Saturday 31st of July 2021

the notion of beauty... do flowers know?


do they know?...


The term “beauty” is customarily associated with aesthetic experience and typically refers to an essential quality of something that arouses some type of reaction in the human observer — for example, pleasure, calm, elevation, or delight. Beauty is attributed to both natural phenomena (such as sunsets or mountains) as well as to human-made artifacts (such as paintings or symphonies). There have been numerous theories over the millennia of Western philosophical thought that attempt to define “beauty,” by either:

attributing it to “essential qualities” within the natural phenomenon or artifact, or

regarding it purely in terms of the experience of beauty by the human subject.

The former approach considers beauty objectively, as something that exists in its own right, intrinsically, in the “something” or art object, independently of being experienced. The latter strategy regards beauty subjectively, as something that occurs in the mind of the subject who perceives beauty — beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In Aesthetics, objectivity versus subjectivity has been a matter of serious philosophical dispute not only with regard to the nature of beauty but it also comes up in connection with judging the relative merits of pieces of art, as we will see in the the topic on aesthetic judgement. Here we ask whether beauty itself exists in the object (the natural phenomenon or the artifact) or purely within the subjective experience of the object.

Objectivist Views

Some examples:

In the view of Plato (427-347 BCE), beauty resides in his domain of the Forms. Beauty is objective, it is not about the experience of the observer. Plato’s conception of “objectivity” is atypical. The world of Forms is “ideal” rather than material; Forms, and beauty, are non-physical ideas for Plato. Yet beauty is objective in that it is not a feature of the observer’s experience.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) too held an objective view of beauty, but one vastly different from Plato’s. Beauty resides in what is being observed and is defined by characteristics of the art object, such as symmetry, order, balance, and proportion. Such criteria hold, whether the object is natural or man-made.

While they hold differing conceptions of what “beauty” is, Plato and Aristotle do agree that it is a feature of the “object,” and not something in the mind of the beholder.

Subjectivist Views

Some examples:

•   David Hume (1711-1776) argued that beauty does not lie in “things” but is entirely subjective, a matter of feelings and emotion. Beauty is in the mind of of the person beholding the object, and what is beautiful to one observer may not be so to another.

•   Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that aesthetic judgement is based on feelings, in particular, the feeling of pleasure. What brings pleasure is a matter of personal taste. Such judgements involve neither cognition nor logic, and are therefore subjective. Beauty is defined by judgement processes of the mind, it is not a feature of the thing judged to be beautiful.

A complication emerges with a purely subjective account of beauty, because the idea of beauty becomes meaningless if everything is merely a matter of taste or personal preference. If beauty is purely in the eye of the beholder, the idea of beauty has no value as an ideal comparable to truth or goodness. Controversies arise over matters of taste; people can have strong opinions regarding whether or not beauty is present, suggesting that perhaps there are some standards. Both Hume and Kant were aware of this problem. Each, in his own way, attempted to diminish it by lending a tone of objectivity to the idea of beauty.

•   Hume proposed that great examples of good taste emerge, as do respected authorities. Such experts tend to have wide experience and knowledge, and subjective opinions among them tend to agree.

•   Kant too was aware that subjective judgments of taste in art engender debates that do actually lead to agreement on questions of beauty. This is possible if aesthetic experience occurs with a disinterested attitude, unobstructed by personal feelings and preferences. We will return to Kant’s notion of “disinterest” in the section on “Aesthetic Experience and Judgement.”

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) provides further details on the subjectivity and objectivity of beauty.

The following TED talk by philosopher Denis Dutton (1944-2010) offers an unusual account of beauty, based on evolution. He argues that the concept of beauty evolved deep within our psyches for reasons related to survival.


Read more:



Most likely, there is a bit of subjective objectivity in the relative aspect of the inter-relationship. The plant beauty and its perfume developed in conjunction with the ability of insects to recognise a “nice” place to visit. Yes but is a more beautiful flower more successful in its purpose than a bad one of the same species? Does the flower know? Does the plant know? The flowering plants evolved quite late in the history of this planet. 


For more than a century there has been a fascination with the surprisingly rapid rise and early diversity of flowering plants (angiosperms). Darwin described the seemingly explosive diversification of angiosperms as an “abominable mystery,” and debates continue about the origin and processes driving angiosperm speciation. Dating the origin of angiosperms was traditionally the prerogative of paleobotanists who read the fossil record of plants, but with DNA sequencing becoming increasingly sophisticated, molecular dating methods have come to the table. Many angiosperm fossils can be dated to the Early Cretaceous (135 million years ago), which has led paleobotanists to reason that they originated during that era. It is now increasingly recognized that angiosperms are probably older than the oldest fossils, but how much older remains controversial. When angiosperms originated is key to understanding the origin and evolution of pollinators, particularly insects such as bees, butterflies, moths, and flies.


In the long run we have no way of knowing the level of consciousness of a flower. It has no means of communication — except its appearance and fragrance, which we may see as beautiful or not, but which will appeal to pollinators. At this level, humans are irrelevant to the beauty/purpose of the flower, except in selective breeding and hybridisation, in which the purpose is redefined to please our own senses… We learn to recognise relative and momentary beauty, and we're prepared to pay for it.




Picture above: Bromeliad flower by Gus Leonisky.