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The Adjective Beautiful








THIS little book, like the great branch of mental science to which it
is an introduction, makes no attempt to "form the taste" of the public

and still less to direct the doings of the artist. It deals not with
ought but with is, leaving to Criticism the inference from the
latter to the former. It does not pretend to tell how things can be
made beautiful or even how we can recognise that things are
beautiful. It takes Beauty as already existing and enjoyed, and seeks
to analyse and account for Beauty's existence and enjoyment. More
strictly speaking, it analyses and accounts for Beauty not inasmuch
as existing in certain objects and processes, but rather as calling
forth (and being called forth by) a particular group of mental
activities and habits. It does not ask: What are the peculiarities of the
things (and the proceedings) which we call Beautiful? but: What
are the peculiarities of our thinking and feeling when in the presence
of a thing to which we apply this adjective? The study of single
beautiful things, and even more, the comparison of various
categories thereof, is indeed one-half of all scientific aesthetics, but
only inasmuch as it adds to our knowledge of the particular mental
activities which such "Beautiful" (and vice versa "Ugly") things
elicit in us. For it is on the nature of this active response on our own
part that depends the application of those terms Beautiful and
Ugly in every single instance; and indeed their application in any
instances whatsoever, their very existence in the human vocabulary.

In accordance with this programme I shall not start with a formal
definition of the word Beautiful, but ask: on what sort of
occasions we make use of it. Evidently, on occasions when we feel
satisfaction rather than dissatisfaction, satisfaction meaning
willingness either to prolong or to repeat the particular experience
which has called forth that word; and meaning also that if it comes
to a choice between two or several experiences, we prefer the
experience thus marked by the word Beautiful. Beautiful, we may
therefore formulate, implies on our part an attitude of satisfaction
and preference. But there are other words which imply that much;
first and foremost the words, in reality synonyms, USEFUL and
GOOD. I call these synonyms because good always implies
good for, or good in, that is to say fitness for a purpose, even
though that purpose may be masked under conforming to a
standard or obeying a commandment, since the standard or
commandment represents not the caprice of a community, a race or a
divinity, but some (real or imaginary) utility of a less immediate

kind. So much for the meaning of good when implying standards
and commandments; ninety-nine times out of a hundred there is,
however, no such implication, and good means nothing more than
satisfactory in the way of use and advantage. Thus a good road
is a road we prefer because it takes us to our destination quickly and
easily. A good speech is one we prefer because it succeeds in
explaining or persuading. And a good character (good friend,
father, husband, citizen) is one that gives satisfaction by the
fulfilment of moral obligations.

But note the difference when we come to Beautiful. A beautiful
road is one we prefer because it affords views we like to look at; its
being devious and inconvenient will not prevent its being
beautiful. A beautiful speech is one we like to hear or
remember, although it may convince or persuade neither us nor
anybody. A beautiful character is one we like to think about but
which may never practically help anyone, if for instance, it exists
not in real life but in a novel. Thus the adjective Beautiful implies
an attitude of preference, but not an attitude of present or future
turning to our purposes. There is even a significant lack of
symmetry in the words employed (at all events in English, French
and German) to distinguish what we like from what we dislike in the
way of weather. For weather which makes us uncomfortable and
hampers our comings and goings by rain, wind or mud, is described
as bad; while the opposite kind of weather is called beautiful,
fine, or fair, as if the greater comfort, convenience, usefulness of
such days were forgotten in the lively satisfaction afforded to our
mere contemplation.

Our mere contemplation! Here we have struck upon the main
difference between our attitude when we use the word good or
useful, and when we use the word beautiful. And we can add to
our partial formula "beautiful implies satisfaction and preference"--the
distinguishing predicate--"of a contemplative kind." This
general statement will be confirmed by an everyday anomaly in our
use of the word beautiful; and the examination of this seeming
exception will not only exemplify what I have said about our
attitude when employing that word, but add to this information the
name of the emotion corresponding with that attitude: the emotion
of admiration. For the selfsame object or proceeding may
sometimes be called good and sometimes beautiful, according
as the mental attitude is practical or contemplative. While we
admonish the traveller to take a certain road because he will find it
good, we may hear that same road described by an enthusiastic
coachman as beautiful, anglice fine or splendid, because there
is no question of immediate use, and the road's qualities are merely
being contemplated with admiration. Similarly, we have all of us
heard an engineer apply to a piece of machinery, and even a surgeon
to an operation, the apparently far-fetched adjective Beautiful, or
one of the various equivalents, fine, splendid, glorious (even
occasionally jolly!) by which Englishmen express their
admiration. The change of word represents a change of attitude. The
engineer is no longer bent upon using the machine, nor the surgeon
estimating the advantages of the operation. Each of these highly
practical persons has switched off his practicality, if but for an
imperceptible fraction of time and in the very middle of a practical
estimation or even of practice itself. The machine or operation, the
skill, the inventiveness, the fitness for its purposes, are being
considered apart from action, and advantage, means and time,
to-day or yesterday; platonically we may call it from the first great
teacher of aesthetics. They are being, in one word, contemplated
with admiration. And admiration is the rough and ready name for
the mood, however transient, for the emotion, however faint,
wherewith we greet whatever makes us contemplate, because
contemplation happens to give satisfaction. The satisfaction may be
a mere skeleton of the "I'd rather than not" description; or it may be
a massive alteration in our being, radiating far beyond the present,
evoking from the past similar conditions to corroborate it; storing
itself up for the future; penetrating, like the joy of a fine day, into
our animal spirits, altering pulse, breath, gait, glance and demeanour;
and transfiguring our whole momentary outlook on life. But,
superficial or overwhelming, this hind of satisfaction connected
with, the word Beautiful is always of the Contemplative order.

And upon the fact we have thus formulated depend, as we shall see,
most of the other facts and formulae of our subject.

This essentially unpractical attitude accompanying the use of the
word Beautiful has led metaphysical aestheticians to two famous,
and I think, quite misleading theories. The first of these defines
aesthetic appreciation as disinterested interest, gratuitously
identifying self-interest with the practical pursuit of advantages we
have not yet got; and overlooking the fact that such appreciation
implies enjoyment and is so far the very reverse of disinterested.
The second philosophical theory (originally Schiller's, and revived
by Herbert Spencer) takes advantage of the non-practical attitude
connected with the word Beautiful to define art and its enjoyment
as a kind of play. Now although leisure and freedom from cares
are necessary both for play and for aesthetic appreciation, the latter
differs essentially from the former by its contemplative nature. For
although it may be possible to watch other people playing football
or chess or bridge in a purely contemplative spirit and with the
deepest admiration, even as the engineer or surgeon may
contemplate the perfections of a machine or an operation, yet the
concentration on the aim and the next moves constitutes on the part
of the players themselves an eminently practical state of mind,
one diametrically opposed to contemplation, as I hope to make
evident in the next section.





Next: Contemplative Satisfaction




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