty is a rarefied and special Form, like the Good, for Plato. It is connected with Truth and with knowledge. It is the Philosopher with special capacities and a particular sort of education who is better able to glimpse the Form of Beauty than are ordinary citizens. In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the love that a philosopher has for a boy who is beautiful in terms of the sort of physical passion that needs to be reigned in and controlled in order for the philosopher to pursue the intellectual passion and motivation needed to approach and become acquainted with the Form of Beauty itself and thereby with truth. The beautiful boy is but an instance of that which is beautiful in Itself. The boy, and he must have beautiful features, serves as a kind of example of Beauty as laid up in the heavens and can motivate the philosopher to direct his passion towards the pursuit of philosophy. Beauty, in this account, is closely connected with Truth itself.

The idea of beauty as inherent in objects themselves — as something discoverable by human beings but not dependent on human intentions, feelings, or pleasurable experiences - is also evident in more contemporary accounts of aesthetic judgment that take beauty to be inherent in objects in such qualities as order, clarity, harmony, and balance — some of the qualities that we have discussed in previous weeks with Sharon’s explanation of the color or order or simplicity of atoms, for example. But this sort of account already moves the discussion from Plato’s mystical idea of pure Forms, difficult if not impossible for us to perceive or know, to people in relation with the actual objects and perceiving their beautiful properties. These accounts in which human perception matters are relational rather than non-relational accounts of beauty, ones that explain the relation between properties and their instances and do so in terms of the human subject who experiences or perceives them. In this sort of account a beautiful object has a property or set of properties that makes the object capable of producing a certain sort of pleasurable experience. Hume’s account makes room for perceivers who have similar "sympathies" for or a sense of beautiful objects in ways that have human beings agree about what is beautiful based on what is useful or pleasing or pleasurable to them. In Hume, for example, beauty is dependent on function and usefulness so that the "barren" or unchaste woman is ugly as is the too poor or too proud man. As is well-known, the observations Hume made about what is beautiful as well as those he made about what is virtuous were tied to the customs and habits of his time, ones that for Hume gave a kind of credence and objectivity to beauty in that they had stood the test of time. But because his account ties beauty and virtue to customs of his time, they also merely reflected already entrenched and discriminatory notions of who was beautiful and virtuous. Women needed to be chaste and men needed to develop their talents and display their riches. This idea of beauty being relative to customs and a society turns up again in relativist accounts of beauty.

Lastly in terms of theories of beauty we have Kant himself, which I can only outline very briefly not only because he is extremely complex but because of time constraints. Kant’s philosophy anchors the experience of beauty to the basic requirements of cognition and thus confers on beauty something of necessity. Human beings are born with the same cognitive framework through which they experience and order the world. For Kant this can explain the universality and objectivity of morality, for example. However, for Kant, beauty does not have the same necessity as does the moral law in that with these experiences there is a free play of the cognitive powers of the imagination and understanding with respect to these objects. With beautiful things the imagination is free to seek out relations of form without concern for the cognitive relevance and the understanding is free to accept the creative play of the imagination in a kind of back and forth that gives us pleasure in the objects perceived. Now imagination and understanding are staples of ordinary cognitive processing and are common to all human beings so the faculties are universal and necessary. It is in this sense that we can expect all human beings to find beauty in the same things. Kant also distinguished beauty from the sublime, the latter having to do with objects of vastness or fear as evident in nature itself. Here the pleasure is not experienced directly or in a free play, but there is a need to reflect on so as to be able to respond positively to what at first sight seems vast or frightening or frustrating. The mathematically sublime in Kant’s account has to do with objects that are massive in size such as the sky, clouds, and the earth itself. Here our minds race to comprehend the object in its entirety, but we can’t because of their vastness and infinitude. The result is an experience of the sublime. The dynamically sublime has to do with objects that are powerful and fearful. Here too the examples are from nature — violent storms and earthquakes have the power to destroy life. Our power pales in comparison. The sublime here is the experience of these objects as not fearful but as raising the self so as to transcend the fear and experience the strength of human freedom — to overcome the physical self by an act of will. Again for Kant there is both the cognitive capacities we bring to the experiences and the understanding that emerges from these pleasurable experiences of the beautiful and the sublime. In a very interesting work by Sheila Lintott in a recent issue of Hypatia, she uses Kant’s notion of the sublime to explain why some anorectics do what they do by way of starving their bodies. It too is a kind of control over the body and the physical world through the strength of will that is freedom itself.

Lastly, there are accounts that deny theory altogether by arguing that there is neither a property inherent in objects nor common experiences or ordering of that which is beautiful. On these non theoretical accounts, all we have are subjective and pleasurable preferences linked to non rational/emotional reactions and are variable from one individual to the next. This account truly fits the dictum "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". But because this account often fails to explain that there is commonality, a variant of this is the relativist account that beauty is learned in and relative to the culture in which one acquires an understanding of beauty. On both the subjectivist and relativist accounts, there are no objective standards, whether in the objects themselves or in the human ordering of experiences, by which to measure or determine that which is beautiful. As our conversations of the past few weeks illustrate, once we discuss examples and ask questions about what is beautiful and how to judge or measure it is tempting to adopt a relativist or subjectivist stand. What is the range of things to which the term beauty can be applied? Our discussions have allowed colors, flavors, scents, bodily sensations, thoughts, theories, processes, virtues, natural objects and art under the range of things deemed beautiful but we also disagreed about whether all of these should count. Another question: to what extent can related values such as the sublime, the pretty, the cute, the pleasurable, the witty, the tragic, be subsumed under beauty? Are these degrees of beauty? Are they distinct from beauty? Third, to what extent can things of different types be meaningfully compared with respect to beauty? Parrots are beautiful but are they more beautiful than horses or houses? Fourth, how determinate can judgments of beauty be when many factors enter into the case? We can determine that Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies are beautiful, but can we determine if the Fifth is more beautiful than the Sixth? And can we determine if Beethoven’s music is more beautiful than a song by U2?

Many of these questions cannot be answered by any of the theories we have examined so far. With the advent and popularity of subjectivism and relativism, the attempt by philosophers to provide a theory of beauty has been virtually abandoned. Though the project of providing theories in the realm of value judgments having to do with morality continues unabated, little attention is paid anymore to providing theories of beauty. I think there is still room for examining theories of beauty, but less from the point of view of providing a theory that captures more accurately or adequately what beauty really is, than of understanding the ways in which those very definitions of beauty have assumed certain norms, standards, and measurements that have had consequences for people and possibilities for their subjectivity and agency and for their very membership in communities. So I want to move away from the theories examined thus far and use Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances to show why providing definitions or theories of beauty is and should not be where the action is.

In the Investigations, Wittgenstein asks us to think of the meaning of words in terms of their use — their ordinary usage in language games in which the word has its home. He then gives us examples of ordinary concepts to illustrate this account of meaning as use: "Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’’ — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! — Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all ‘amusing’? … Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players?... And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail." (PI 66). "I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way." (PI 67).

Why am I attracted by Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances — sufficiently attracted that I would like to apply the insights revealed through his description of the concept game to that of beauty? Some of the reasons may be evident already in my survey of theories of beauty provided thus far — they all seem inadequate to the task of capturing the difficulties of defining beauty in such a way as to acknowledge the wide range of uses, comparisons, differences between cultures, people, and so on. But I also find the idea that "beauty" is merely what individual people or whole cultures happen to find beautiful problematic as well. This is because the subjectivist and relativist accounts of beauty fail to capture the moral and political implications of what is taken to be beautiful and these consequences are certainly real for people affected by them. This has come up in our early conversations about the apparent elitism evident in accounts that proclaim there is beauty in classical music, for example, but not in pop or rap. Wittgenstein explains this in terms of what happens when I learn the meaning of a word. As a member of a community, I am shown clear cases, paradigms, of beauty. These cases reflect established agreement about what counts as beautiful and they are the core cases from which we decide to extend, challenge, or close off the possibilities for new cases. The question I want to ask, one not asked by Wittgenstein, is who gets to judge things as beautiful, who gets to challenge what counts as beautiful, and what does this mean for different people in particular communities?

Now we have to go beyond Wittgenstein’s account of meaning as use to capture these aspects of the concept of beauty as it relates to a community of language users — some with power and some without. As is well known, Wittgenstein endorses merely providing descriptions of how words are used in different language games and for that reason he is interpreted as conservativist: the meaning of a word is how it is used and not how it should be used or changed or challenged. Yet for Wittgenstein, the use is captured in the purposeful interactions of human beings in communities. In my view, this moves his account out of the subjectivist realm in that we are born into communities where the meaning of words is already established and where we are trained into using the words correctly. Our world and our language is shaped by the standards of the community into which we are born. Because Wittgenstein’s account of family resemblances tells us how meaning gets shaped in particular contexts and for particular purposes, I have found his methodology useful for thinking about who sets up the standards or paradigms and who is affected and marginalized by them.

Wittgenstein did not ask questions about who gets to set up the standards of comparison for what is good or beautiful, for example, or who has the power to entrench the meanings of these words in a community of users. But feminists have. Feminist critiques of beauty have pointed out that the theories surveyed thus far are based on fundamental assumptions of disinterested attention, objectivity, and universality. The philosopher coming to know the Form Beauty itself through beautiful things — the philosopher and his boy love, the "disinterested" perceiver observing and judging the beautiful, and the community of users reaching agreement about what is called beautiful reflect the male perspective and masculine values. Feminists have argued that the male perspective is revealed in the paucity of female artists, for example, that have been acknowledged as geniuses and in the exclusion of their work from what is considered beautiful. It is not difficult to understand how their exclusion from formal education and training in art meant their creative productions of such forms as quilts, crafts, and diaries, were excluded from the art world and not considered to be art. In the feminist critique, notions of beauty and of art are themselves influential components of culture and contribute to the shape and perpetuation of gender roles. No where is this more evident than in notions of beauty as applied to women themselves.

If you take disinterested attention to be the hallmark measuring what is beautiful, then what is observed is supposed to be a receptive state of appreciation of the object itself (as in Hume and Kant). Such description of a mental state makes is seem generic — it would be the same no matter who is looking and gender difference is not supposed to play a role in aesthetic attention or judgment. Feminists have argued that the disinterested viewer has been predominantly male in the privileged position of assuming power over the object viewed. When the female is the object viewed, she is then the passive object whose chief purpose is to be posed for the enjoyment of the viewer. The term "male gaze" sums up an analysis of the privileged perspective of social dominance and patriarchal authority. Perception and pleasure become themselves gendered and in ways that have consequences for those who are objects of the "male gaze". It is important to note that the "male gaze" need not itself be a male perceiver. The notion of a male gaze captures the idea that any viewer learns to adopt this position in order to appreciate art or beauty according to accepted norms. Thus the link back to Wittgenstein of a community of language users learning the established norms and standards that define or give meaning to a word.

From practices of foot-binding in ancient China to contemporary alterations in the form of plastic surgery or anorexia, women have been prepared to go to great lengths to meet the cultural paradigms of feminine beauty. Although paradigms of beauty vary greatly from culture to culture and shift over the years, the underlying assumption seems to be that beauty is worth the time, money, pain, and sometimes even life itself. It is no wonder that feminists have cast a critical eye on women’s involvement in the beauty system. The system includes women’s countless everyday rituals of body improvement such as make-up and dieting as well as cosmetic and fashion industry, medical technologies such as cosmetic surgery, and advertising businesses with their use of idealized images of femininity. Feminists have shown how the practices and discourses of beauty are integral to the production and regulation of femininity and to asymmetrical relations of power between men and women and among women themselves. Not only is beauty gendered, but paradigms of it in our society are connected with white able bodied and rich women. Women are placed on a pedestal as exemplifying physical beauty at the same time as the great majority of women are considered drab, ugly, fat, loathsome. Being bombarded with messages about paradigms of beauty means not measuring up and often going to great lengths to attempt to measure up in some way.

Feminists have also described the system as one of suffering and oppression and of women as victims of these norms. In more recent years, feminists have been critical of the women as victim picture and have used beauty and discourses of beauty to challenge current norms and open up new possibilities for thinking about beauty practices in new ways. In this feminist work, fashion can be used as a site for creativity, subversion, and even empowerment. A good example of this work is by Ann Cahill in a recent special issue of Hypatia on Women, Art and Aesthetics. Cognizant of the feminist critique of beauty standards as oppressive, she takes the ritual she and her sisters engaged in of preparing for a wedding as a place where agency, subjectivity, and empowerment through group engagement with other women can happen — even as they put on all the standard aspects of makeup, hair, and clothing that go with being at a wedding.

I’m going to end by using the example of "beauty" as illustrated in the Miss America pageant because this will not only highlight aspects of the feminist critique I have merely sketched here, but it will also allow us to engage in a discussion of the complex aspects of paradigms of beauty and consequences of these for women. I have a 2 page handout of a 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. It was organized by the New York Radical Women, a group of women led by Robin Morgan and active in the civil rights, New Left, and anti-war movements. The 2 page handout "No More Miss America" is the manifesto explaining the protest and attacking the beauty standards women were conditioned to take seriously and socialized to accept. Close to 400 protestors gathered on the boardwalk on September 7, 1968, on the day of the protest. Protestors had signs with slogans "No More Beauty Standards", "Miss America is Alive and Well — in Harlem", and "Welcome to the Cattle Auction". At the center of it all was the freedom trash can — a receptacle where women could toss items such as dish detergent, false eyelashes, curlers, wigs, copies of Playboy, high heels, girdles and bras. Rumors spread that the items had been set on fire (thus the bra-burning slogan that got attached to depict the radicalness of feminists). In actuality, nothing was burned because the law abiding protestors were unable to get a fire permit. A larger crowd of about 600 included mainly unsympathetic young men.

In an interesting time line that gives both the changes to and development of the beauty pageant over a period from 1902 to 2002, the authors juxtapose the political events alongside the beauty events. Some things have changed: a pageant rule that contestants could only be white was lifted in 1970. Prizes of furs and movie contracts got replaced in 1944 with funds for college. 1944 sees the first Jewish Miss America, but she receives few offers for appearances and endorsements. By 1959 every state in the nation is represented, but the first African American to make it to the pageant’s top five finalists doesn’t happen until 1980 and the first African American to be crowned is Vanessa Williams who was forced to resign when Penthouse publishes nude photographs of her when she was 17. The social issue platform became part of the requirements in 1989. In 1996, NBC drops televising the Miss America Pageant because of low ratings. In 1999, swimsuit rules bar string bikinis and thong swimsuits. In 2000, the first Asian American Miss America is crowned.