Beauty as a Concept

Most of us would agree that watching the sun set over the horizon is a thing of beauty. In an instant, we are leaving our complex world behind and feel at peace for a moment or two…

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Beauty as an Emotional Experience

What is it about a perfect sunset that makes us feel that way?  or why are we disappointed when clouds obscure the sunset’s final moments above the horizon?  Lots of folks have discussed the nature of “beauty”and how it holds our mind’s attention.  Researchers have found that people have similar beauty standards across China, India and the USA.  Back in the 1750’s, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between beauty as an intuitive or sensible experience and a rational approach to aesthetics on the other.   In the first instance, beauty is an emotion.  In the second instance, we are trying to use logic to establish whether something- a painting, a song or a piece of clothing – is beautiful. Clearly, watching the sunset is an emotional experience, beyond logic.

Is Logic All We’ve Got?

Science and engineering are purely based on logic.  In fact, logic is the main human language of reasoning. The entire “digital” world of computers is based on logic. Moore and Parker argue that logic is the mode in which our mind reasons best about our reality. But there is another important way to think, and analyze, and feel: conceptual thinking.  I covered conceptual thinking briefly in another post.  Every day, we build, update or modify complex, flexible, abstract representations of reality called “concepts”. For instance, we recognize just about any cat by matching it to our concept of “cat”, even if the cat wears a costume!  Psychologists have tried to understand how we build these abstract models. Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss psychologist developed a theory about the nature and development of human intelligence which includes observations about how children develop concepts.  In general, however, these analyses fall short of explaining the mathematical and physical structure of concepts, how they are learned and how they work.

Beauty as a Concept

Conceptual thinking may not be as definitive or as accurate as logic (although logic based on bad assumptions will yield bad answers!) but it is much faster. We can figure out with near certainty that something is a cat much faster with conceptual thinking than with logic: Does it have fur? Does it have whiskers? Is its size compatible with that of a cat? Is it not a dog? Etc…

When we see the sun setting over the horizon, the scene before us, no matter where it is, reduces itself to a simple, timeless, abstract and moving concept:  beauty.

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