Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

The PhilPapers Metasurvey was a concurrent survey of professional philosophers and others concerning their predictions of the results of the Survey. The Metasurvey was taken by 727 respondents including 438 professional philosophers and PhDs and 210 philosophy graduate students. (

The PhilPapers Survey never asked me for my philosophical views, but that’s not stopping me. So here is my stab at the survey, one post at a time.

Question Three

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Accept or lean toward: objective 382 / 931 (41%)
Accept or lean toward: subjective 321 / 931 (34.4%)
Other 228 / 931 (24.4%)

I accept the objectivity of aesthetic values.

This is an important question for me. It is the question which by which I first realized my interests in philosophy. When I was a senior in high school I went with a couple of friends to see the movie American Beauty. After the film, I made the comment that I didn’t think that a plastic bag floating in the breeze was particularly all that beautiful. My friends both agreed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that if the boy in the film thought that it was beautiful, then he was entitled to that opinion. For some reason I vehemently disagreed and for the next four hours or so we debated the objectivity of aesthetic values. Of course I didn’t know we were debating such a heady metaphysical topic at the time. I just kept insisting that certain things were simply more beautiful than other things, no matter what the opinions of people happened to be. If everyone were to agree that Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is more beautiful than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I would say that they were wrong. I think there is an objective reality that grounds the judgment that the Ninth Symphony is the more beautiful work and those who disagree are insensitive to the reality of that objective beauty.

Beauty is one of the great transcendentals along with truth and goodness. Though they are transcendentals, I think they are as much objects of our senses as there are objects of sight, sound, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Admittedly there is a subjective component to these sensation, but the question is whether the “value” of these components is the subjective part. I don’t think so. If there is a red apple in front of me, it is objectively red. We might say that it ought to be evaluated as red, because its color-value is red. If I say that I see the apple as green, then my subjective experience of the objective reality is wrong. Likewise, if I see a hungry homeless man begging for food and do not sense that I ought to bring him something to eat, my subjective experience is off-kilter from the moral-value which ought to be impinging upon my moral sense. So also, if someone were to see Botticelli’s Primavera and not judge the work to beautiful, such a person must have a dysfunctional sense of beauty.

Now, it might be true that a person does not particularly like Botticelli’s Primavera. A person can freely admit that they enjoy Brittney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time to O God Beyond All Praising. I don’t think aesthetic value has to do with whether one derives pleasure from an object. I could say that Botticelli’s Primavera is objectively more beautiful than Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, but that I enjoy Pollock’s painting more. What I am admitting is that my feelings do not always accord with that which my senses ought to sense. So I want to distinguish between matters of taste and matters of aesthetic values. To compare back with the other two transcendentals, I might also prefer some moral evils to some moral goods, or falsities over truths. But my preferences do not change objective values.

So, I think it is possible to think a beautiful object is not beautiful by being insensitive to beauty. I also think it is possible to enjoy something less beautiful over something more beautiful because the passions do not always accord with reason. Ultimately, I would argue the following:

1. Truth, goodness, and beauty are eternally and essentially attributed to God.

2. God is simple, i.e. without component essential attributes.

3. Truth, goodness, and beauty must not be essential parts, but different ways of describing essentially the same attribute of God.

4. If something is an objective reality, it differs in its fundamental reality from something that is a subjective reality.

5. If beauty is essentially the same as truth and goodness, it cannot differ in its fundamental reality from them.

6. Truth and goodness are objective realities.

7. Therefore, beauty is an objective reality.

I think this argument would need to be developed and defended further, but I think this is sufficient to ground my belief in the objectivity of aesthetic values. How would you respond to this question?

Posted on August 12, 2011, in PhilPaper Survey and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think #4 is a bit of a problem, in that it commits you to idealism (which I’m not sure is your intent). If objective reality is *fundamentally* different from subjective reality, then that means we, as subjects, cannot access the objective reality, as they are so fundamentally different as to lack any common ground or starting point. If our subjective experience is that different from objective reality, while there may be some objective beauty out there, it is not anything we, as subjects, can ever know.

  2. Hi Amy,

    Thanks for the comment! Your point is well taken. I think 4 might commit me to some ontological presuppositions that are not necessary. Perhaps a more modest version of 4 could be made, something like:

    4*: If something is objectively real, it is not also subjectively real at the same time and in the same way.

    I mean only to draw a distinction between subjective and objective reality. I don’t intend to proffer idealism, or some other exotic metaphysical system. Nor do I want to stumble into the epistemological problems you point out. But, I think the subject can know something of objective reality even though they are in some sense distinct. Perhaps they are not radically distinct. After all, they are both in some sense “realities”.

    How would you have answered this survey question, if I might ask?



  3. Ahh, yeah, I like the revised version better. I think “at the same time and in the same way” gives you a lot more leeway :)

    In terms of my own answer, that’s a hard call…I’d probably be in the “other” camp. On the one hand, I do like some sort of objective criteria through which a work of art can be judged. I’m often trying to steer my students away from relativism when I teach Aristotle’s “Poetics” and I’ve got a bit of a problem with Danto’s idea of the art world public. At the same time, a big part of both artistic production and art appreciation seems to be a link to something deeply personal–the artist’s own subjective experiences that are communicated to others in a way that, if successful, becomes universal. Something can fit all of an objective criteria and still fail to have any impact. A lot of contemporary realistic depictions of nature fall into this category.

    I think I’d like to see some sort of synthesis of the objective and subjective, in a way that can account for subjective experience but doesn’t commit me to accepting some of the more absurd trends in modern art as legitimate. I’m not sure what this would be, though…

  4. the way you describe….”transcendentals”
    so beautiful.

  5. I have a handful of confusions about your argument that make up my counterargument.

    – How are you defining “God”, “objective”, and “truth”? And, given the nature of your claim, what is your evidence for the existence of the first, the qualities of the first, and the relationship between the three. My understanding of the common use of “objective” is that it is a description of a characteristic of reality unrelated to human perception, meaning, if I (and everybody else) were to be removed from a situation, my observations would persist. If they require my presence and my perception, they’re subjective.

    – How is goodness being equated to truth? Truth is the theoretical (and idealistic) consequence of an assumption, based on one’s imperfect module for detecting it. Goodness is that individual’s instinctive desire, derived from the conditions from which THEIR particular happiness stems, along with a presupposition of repeated pattern in other humans.

    – How are either truth or goodness being equated to beauty? Beauty is a preference. Some preferences, more so than others, are fueled with a clearer and more thoroughly invested understanding of one’s own personal experience, the universe, and the emotional interpretation of it all. It’s largely about how they draw upon a relationship between aesthetics and this understanding. Valid biological explanations can be given as to what the majority of people are likely to prefer (ex. the golden ratio, aligned musical sequences), but even that does not assert any sort of objectivity over aesthetics. There is such a thing as biological differentiation, occasionally resulting in an evolution of the species. And all theories of this nature aren’t bulletproof. Even if they were 100% undeniable, and no humans carried any genetic variance, the argument STILL would carry no objective weight because aesthetics are still dependent on an assertion that art SHOULD or SHOULD NOT be one way or another, inherently and indefinitely embedding it in subjectivity.

    • Hi literaryriddick,

      God is, in my estimate, beyond our capacity to provide a complete essential definition. However, I would say that a start to the definition would include the idea that God’s essence is God’s existence, or the idea that God is subsisting existence.

      I would define “objective” as independent of perception or opinion, that is, independent of what a mind happens to think, feel, or perceive. I would define “truth” in the same way Aristotle defines in in the Metaphysics, viz. that truth is to say of what is, that it is, and what is not, that it is not. Truth is related to Being when we note that things can be more or less actual with respect to their essential nature, that is, more or less perfected according to what they are. Particulars can approximate universal ideals to greater or lesser degrees.

      We see, then, that goodness relates to truth in that as a thing is more actualized in its essential nature, more closely what it is, or close to the universal ideal, it is more perfect. And the perfection of a thing is the good to which a thing strives. Truth and goodness, then, are identical in some respect, but from different perspectives. A knife, for instance, can be dull, but a good knife is one which is sharp. And a sharp knife is more truly a knife than a dulled knife. In fact, a knife could be so dulled that it could hardly merit the name of “knife”.

      Lastly, beauty could be objectively defined as a harmony, equality, or radiance in some unity. It is the interplay of unity and distinctions. Indeed, the relationship between truth and goodness, I believe, is itself an instance of unity and distinctness fundamental to metaphysics which is itself beautiful and the prime cause of beauty among all other things. That is, all other things are beautiful insofar as they emulate the beauty fundamental to truth and goodness.

      I understand that we could understand truth, beauty, and goodness in subjective ways. However, I think that is to mistake belief for truth, desires for goodness, and tastes for beauty. The ancients understood these features as inherent to existence, and that we must strive to properly apprehends them. One of the big missteps in modernity is rejecting this ancient wisdom.



  1. Pingback: The Beauty of the Trinitarian God | vexing questions

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