Aesthetic Theory / Aesthetics / Art / Cognitive Science / Creativity / Philosophy / Quality / Science

On Beauty

File:Lichen on Nunavut rocks.jpg

Beauty is at the border between boredom and confusion. Think of hearing music. If the music is very simple, like just one or two notes repeating in a fixed pattern, it is boring. If it is extremely complex, you get confused and it is perceived as noise. In the middle between the two is the “beauty zone”. Things in this area are not boring, because new, surprising things are happening all the time. They are also not confusing because the rate at which something new is happening or is being discovered is not too high. So the new information can be integrated into the pre-existing knowledge successfully.

So the feeling of beauty, I think, is an emotion of success of perception that arises if the knowledge we use in perceiving things (like, for example, the knowledge of a music style that we have already) is successfully extended to assimilate, i.e. to cover or include the new information. This extension is a creative process producing new or modified knowledge.

The experience of beauty is, as a result, subjectively different because each of us has different knowledge, depending on previous experiences, and it also depends on the culture that shapes these experiences. However, by exposing oneself to experiencing structures of a certain kind (a style of music or painting, for example) one can learn to appreciate things as beautiful that are confusing or boring initially because the structures contained in them can only be perceived once some knowledge of the “grammar” underlying the respective style is acquired.

If this hypothesis about the nature of the phenomenon of beauty is true, the most beautiful structures, both in music and in visual art, should have a mixture of regularity (to avoid confusion) and irregularity (to avoid boredom), producing a medium rate of novelty when we experience them.

The most beautiful structures are so rich that they remain interesting over a longer time since we discover new things all the time. Quality (in a formal or structural sense) could then be defined as this ability of an object to remain beautiful over an extended time. The things that have the highest quality become more interesting when we get to know them better, and remain interesting. As we discover structures in them, we also discover new things that we did not perceive before. Low-quality-objects, on the other hand, quickly become boring because after a short time, we have discovered all the structure that is there.

The purpose of beauty is to organize our perceptional learning processes. In this respect, it can be seen as a cognitive emotion. It is not irrational but part of the infrastructure of our rationality, steering our perceptual (as well as intellectual) learning processes along a path on which we can progress and grow.

This concept of beauty applies to art and artifacts as well as to things from nature. Since we are able to make things or processes that can be perceived by ourselves, we are able to create things artificially which dwell in the beauty zone at the border between boredom and confusion. This possibility is one of the roots of art. I am not saying here that all art is or has to be beautiful or that beauty defines art,  but I think that creating beautiful things is a legitimate goal for the artist.

(The picture is from I find it beautiful, but this is a matter of taste :-).

Related articles: ( a first sketch of the same ideas)

35 thoughts on “On Beauty

  1. What a brilliant post. Seriously, this is great. I’ve never studied aesthetics so i don’t know if you’ve broken new ground here, but it made perfect sense to me. Bravo!

    • Partially these ideas come from others. In the 1950s and 1960s the philosopher May Bense applied information theory to aesthetics. What i have called the rate of novelty here is, in information theory terms, the rate of information. These ideas have been developed further by others, but I am not up to date with the literature. There is some literature on this topic. Perception can be described as information compression, that idea is connected. If I have time…
      The new idea I have added (although it is not really in this post) is the connection to the theory of creativity of Kurt Ammon. If you perceive something and you already have complete knowledge of the thing, your knowledge of it can be described as an algorithm that parses that information. In that case, the structure appears boring. There is no challenge. Creativity in Ammon’s sense is the ability to break out of any formal theory or algotithm, to leave any given scheme. In cognition, there is no fixed algorithm of thinking or perception. Instead, we are always modifying the knowledge. Beauty, in my view, is an experience of success of doing such changes to the existing knowledge to assimilate new information.
      In this article, I have tried to formulate my ideas on this in a way that is not too technical. I did not want to speak of algorithms or information theory (you find such things on my philosophy blog instead).

    • A lot of philosophical aesthetics is not concerned with such questions at all. They deal with other questions, like what is art or how do you distinguish art from non-art. The topic of beauty somehow got lost on the way. One reason is that people got the impression that you cannot define what beauty is and that it was a metaphysical concept. In the philosophy of Plato, for example, it is. People thought beauty was something like perfectness. In my view, on the contrary, beauty arises when anomalies occur in perception but can successfully integrated. If something is perfect, it can be described completely in terms of a formal theory or algorithm. Then it will be boring. The old philosophers, I think, where totally on the wrong track with this. Perfectness is boring. If you try to devise rules on how to create a perfect piece of art, you will end up with something boring. The beautiful always requires an element of creativity or randomness.

  2. One of the buildings I find really beautiful [I have only seen photographs] is symetrical on all sides, what I think you would call regular. The other building is the Casa Mila by Gaudi, a building that is a built sculpture, which in this case is irregular. What am getting at is that it is possible to see beauty in something that is regular and irregular depending ,as you say, on the knowledge one has assimilated.

    • Symmetry means there are correlations between parts of the structure. Discovering these leads to an experience of beauty. If the structure is highly regular, however, I would expect it to become boring after some time. You will stop noticing it or being fascinated by it. The more complex building on the other hand might remain interesting or fascinating for a longer time.
      These effects, of course, need empirical testing. The problem in designing experiments, however, is that it really depends on the knowledge somebody had before and that will be different from one person to the next and depend on the cultural background. So designing meaningful experiments would be challenging.

  3. I like what you write! As I have time, I hope to go back and read more of your posts. I love the subject of beauty in philosophical conversations 🙂 I would add to it right now but can’t think of anything smart to say! …it will come to me

  4. Very interesting! Thank you for writing this!

    It reminds me of a couple of things: the cognitive development theory that human beings have an innate desire to understand and impose patterned order on phenomena, that when we can’t do this we experience discomfort. An example of this is that Charles Darwin was incredibly frustrated by peacocks — hated them — because according to his initial theories, the tail should have made the peacock unfit (that was before he understood selective mating). I read a study that said that the pleasure centers of the brain light up when people are shown something beautiful, so it makes sense that we are hard wired for beauty and understanding to be rewards and that there is a relationship between the two.

    Also, the best yoga class I ever took, the teacher was talking about the tension between stability and freedom and that the more you have of one, the more you can have of another. So stability is that regularity, and freedom is the deviation from the regularity. After that class, I saw that everywhere. For example, trees have to have roots in proportion to their branches.

    • This concept pair of stability and freedom is interesting. It is evolutionary absolutely necessary to find the regularity in our environment, so that we are able to recognize the new (possibly important or even dangerous) things. The regularity is then the stability part and the new information is the part we have to pay attention to. We do that using creativity, which is the ability to break out of schemes.

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  12. I loved this post Nannus. You’ve explained a complex (for me!) idea in a beautifully lucid way, thank you. I can now look back to when viewers of my artwork have said they can keep looking at my paintings continuing to see things of interest in them, with a heightened sense of appreciation and fulfillment.
    oh, and thank you for stopping by my own blog. 🙂

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  18. That which lifts or touches the heart and reminds us of our finer senses, that is beautiful. As you so clearly state, it does not have to be perfectly balanced or extremely unusual but it does have to contain an element that deep down we realise will never be satisfied by just one look. Returning again and again we wonder at our powers of observation and realise that we are looking at an aspect of our selves. We constantly search for links with our natural surroundings while questioning how we fit into the nature of things. There is perhaps a resonance that can be associated with visual beauty the way resonance is recognised in association with music. Thank you for this and all your other thought provoking postings.

    • I think the term “resonance” is quite fitting.
      Generally, the ideas I have tried to express here would, in case they are on the right track to explain the phenomenon of beauty, only be part of the whole thing. Other emotional and cognitive components contribute to the total of what we experience. In our subjective experience, the different components of it that we might define are not really separated. Trying to etch out such a component is an abstraction. Even if such processes underly our experience, that does not change the experience as such and the value it has for us, and we might simply ignore such attempts at explanation. The subjective point of view is the primary one ( The “scientific” or analyticla point of view “from the outside” is optional.
      There are two camps in philosophy, an analytical camp on one side and a phenomenological camp (what the analytic philosophers call “continental philosophy”) on the other side. I think I have one foot in each of these camps.
      Maybe a bit off-topic to your comment, but that is the thoughts it triggered 🙂

  19. Hello Nannus.

    I really enjoyed the reading here!!!…

    I think that you are right when you held that “Beauty is at the border between boredom and confusion”…

    Maybe that golden mean between boredom and confusion entrains somehow that beauty itself consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to harmony

    The examples that follow your statement made me think of the Pythagorean school. Besides that was something that the artists from the Renaissance would keep in mind and thus refresh again in their artistic creations. ( An example would be Leonardo Da Vinci and the Golden Ratio)…

    As to this excerpt on your post:

    “The experience of beauty is, as a result, subjectively different because each of us has different knowledge, depending on previous experiences, and it also depends on the culture that shapes these experiences”…

    I would mean to refute both Plato and Aristotle’s approaches on the concept of Beauty… Because as we know, they both think that it was an objective experience, both in the sense that “it was not localized in the response of the beholder”.

    Finally, I wanted to highlight the last paragraph of your post. The ending lines are eloquent and I can;t but nod in agreement with you as regard to the artist’s goals!.

    Best wishes and it was great to visit you, thank you!.

    Aquileana 😀

    • Hi dear Nannus..
      I was going to drop a comment but just saw that I already did…
      Anyhow… I can see why you said that you believed that Plato was wrong when he claimed that Beauty was an universal Form, and that Beauty… but keeping in mind that you state above that … “In the middle between the two extremes of boredom and confusion … is the beauty zone”.. I am guessing that one can not deny that the ideas of order, proportion and symmetry should be present …
      I think that you are assuming an aristotelian position so to speak as you might be making reference to the Golden Mean… i.e Beauty is a virtue, placed between two vices… Needless to say that Aristotle used these concepts in his Ethics, but I think that they also apply to Aesthetics… Here is my post on this subject…
      Sending best wishes. Aquileana ☀️

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