Towards a Unified Theory of Beauty

Literature & Aesthetics 9:7-27 (1999)
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The Pythagorean tradition dominates the understanding of beauty up until the end of the 18th Century. According to this tradition, the experience of beauty is stimulated by certain relations perceived to be between an object/construct's elements. As such, the object of the experience of beauty is indeterminate: it has neither a determinate perceptual analogue (one cannot simply identify beauty as you can a straight line or a particular shape) nor a determinate concept (there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for beauty at the semantic level). By the 13th Century in the West, the pleasure experienced in beauty is characterized as disinterested. Yet, on the basis that all cultural manifestations of the pythagorean theory of beauty recognize that judgments of beauty are genuine judgments, we would want to say that judgments of beauty are lawful. In addition, from ancient times, up until after Kant, philosophers of beauty within this tradition recognize two kinds of beauty: a universal, unchanging beauty coexisting with a relative, dynamic beauty. These two kinds of beauty and the tensions discussed above, are reconciled and dissolved respectively, according to the metaphysical/religious commitments of the particular author. As yet, however, these features of beauty have not been reconciled within a physicalist worldview. This is what I set out to do.

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Jennifer A. McMahon
University of Adelaide


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