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.
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—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:
- Introduction (Day 1)
- Continuum Series (Day 2)
- Axis Theory (Day 3)
- The Pretty (Day 4)
- Kitsch (Day 5)
- The Ugly (Day 6)
- The Beautiful (Day 7)
- Disgust (Day 8)
- The Sublime (Day 9)
- Conclusion (Day 10)
 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.