beauty: merely in the eye of the beholder?

A common view of beauty is that it exists only in someone’s perception…. that it is merely a subjective response. Such a view assumes that there is no such thing as authentic subjectivity, a subjectivity which is a response to what actually is… to something beyond the self.

The idea that our response to beauty can instead be a shared experience among people… that truth, goodness and beauty are actual realities to be encountered by the human person… is a very rich notion, and something which I think lies at the very foundation of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. JPII again and again suggests that we are capable of an authentic subjectivity — that is, that our experience can point us to what is actually true… it doesn’t have to leave us isolated in the likes/dislikes of our own sweating selves, but can instead be a real value-response to the True, Good, and Beautiful.

It seems that John Paul II was  influenced by the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand on questions of aesthetics… see Thomas Howard’s summary of von Hildebrand’s thought for more details. My hunch is that the late John Paul II’s understanding of beauty and value-response was influenced by this 20th century philosopher who was a personal friend of both JPII and Dr. Joseph Seifert of the International Academy of Philosophy in Lichtenstein.

I took a class from Dr. Seifert during a semester in Austria as part of my participation in Franciscan University’s semester-abroad program. In the class, entitled Metaphysics of the Human Person, Seifert developed the thesis that aesthetics is not a merely subjective endeavor. Some works of art are objectively more good/true/beautiful than others… good, true, and beautiful in themselves... whether it be music, something depicted in the plastic arts, etc. The year I studied under him, Seifert wrote an essay on The Objectivity of Beauty in Music and a Critique of Aesthetic Subjectivism, which naturally flowed into his class lectures.

I like to describe Seifert’s presentations as part lecture, part meditation, part contemplation. The whole approach was a bit irritating to those who just wanted to get the necessary notes and move on to the final exam… but I think that his delivery — which included generous pauses, rephrases and a few delighted forays into yet unexplored territory — reinforced his point that philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, was an adventure of discovery, an openness to an actual encounter with Goodness, Beauty, Truth… rather than the projection of a system of meaning onto the universe. He wasn’t there to impose ideas, but to discover truths, with all of the wonder and delight of a child.

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