Aesthetic Philosophy – Defining Beauty in the Twentieth Century

Beauty is widely defined as a subjective aspect of human qualities that makes those qualities pleasurable to see. These qualities may be physical, mental, social or aesthetic in nature. Thus, beauty is subjective because the object to be aesthetically perceived does not possess a unique or internal quality that can be objectively measured. Such objects, like people, landscapes and beautiful works of art, are the object of aesthetics, a major branch of psychology.


In the twentieth century, the quest for beauty was linked to the quest for a scientific definition and to the need to justify aesthetic judgment as a rational science. The first attempt to define beauty was Merleau’s definition of beauty in 1854. According to Merleau, beauty is a proportionate proportion between what we know and what we believe. This means that beauty consists of certain proportions that are both proportionate to the actual object as well as to our preconceived ideas about the object.

The need for a universal standard of beauty arose during the enlightenment, when the separation between the pleasing sight and the pleasing conception became blurred. Aesthetic judgments became regarded as personal, even though they were not objective. Beauty became associated with emotionalism and it was not long before people started to associate the pleasing appearance of things with a particular person or group. The word beauty became associated with status and the intellect and soon artists started to claim that they were producing works of beauty in order to elevate their status in society.