Early Theories of Beauty

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Beauty of a product means its visual attractiveness and it is one of the most important goals in the design of products. It has also been studied almost continually from antiquity until today. Some most influential approaches that have been used in the study of beauty, i.e. aesthetics, are enumerated below, though most of them are probably of little use for tackling the problems of today. Most easily applicable into a normative use and in product design is the approach of perception psychology which is discussed on the page Beauty of a Product.

The Concept of Beauty

While ancient Egypt produced a multitude of objects we today call beautiful, the word beauty was practically non-existent in the writings of the time. Probably the earliest mention to anything near beauty is a title in the library catalogues of the Edphu temple: Instructions for wall decoration. These instructions have, however, been lost.

In Egypt, builders and decorators seem to have used a mathematical theory of proportions which is unknown to us. We only know that around 600 BC Egyptian researchers measured the reliefs in Sakkara, in the tomb of pharaoh Zhoser, which were made ca. 2800 BC. On this basis they constructed a system of proportions which was later widely used. Perhaps it is this system that we now can see in many Egyptian reliefs as thin lines with no apparent meaning. On the left here, you can find a typical example from Lepsius (1849): Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopien.

The next mention to theological decoration comes from Vitruve (I,II,5). "The temples of Minerva, Mars, and Hercules, will be Doric, since the virile strength of these gods makes daintiness entirely inappropriate to their houses. In temples to Venus, ... and the Nymphs, the Corinthian order will be found to have peculiar significance, because these are delicate divinities..."

In the Middle Ages, the research of beauty usually was classified as a branch of theology. The argument was that beauty is an attribute of God. The most notable researcher was Augustine (354 - 430: De vera religione). He said that beauty consists of unity and order which emerge from complexity. Such an order might be e.g. rhythm, symmetry or simple proportions.

Another eminent philosopher, Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), wrote on the essence of beauty. He thought that beauty was the result of three prerequisites: wholeness (lat. integritas) or perfection, harmony (lat. proportio) and clarity or brightness. (From: Summa theologica.)

When studying an empirical object or an attribute which is difficult to be defined or to be measured directly, an alternative is to define it through other objects or attributes which are easier to study. Thus, instead of a real definition we use a nominal definition for the object or the attribute. This trick was used in the study of beauty by St.Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, see the passages above.

Nominal definitions abound in the dialogues of Plato (b. 428/9 BC) and there are also a few passages where he tries to clarify the meaning of beauty. His method is not really empirical; it resembles modern phenomenology. Plato relies heavily on the earlier experience of himself and his audience, and also on the meanings accumulated in the words of conventional language. Indeed, when contemplating the Greek word for "beautiful", kalos, Plato noted that this word also means "good" and "proper". It is said that Socrates commented on this and asserted that his potato shaped nose was quite practical; therefore it must also be rated as beautiful.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) had the habit of clarifying concepts through enumerating their components. For beauty (Gk. kalliste) these would be order, repetition of measure (Gk. symmetria) and exactness (Metaphysics XIII, M, iii).

Beauty as Attribute of Object

Plato's writings on beauty are based on his doctrine of ideas. He explained that what we know from everyday experience is not knowledge but only belief or assumption (Gk. doxa) and we should try to find behind it the permanent real knowledge (Gk. episteme) which consists of "ideas". One of the ideas is "beauty" (Gk. to kalon), or the permanent property which belongs to all beautiful objects. This property remains the same irrespective of whether somebody admires the object or not.

"That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is." (Plato: Timaeus, trans. Benjamin Jowett).

"That which is always the same" or the constant essence of beauty might consist of e.g. proportions of the dimensions. This idea is attributed to Pythagoras (ca. 532 BC) who is said to have discovered the fact that certain arithmetical proportions in musical instruments, e.g. the lengths of strings, produce harmony of tones (on the right, an illustration from Gafurio's Theorica Musice, 1492). On the basis of these musical harmonies the Greek tried to explain also the beauty in the proportions of the human body, of architecture and other objects.

Vitruve (I:III:2) said that a building is beautiful when the appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste, and when its members are in due proportion according to correct principles of "symmetry" (where "symmetry" means "a proper agreement between the members of the work itself, and relation between the different parts and the whole general scheme, in accordance with a certain part selected as standard. -- The definition of symmetry is found in I:II:4).

During the Middle Ages, proportions and the ratios of numbers were considered important attributes of objects, as can be seen in the "sketchbook" of Villard de Honnecourt, from 13C, an illustration of which is seen on the left. The document contains no explanation to these figures.

The renaissance revived again the study of Pythagorean proportions.

On the right, a study of Leonardo, showing the ratios 1:3:1:2:1:2 in the proportions of the human face.

On the left, sketches by Cesariano where the human proportions are applied to architecture.

The greatest architect-writer of the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), emphasized the formal attributes of buildings and their details, proportionality and ornamentation. Beauty (Lat. pulchritudo) is "a Harmony of all the Parts, in whatsoever Subject it appears, fitted together with such Proportion and Connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for the Worse" (VI:II). This seems not say much more than that there must be harmony, proportion and connection between the parts of the beautiful object. However, on this foundation Alberti elaborated an extensive theory of architectural design which later also provided a basis for a long series of followers.

Georg Th. Fechner tried to verify the hypotheses of Pythagoras and the Renaissance theorists concerning the inherent beauty of some proportions. In his laboratory experiments, described in Vorschule der Ästhetik, 1876, he studied the aesthetic preferences of common people with no aesthetic training. He studied, for example, which proportions a quadrangle had to have in order to be estimated as beautiful by the subjects.

These experiments were later pursued by other researchers, notably by Weber, whose summary of some results can be seen here on the right. The ratio of height and base of each quadrangle is marked on the horizontal axis of the diagram, and the vertical axis indicates how high a percentage of test subjects estimated each different quadrangle as beautiful. Neither the proportions of Pythagoras (1 : 2 etc.), recommended also in many newer theories of art and architecture, nor the so-called golden section (1 : 1,62, in the figure marked with G) were considered more beautiful than others.

The study of beauty as a quality of objects was revived in a modern approach in 1928 when American mathematician George David Birkhoff presented his often cited equation:

aesthetic value = amount of order divided by the complexity of the product

The two latter elements in Birkhoff's equation can be measured easily, at least on a rudimentary level. Birkhoff himself tested the equation by designing a vase (picture on the right) which had a great value of beauty in his opinion because only a very limited number of elements (only 3 different curves) were needed to create a highly systematic result.

Birkhoff's method has later been applied to a coffee pot made in the Rosenthal factory in the picture on the left (Gunzenhäuser, 1968, 203). This pot consists of several dozens of pictorial elements. According to Birkhoff's formula its aesthetic value would thus not equal his own creation.

Another of Birkhoff's hypotheses was to become very important for later research: his assertion that the feeling of pleasure which is physically caused by the effort to perceive a complicated object and the success in it, is the same thing as the aesthetic pleasure obtained when looking at works of art. On the basis of this assumption it is possible to develop theory that can easily be transformed into normative design theory and which will be applicable to new design, too. This approach will be discussed in the chapter Perception and Pleasure on the page Beauty of a Product.

The following decades saw, mainly in Germany, a long series of studies in which researchers compiled patterns by assembling simple components, measured their complexity and how systematic they were, and tested how beautiful the test subjects found these figures. However, these investigations did not prove very fruitful. Few people found simple figures beautiful, and as to real works of art, it is difficult to measure Birkhoff's parameters in them. Nowadays, the mainstream of research tends to regard beauty not as a property of objects, but either as a sensation related to perception, or alternatively as a message. Both these research paradigms will be discussed below.

Beauty as Attribute of Perception

In the previously treated traditional research of art, it was thought that beauty would be a characteristic of the object. Not every philosopher in antiquity agreed on this theory of beauty. On the contrary, Epicurus (342/1 - 270/1) presented a totally different theory, stating that when one senses beauty, a feeling of pleasure (Greek hedone) is involved. In Epicurus, we find the origins of the hedonistic theory.

Vitruve, who developed the aesthetics of practical constructing, certainly knew both the theories of Plato and those of Epicurus and tried to combine them in his own theory. In fact, he agrees with Epicurus (I:III:2) to say that beauty equals grace; but a sensation of grace is likely to be produced especially if the product has the right proportions - this was an idea borrowed from Plato. On this somewhat shaky basis, Vitruve wrote practical instructions of design enabling artists to attain beauty in art.

The research of art as a pleasure of the senses didn't conform to the philosophy of the young Christian church. In so far as profane beauty was worth studying, its definition had to be found in the Holy Scriptures (this approach was already discussed earlier here). Because of the pressure from the church, we have to wait until the Renaissance before the first prominent French theorist of architecture, Philibert de l'Orme (about 1510-1570) turns the development into a direction which would later give rise to modern psychology of perception.

De l'Orme did not believe in the absolute beauty of proportions. After verifying by measuring that the Pantheon had Corinthian columns designed with as many as three different proportions (in disobedience to Vitruvian rules which allowed only one set of proportions), he concluded that the most suitable dimensions for a column depended on how big or small the column was, and if it was placed low or high up in the structure of the building. This meant that the actual form of the column did not make it beautiful; instead, the final impression of beauty was created only when you were looking at the column.
This encouraged de l'Orme to add new models of his own to the list of traditional column models in his design instructions of the "orders".

De l'Orme's thoughts were further developed by a fellow countryman, Claude Perrault (1613-88) and expressed especially in the comments in his French translation of Vitruvius in 1673. Perrault says in them that beauty is not absolute (beauté positive); instead, the sense of beauty is acquired through a habit or by studying (beauté arbitraire).

In 1750, A.G. Baumgarten started looking into the prerequisites of perceiving works of art. He wanted to ascertain why man experiences beauty and appreciates works of art. He was thus doing psychological research of art. Baumgarten borrowed the name "aesthetics" from the Greek "aisthetikos", "related to perception".

Baumgarten's initiative did not immediately give rise to a particularly convincing theory. A better hypothesis was presented by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who made aesthetics part of his extensive work of general philosophical history, Kritik der Urtheilskraft (1790). Following in Epicurus' footsteps, he stated that "beauty is something that pleases everyone regardless of their opinions" ... "A pleasing object is beautiful."

Over the years, Baumgarten's studies inspired a new, vital branch of science: perceptual psychology. An example of architectural research conducted in the spirit of perceptual psychology is Arkitekturens uttrycksmedel by Sven Hesselgren (1954). The book influenced for example J.S. Sirén's (Finnish professor on architecture, 1889 - 1961) Lectures on Forms (Muoto-oppi):

"No recipes for creating beauty can ever be devised, but by analysing, we can ascertain the causes of different impressions, their sources and origins, and thus make architectural creation easier when the designer becomes more conscious of the nature of his own creation and the factors governing the results" (6).

Sirén explained (16) that clear, decisive figures please the eye because they are easily understood and thus give satisfaction. The designer should not create uncertainty in the spectator by e.g. dividing a distinct whole into two parts of the same size, as opposed to what has been done in the pictures here on the right.

Sirén found psychological grounds for many other rules of thumb for design, for example for the need of contrast:

"In everyday life, the greatest means of refreshment are based on contrasts. Hot and cold, night and day, shadow and sunshine, fire and water, mountains and valleys, and work and play are all concepts and phenomena without which our lives would be much poorer... The same need of stimulation exists in design..." (60)

Many early researchers of perceptual psychology adhered to the behavioristic doctrine of psychology which avoids interfering the functions of cognition by putting questions to test persons. They wanted to restrict their study to what was visible from the outside - the stimuli and responses of the subjects - treating the cognition as a "black box". With this approach, however, it was almost impossible to find out what happens in human cognition between the stimulus and a response, and after some years the behavioristic style of study fell into disuse.

Theorists of cognitive psychology held a quite different view: they did not hesitate to mix experiments and queries, and formed bold hypothetical models of the internal working and subdivision of the cognition, such as the one by Matti Syvänen, 1985, 165, figure on the right:

A turning point in understanding perception was the introduction of the concept of pattern or outline (in German: Gestalt). It was first presented by Christian von Ehrenfels in 1890. He paid attention to the fact that to understand a tune, its overall outline was more important than the individual tones. If the tune is transposed to a new key, every tone of it becomes something else but the overall outline of the tune stays the same.

In the second and third decades of the 20 century Max Wertheimer added detail to the concept of Gestalt, by finding those regularities, the so-called Gestalt laws, that our mind seems to obey when forming the patterns. They are enumerated on the page Beauty of a Product, where is to be found also a summary of a few modern theories which explain the aesthetic pleasure as a sensation caused by an effort to perceive and the success in this effort.

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August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi