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Philosophers on beauty

From (slightly verbose) article:

For Plato, beauty was inseparable from eros, or desire. Roughly with Kant, however, philosophers became increasingly “mistrustful of passion” for all the usual reasons: its baseness, unreliability, and emotional illogic. Kantian philosophy sought to eliminate passion from beauty, replacing it with a model of disinterested contemplation. Kant called this category “the aesthetic,” which Mr. Nehamas interprets as “pleasure bereft of desire.” Mr. Nehamas’s brief but reverberant new book, “Only a Promise of Happiness” ( Princeton, 186 pages, $29.95), proposes that we once again talk about beauty as “identical with the spark of desire.” A beautiful object is, quite simply, one that beckons us to it. In the phrase Mr. Nehamas has borrowed from Stendhal, beauty is a “promise of happiness,” a hint that a closer relationship with the beautiful object might enrich our lives. When we are captivated by beauty – in a person or an artwork – we find ourselves following wherever that beauty may lead, well aware that we might be forever changed by the encounter.

The difference between high and low culture is thus spread out along a spectrum of how powerful – and how enduring – our experiences with beauty are. On one end is pornography, which provides ephemeral satisfaction of uncomplicated desires. On the other end is Proust, which Mr. Nehamas claims he literally could not imagine his life without. In the middle lie ” Olympia” and “St. Elsewhere” and other preoccupations that hold our interest to varying degrees. We might one day find, as Swann did with Odette, that we have wasted decades in pursuit of an undeserving beauty. We might also find that years of sitting in front of “Frasier” reruns has proven more inspiring than we ever would have guessed.

Beauty is only ever that promise: There is no a priori judgment that might reveal what will prove evanescent and what sustaining. In seeking such a failsafe, the philosophical tradition since Kant has made aesthetics a science of indifference. By inventing “pleasure bereft of desire,” it found itself unable to tell us anything meaningful about beauty or desire. In Mr. Nehamas’s vision, the possibility of beauty is well worth the price of uncertainty.


  1. lisa
    April 11, 2011 at 10:59 am

    so give me some friggin examples of philosophers that agree with outer beauty okaayyyyy? i’ll check back in 5 min.

  2. January 1, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Wow, incredible weblog format! How lengthy have you ever been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall glance of your web site is magnificent, as smartly as the content material!

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