10 Days of Aesthetics: Introduction

I have enjoyed using this website as a place to think through aesthetic ideas. I am in the process of developing a systematic theory on philosophical aesthetics. I began talking about these ideas here with the posts On The Beautiful, The Sublime, The Pretty, and the Ugly & Distinguishing between the Pretty and the Beautiful. These were my first thoughts on what has developed into what I am calling the Axis Theory. My thoughts are more developed now but they are still in development. There are a lot of things I do not yet have figured out. My hope is that those who read this website will continue to interact with me and help me work out my thinking more.

For this 10 part series, I am breaking up a 20-page paper I wrote into manageable internet length pieces. I hope you enjoy and I hope you challenge my thinking as I try to develop this theory.

Aesthetic Venn with Axes


Beauty and the sublime have historically been at the heart of philosophical aesthetics. Since the writings of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, in the eighteenth century, aesthetics has been considered a philosophical category of its own whereas, previously, philosophers, even those with aesthetic concerns such as Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, did not view aesthetics as a separate category. More contemporary philosophers often became less concerned with beauty and more concerned with developing a philosophy of art. While art and beauty are clearly related they are also in many respects very different. In this paper, I will not seek to define art or in any way address its ontology. I will attempt to systematize the relationship between the concepts of beauty, sublime, pretty, and ugly while connecting the understanding of these terms not just to philosophical tradition but also to popular idiom. My systematization is a work in progress. As such, there are problems that I have yet to solve and others, I am sure, which I have yet to identify. But, I believe, the approach I am proposing provides a step forward.

There has never been complete agreement on what the terms addressed in this paper mean. The term pretty has received very little philosophical consideration. Ugly has received somewhat more. But while thinkers such as Kant employed the term ugly, he did so with very little explanation. Beauty and the sublime, on the other hand, have received a great deal of attention and have often been set in contrast to each other. Burke, for example, saw beauty and sublime as an opposing tension—beauty based on pleasure and sublime on pain[1]—while Kant viewed them as mutually exclusive. But, neither Burke’s nor Kant’s distinctions have been universally accepted. Contemporary thought has tended to make these terms largely subjective and common vernacular seems to use these terms as if they exist on a continuum.

Here are links to the entire series:


[1] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J.T. Bouton (University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame, IN, 1958), 124.


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 March 29, 2014, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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  • I am perplexed that beauty and sublime would be shown as opposite. I think of them as tangential, in the same sense that the terms pretty and beautiful share common qualities, but are different in scope and character (but both suggest that which is pleasing to the eye.) As a term, beauty is much larger and eclipses the term pretty, and may include characteristics beyond the visual, but they are clearly not opposites.

    Beautiful v Sublime

    If I were to differentiate, that which is beautiful is beautiful in itself. It is viewer independent. (It may take a viewer to acknowledge the beauty… but a swan possesses said beauty, and a viewer recognizes that beauty. But for something to be sublime it must be experienced. So when speaking of sublime, the emotional response to beauty is part of the total package. Beyond that, there is an issue of scale and mix. A sublime experience must be of a certain size and duration, and usually consists of parts which in their totality are glorious. A flower may be beautiful, but it would be odd to find it sublime. But a fields of flowers, framing mountains and rainbows and the wind playing melody….that is sublime. I have never thought of the sublime holding pain, though I know that riddle is part of sexual pleasure.

    • Kirk, I agree that beauty and sublime should not be seen as in opposition. But, that is how many philosophers have seen them over the years. In the Axis Theory (Day 3) that I am proposing they are not seen as opposites. The way you are discussing the terms sounds very similar to what I am calling the Continuum Theory (Day 2). think there are some issues with that approach.

      So you are arguing for the objectivity of Beauty anfthe subjectivity of Sublimnity? I would argue that both are either objective or universally subjective (subjective but should be recognized by all people).I’m honestly not sure where I fall on that.

      Interesting thoughts. Thank you for dialoguing. I hope you continue to follow the series and give me your thoughts.

  • I sometimes think that there should be a word that references a synthesis — or a place between object and subjective. In normal parlance, objective is used to describe that which does not vary substantially from person to person (or that which is subject to an external standard of definition.) On the other hand, the term subjective, is used to describe that which cannot readily be measured using an external standard, or where description varies substantially from person to person.

    But not all ideas fit into this either/or categorization. For example the idea of what is beautiful. Beauty clearly has a subjective element. Ideas about what is beautiful will vary from culture to culture, and from person to person. We say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even so, I do not think we can bend so far to call allow any person to call anything he will “beautiful.” Should someone call a DeKooning (sp?) painting beautiful, I think we have the right to object… and say — If you call that beautiful, you are wrong. (It may be impossible to “measure” beauty, using any external standard, however, the term cannot mean anything.) But my larger argument for an objective element in the concept of beauty is tied to my belief that God himself creates and apprehends beauty, and that gives a certain “objectivity” to the term. (Should God find something beautiful, and we not recognize it, the error is ours. // of course, there is no way we can appeal to God so that He might say, this is beautiful or this is not — but theism does provide a framework where even aesthetics can have on objective grounding. I think Mr. Lewis appealed to a similar idea when he spoke of the Tao. (I cannot now remember the book (it may be the Abolition of Man) but he argues that when we speak of beauty, we are not just describing our feelings… but rather, apprehending something that is really there.

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