One important source of the concept of aesthetic disinterestedness isthe Third Earl of Shaftesbury's dialogue The Moralists, wherethe argument is framed in terms of a natural landscape: if you arelooking at a beautiful valley primarily as a valuable real estateopportunity, you are not seeing it for its own sake, and cannot fullyexperience its beauty. If you are looking at a lovely woman andconsidering her as a possible sexual conquest, you are not able toexperience her beauty in the fullest or purest sense; you aredistracted from the form as represented in your experience. AndShaftesbury, too, localizes beauty to the representational capacity ofthe mind. (Shaftesbury 1738, 222)
For Kant, some beauties are dependent—relative to the sort ofthing the object is—and others are free or absolute. A beautifulox would be an ugly horse, but abstract textile designs, for example,may be beautiful in themselves without a reference group or“concept,” and flowers please whether or not we connectthem to their practical purposes or functions in plant reproduction(Kant 1790, section 16). The idea in particular that free beauty iscompletely separated from practical use and that the experiencer of itis not concerned with the actual existence of the object leads Kant toconclude that absolute or free beauty is found in the form ordesign of the object, or as Clive Bell put it, in thearrangement of lines and colors (in the case of painting) (Bell 1914).By the time Bell writes in the early twentieth century, however,beauty is out of fashion in the arts, and Bell frames his view not interms of beauty but in terms of a general formalist conception ofaesthetic value.
Recent work on the theory of beauty has revived this idea, and turningaway from pleasure has turned toward love or longing (which are notnecessarily entirely pleasurable experiences) as the experientialcorrelate of beauty. Both Sartwell and Nehamas use Sappho's fragment16 as an epigraph. Sartwell defines beauty as “the object oflonging” and characterizes longing as intense and unfulfilleddesire. He calls it a fundamental condition of a finite being in time,where we are always in the process of losing whatever we have, and arethus irremediably in a state of longing. And Nehamas writes
Thinkers of the 18th century—many of them orientedtoward empiricism—accounted for beauty in terms of pleasure. TheItalian historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori, for example, in quite atypical formulation, says that “By beautiful wegenerally understand whatever, when seen, heard, or understood,delights, pleases, and ravishes us by causing within us agreeablesensations” (see Carritt 1931, 60). In Hutcheson it is not clearwhether we ought to conceive beauty primarily in terms of classicalformal elements or in terms of the viewer's pleasurable response. Hebegins the Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty andVirtue with a discussion of pleasure. And he appears to assertthat objects which instantiate his “compound ratio of uniformityand variety’ are peculiarly or necessarily capable of producingpleasure:
Edmund Burke, expressing an ancient tradition, writes that, “bybeauty I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies, by whichthey cause love, or some passion similar to it” (Burke 1757,83). As we have seen, in almost all treatments of beauty, even themost apparently object or objectively-oriented, there is a moment inwhich the subjective qualities of the experience of beauty areemphasized: rhapsodically, perhaps, or in terms of pleasure orataraxia, as in Schopenhauer. For example, we have alreadyseen Plotinus, for whom beauty is certainly not subjective, describethe experience of beauty ecstatically. In the idealist tradition, thehuman soul, as it were, recognizes in beauty its true origin anddestiny. Among the Greeks, the connection of beauty with love isproverbial from early myth, and Aphrodite the goddess of love won theJudgment of Paris by promising Paris the most beautiful woman in theworld.
We have now reached our definition of beauty, which, in the terms ofour successive analysis and narrowing of the conception, is valuepositive, intrinsic, and objectified. Or, in less technical language,Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing. … Beautyis a value, that is, it is not a perception of a matter of fact or ofa relation: it is an emotion, an affection of our volitional andappreciative nature. An object cannot be beautiful if it can givepleasure to nobody: a beauty to which all men were forever indifferentis a contradiction in terms. … Beauty is therefore a positivevalue that is intrinsic; it is a pleasure. (Santayana 1896,50–51)
The influence of this series of thoughts on philosophical aestheticshas been immense. One might mention related approaches taken by suchfigures as Schopenhauer, Hanslick, Bullough, and Croce, for example. Asomewhat similar though more adamantly subjectivist line is taken bySantayana, who defines beauty as ‘objectified pleasure.’The judgment of something that it is beautiful responds to the factthat it induces a certain sort of pleasure; but this pleasure isattributed to the object, as though the object itself were havingsubjective states.
By a principle of taste I mean a principle under the condition ofwhich we could subsume the concept of the object, and thus infer, bymeans of a syllogism, that the object is beautiful. But that isabsolutely impossible. For I must immediately feel the pleasure in therepresentation of the object, and of that I can be persuaded by nogrounds of proof whatever. Although, as Hume says, all critics canreason more plausibly than cooks, yet the same fate awaits them. Theycannot expect the determining ground of their judgment [to be derived]from the force of the proofs, but only from the reflection of thesubject upon its own proper state of pleasure or pain. (Kant 1790,section 34)
However, there has been a revival of interest in beauty in both artand philosophy in recent years, and several theorists have made newattempts to address the antinomy of taste. To some extent, suchapproaches echo G.E. Moore's: “To say that a thing is beautifulis to say, not indeed that it is itself good, but that it is anecessary element in something which is: to prove that a thing istruly beautiful is to prove that a whole, to which it bears aparticular relation as a part, is truly good” (Moore 1903, 201).One interpretation of this would be that what is fundamentallyvaluable is the situation in which the object and the personexperiencing are both embedded; the value of beauty might include bothfeatures of the beautiful object and the pleasures of theexperiencer.
There are many ways to interpret Plato's relation to classicalaesthetics. The political system sketched in The Republiccharacterizes justice in terms of the relation of part and whole. ButPlato was also no doubt a dissident in classical culture, and theaccount of beauty that is expressed specifically in TheSymposium—perhaps the key Socratic text for neo-Platonismand for the idealist conception of beauty—expresses anaspiration toward beauty as perfect unity.
Kant similarly concedes that taste is fundamentally subjective, thatevery judgment of beauty is based on a personal experience, and thatsuch judgments vary from person to person.
The candidate for this initiation cannot, if his efforts are to berewarded, begin too early to devote himself to the beauties of thebody. First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, hewill fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that hispassion may give life to noble discourse. Next he must consider hownearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of anyother, and he will see that if he is to devote himself to lovelinessof form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and everybody is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to bethe lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one intodue proportion by deeming it of little or no importance.