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What Do We Mean By Aesthetics?

Published August 24, 2023
Published August 24, 2023
Ben Scott via Unsplash

Often associated with beauty and art, aesthetics encompasses a wider abundance of concepts and practices. Despite this, the term aesthetics is often met with suspicion at its seemingly ambiguous meaning; people aren’t sure exactly what it means. This ambiguity, however, does not hinder everyone's interaction with the word. Recently, the impulse to “have an aesthetic” developed into a bit of a phenomenon on social media. Stephanie McNeal of Glamour interviewed me for an article attempting to understand this search for the aesthetic. It seems that “having an aesthetic” is synonymous with one’s style or look. While appearance is an aspect of aesthetics, this reduces aesthetics to only surface descriptions. So, we should gain a better grasp of this concept, if we want to apply it to our personal and professional lives with greater fluidity and accuracy.

In the 18th century, philosopher Alexander Baumgarten brought the concept of aesthetics into the fore to distinguish the lower faculties from the higher faculties of human knowledge. Science had begun to dominate the approaches to knowledge, but Baumgarten didn’t want these other, even if less accurate, ways to be abandoned. So, aesthetics was borne out of a desire to categorize the lower faculties of how people gain knowledge about the world; aesthetics, deriving from the Greek word for sensation, carries the notion of a sense or feeling about the perceptual properties of the world. But Baumgarten wanted to elevate aesthetics above mere feelings.

Baumgarten’s desire to create a “science of aesthetics" suggests that he bought into the idea that scientific knowledge is more important than other kinds of knowledge, like that attained by the senses. In other words, higher faculties are better, and the lower faculties are not as good. And he tried to package the lower faculties of aesthetics in such a way as to garner more authority. Maybe there’s a better way to understand the difference, even if the higher faculties are better (or more accurate) in some sense.

Few people attain the highest levels of knowledge—when compared with the population as a whole—within a given discipline. If we decided to express every truth or fact about the world, for example, using only the language and descriptions of quantum mechanics, then many people would not understand. Luckily, we have a variety of ways to access and explain the phenomena of life and the world. Compared with these specific paths to knowledge, aesthetics is common to all people. Everyone experiences the aesthetics of the world, even though some (such as art connoisseurs or wine aficionados) might be better practiced in certain contexts than others. Despite this, we continue to treat aesthetics as less serious, even frivolous, when compared to things like math, science, and technology. Yet it is a more primal drive in people.

The experience of aesthetics is what some in philosophy refer to as a basic reason for action. It is basic because it needs no further explanation, which contrasts with instrumental actions that are done only to accomplish some other goal, not for their own sake. People spend time, money, and energy to make themselves and their personal spaces (including offices) look a certain way that appeals to them. Moreover, people travel, sometimes around the world, to see and experience places and artifacts that, through the testimony and pictures of others, they believe will be worth the effort because of the aesthetic experience, which can also be paired with other reasons, like adventure or education.

Aesthetics can be easy to define if you only want an overview, but as you try to get more in depth, it can become blurry rather quickly. But we could offer a flexible working definition: Aesthetics consists of the qualities of perceptual objects that people encounter in their experience, and how those objects affect the person who experiences them. With a tentative definition like this, it becomes apparent why beauty and art rose to the top, because they are obvious instances of the kinds of things that demand an affective response. And they are likely exemplary when it comes to artifacts (art) and qualities (beauty). But for too long, we have allowed them to dominate our approach to and understanding of aesthetics, which permeates other objects (natural and human-made) and a more diverse array of qualities.

The two parts that comprise this working definition of aesthetics—objects and qualities—are broader than we often think. By objects, we first include anything made up of matter: inanimate things, animals, people, and spaces (not natural and artifactual). In the current digital age, we can also consider digital objects as things that can be experienced aesthetically. By qualities, we include prominent qualities, like beauty, but also other qualities like gracefulness, daintiness, and harmony. But aesthetic qualities can also be negative as we think about deformity, ugliness, and disgust. To sum up, the aesthetic consists of objects (broadly speaking) that possess qualities which we can experience; these qualities affect us and can positively support our well-being (or hinder it).

The attempt to define aesthetics always feels a bit abstract, since it’s difficult to detach the concept of aesthetics from tangible things and experiences. As stated above, we tend to talk mostly about art, and then sometimes about nature. Because of this, it has become easier to dissociate aesthetics from aspects of our daily lives. But aesthetics, to provide other examples, impacts business (from products to offices to organization); aesthetics impacts issues (like climate change and prison reform); and aesthetics impacts science (such as the way information is presented). These represent only a smattering of contexts, but it is important to cultivate a habit of noticing aesthetics to begin to see the pervasiveness in the world.

Despite it being an integral aspect of our humanity, aesthetics is often neglected in part (or wholly) in many important contexts. When considering projects, people frequently consider aesthetics as an afterthought, after all the “important” functions are considered. When thinking of business, the financial aspects overshadow considerations of aesthetics. When trying to resolve issues, efficiency and technology frequently take center stage. These are important considerations, but aesthetics, as something fundamental, needs to be added into these contexts and conversations to enhance the work that is being done.


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