Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Beauty Answers to Cognition, Not Desire

Many of us are predisposed, I think, to think of the nebulous concept “beauty” in appetitive terms. That is, it answers primarily to desire: the responsional relationship is between our longing and some aesthetic object. Indeed, in most (or, rather, nearly all) popular usage, the concept is drastically (and advantageously) underdetermined, such that it becomes merely an avatar, a camouflage, for “what I like” or “what I want” or “[x] moves me.” As W.H. Auden puts it in “The Maze“:1

Aesthetics, though, believes all Art
Intends to gratify the heart.

But is this right? Is this really what “beauty” does?

No, saith Thomas. Beauty relates not to the appetitive faculty, but to the cognitive. When things are pleasing to the sight (the point could easily be extended to hearing), it does so for reasons.

Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally; for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently goodness is praised as beauty. But they differ logically, for goodness properly relates to the appetite (goodness being what all things desire); and therefore it has the aspect of an end (the appetite being a kind of movement towards a thing). On the other hand, beauty relates to the cognitive faculty; for beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is after their own kind–because even sense is a sort of reason, just as is every cognitive faculty. Now since knowledge is by assimilation, and similarity relates to form, beauty properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause. (ST I, Q. 5, Art. 4, ad. 1)

One might go further: if we can’t give a rational account of why some object, or idea, or system, or performance is delightful to us, we best not declare it to be “beautiful”–for in that case, the descriptor can only mean “[x] pleases me,” and would absurdly reduce the beautiful to one’s subjective gratification. To do so would be to willfully commit what C.S. Lewis warns against at the beginning of The Abolition of Man: in other words, it would be to use language in the way in which “Gaius” and “Titius” say it must be used inevitably. But “Gaius” and “Titius” are wrong. It is not inevitable; it is rather an abuse of the proper use of language. And if this is a task we cannot accomplish at present, perhaps we should place a moratorium on the use of the term until we can. Without the rectification of names, we are up against it.2

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect. (Confucius, Analects 13.3)

  1. I realize it is called “The Labyrinth” at the link; but my edition of his Collected Poems calls it “The Maze,” so there.
  2. Cf. a couple of other explorations on related topics herehere, and here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

3 replies on “Beauty Answers to Cognition, Not Desire”

While beauty may have a rationale, it does not mean beauty is reducible to the ratio.

It would be difficult to not succumb to Kant’s understanding of the Sublime with this vision of the Aesthetic. What prevents his critical reduction in this account? While it may sound excellent to prevent subjectivity, reducing beauty to the rational will do the same.

The rational does not protect Beauty from the subjectivizing principle of modernity.

I would recommend Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite to see why this insufficient in the modern (late) era.

Dear Brighton,

Thanks for your comment. I don’t think I said, nor do I believe, that beauty is “reducible” to *ratio*, for that would somewhat leave (appetitive) goodness out of account, which I think would be incorrect. Also, I didn’t intend this to be a “sufficient” account. I was rather trying to offer some reorientation where I see a “soft spot” in much contemporary usage of the nexus “beauty/beautiful.” You are absolutely right that much *more* would need to be said; but not, I think, less.

Thanks again,


Maybe you can speak to the imagination’s relation to the Sublime? Future post possibly?


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