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4 Books about Beauty
Hello Aesthetics People!
Having spent a long time reading and writing about aesthetics, I’m often asked for book or article recommendations. This is sometimes a difficult question because it’s not always clear what specific aspect of aesthetics someone might find interesting. It’s likely different than the questions, concepts, and ideas that I find most intriguing. However, I find it easier to recommend ‘introductory’ texts—those books that are written as an entryway into a particular field or question. I plan to write a series of posts recommending some books about a particular topic or theme, beginning with this one focusing on books about beauty.
Roger Scruton wrote his Very Short Introduction to Beauty in 2009, which became part of the well-known Oxford series in 2011 with the paperback edition. In the first part of this book, Scruton locates beauty in natural settings, human beings, art, and the everyday. Then, Scruton highlights that beauty is a value that benefits people. His preference for classical art and music occasionally peaks out, but his ultimate point is that we continue to diminish the value of beauty in our lives, which is antithetical to our flourishing.
Crispin Sartwell, similar to the mission of Scruton’s book, presents an accessible entryway into the philosophy of beauty. In his concise book on Beauty (2022), Sartwell delves into the main approaches to beauty, and he breathes fresh life into the tiresome topic of whether beauty is objective or subjective, which I have summarized here from another of his writings. He adds an important, but often overlooked, examination of the ways that beauty enters into political discussion and practice. Overall, this provides an excellent starting point for the philosophy of beauty.
Nancy Etcoff wrote Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (1999) at a time when the importance of beauty was being relegated to the whims of beholders, culture, or corporations. Etcoff does not deny these influences, but she locates beauty as a fundamental aspect of human psychology. Etcoff explores human beauty in this book and how it impacts our actions. The desire for beauty stretches back to the early human history and has created instincts that continue to drive our current actions and desires. But with recent knowledge, we also don’t have to subject ourselves to the instincts of the past. Being aware of these origins helps us more forward.
Arthur Danto, in his book The Abuse of Beauty, tracks the decline of beauty in the realm of art. At one point in the history of art, beauty provided a goal toward which artists strove, regardless of whether it was achieved. Beauty served as a standard by which to measure great art, but the 20th century challenged the necessity of beauty for art through movements like Dada, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art. Danto was profoundly impacted by Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, which he saw as the first time art was visually indistinguishable from non-art. Tracking this detachment with beauty in art, Danto agrees that beauty is no longer essential for art. But he urges that does not mean it is inexcusable for art either. And most importantly, Danto concludes that beauty is a value important for our lives as human beings.
Those four books (from philosophy and one from science) are accessible to a wider readership, with Danto’s book being the most difficult of this group. But here’s a few extra recommendations for the reader who is ready for some more advanced theories of beauty.
Umberto Eco (editor). History of Beauty.
Allen Carlson and Glenn Parsons. Functional Beauty.
G. Gabrielle Starr. Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience.
Let me know if you have any books on beauty to add to this list!
What I’ve been up to.
My latest for BeautyMatter examines recent research that suggests that our identity is intimately connected with our aesthetic taste. I’m excited to meet this awesome team of people at the upcoming event Future50.
I attended the latest OffChain event for the Boston Chapter. Unsurprisingly, I was the only philosopher there, but I chatted with people who are interested in philosophy and aesthetics. I manage to find my people wherever I go!
To invite me to speak or write to your group or organization, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org