10 Days of Aesthetics: Axis Theory (Day 3)

*Read this series from the beginning.* 

Axis Theory

Aesthetic Venn with Axes

The Axis Theory takes cues from historic conceptions of the sublime and the beautiful, especially Kant, and seeks to harmonize those terms with contemporary usage and my own intuition. As is demonstrated in the diagram, the Axis Theory envisions ugly, pretty, beauty, and sublimity in a more complex relationship than is imagined in the Continuum Theory. The first difference is that the concepts being dealt with in this paper are not seen along a singular continuum separated only by degrees. Nor are they seen in opposition as they are with Kant and Burke. They are seen in relationship to each other with conceptual overlap. Further, they are seen as existing upon two distinct but intersecting axes.

One problem with using a Venn diagram to illustrate this theory is that it inherently implies proportion. So, when one looks at the diagram the natural assumption is that the four categories are largely separate but intersect in important ways. It must be understood that the diagram illustrates the concept of intersection but not the proportion. In all likelihood, there exists a proportionally small amount of beauty that is not intersecting with the pretty, the ugly, or the sublime. The diagram is meant to illustrate only the structure of the theory and not the proportions in which the theory actually manifests. Key to understanding the diagram is the two-axis structure. The pretty and the ugly fall along the Sensual Axis because both those categories are reliant upon purely sensual input. The beautiful and the sublime fall upon the Intellectual Axis.

Throughout this paper, I will rely upon and reference the following definitions. These definitions will be explicated as the paper progresses and are rooted in a Thomistic understanding of beauty with influence from both Kant and Hegel.


Beauty: That which when seen (perceived) causes intellectual delight (pleasure).

Pretty: That which when seen (perceived) causes sensual delight (pleasure).

Ugly: That which when seen (perceived) causes sensual discomfort (aversion).

Sublime: That which when seen (perceived) elevates the content beyond the form.


As can be deduced, these definitions are rooted in Jacques Maritan’s articulation of Thomas Aquinas’s definition of art, “the beautiful [is] that which, being seen, pleases.” Maritan goes on to say “The beautiful is what gives delight—not just any delight, but delight in knowing… Beauty is essentially an object of intelligence”.[1] Thomistic conceptions of beauty often extend to include sensory, spiritual, and intellectual pleasure. However, it seems clear to me that there is a divide between intellectual pleasure, including spiritual, and sensory or sensual pleasure. For example, what if a painting, as will be discussed later, causes intellectual pleasure but sensual aversion? Or, if a painting causes sensual delight but no intellectual delight? For this reason, intellectual and sensual pleasures are split between the beautiful and the pretty.

The Sensual Axis includes both the pretty and the ugly as these two categories rely on a sensual, not an intellectual response. Pretty is the positive side of this response, sensual delight, while ugly is the negative side, sensual discomfort or aversion. This understanding is not without problems. Philosophically, ugly has often been conceived as the ontological opposite of beauty. With the spilt of the sensual and the intellectual, it seems reasonable to view ugly as the ontological opposite of pretty. However, there are clearly those things that we would call morally ugly. In fact, while Kant spent little time discussing the concept of ugly the few ugly things he does mention fit within this category, “The Furies, diseases, the devastations of war, etc.”[2] These would not count as sensual displeasure but as intellectual or moral displeasure.  Aesthetically though these concepts can be depicted in a way that is beautiful. For Kant, the concept of ugly and disgust are closely aligned. There is, I think, truth to that. However, in the system I am proposing ugly is seen as the ontological opposite of pretty while disgust may be the ontological opposite of beauty. I say, may be, because this is one area of the Axis Theory which I am still trying to formulate.

The Intellectual Axis is populated by the beautiful and the sublime. Beauty, as the product of intellectual delight, clearly belongs on this axis. The sublime is a bit trickier. The sublime is tied historically to ideas of awe, fear, danger, magnitude, infinity, and even the infinitesimally small. These are all ideas that have to do with our limits—our limits of perception and cognition. Therefore the elevation which is referenced in the definition is an intellectual act.

To better examine this system of thought, I will explore the relevant aesthetic categories in turn. The discussion will begin with those along the Sensual Axis and proceed to the Intellectual Axis.

Here are links to the entire series:

[1] Jacques Maritan, Art and Scholasticism, (Filiquarian Publishing; 2007), 27.

[2] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, Trans. J. H. Bernard, (Prometheus Books; Amherst, NY; 2000), 195.


This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on April 1, 2014, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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  • I know you have reasons for using the words you do, but I too will struggle with the word “pretty.” I do agree with the distinction between primarily sensual forms of visual pleasure and those which are perceived through the intellect (or, if we can go that far, through the spirit.) For example, I can envision a woman is pretty, but not truly beautiful. In part, because I see pretty as primarily a surface description, whereas beauty communicates depth beyond the surface. (It would be possible for woman who is not found pretty, to be found beautiful. (And, given yet other usage, I might find that a persona is externally ugly, but in total, beautiul) But even when speaking only in sensory terms, pretty just doesn’t have the same nuance as beautiful. Pretty appears to be a smaller idea, it contains the ideas of detail, fragility, surface, even femininity. Beauty on the other hand, is at home with simplicity, power, essence, even majesty. (while I probably would not use the term, I can more readily see a man as beautiful than as pretty (unless he is in fact, delicate or feminine.) So…In order for this larger diagram to work, I am going to have to make the real effort to “re-hear” the the words pretty, and beautiful.

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