What pleases when seen

One of St. Thomas’s account of beauty is “what pleases when seen”. There is a question whether “seen” is used in its general meaning where it can stand for any act of sensation (viz. “see how it tastes” or “see how it smells”) or as meaning a more powerful cognitive power. De Anima II.9 is instructive here:

Smell and its object are much less easy to determine than what we have hitherto discussed; the distinguishing characteristic of the object of smell is less obvious than those of sound or color. The ground of this is that our power of smell is less discriminating and in general inferior to that of many species of animals; men have a poor sense of smell and our apprehension of its proper objects is inseparably bound up with and so confused by pleasure and pain, which shows that in us the organ is inaccurate. It is probable that there is a parallel failure in the perception of color by animals that have hard eyes: probably they discriminate differences of color only by the presence or absence of what excites fear, and that it is thus that human beings distinguish smells.

While it makes sense to call things seen or heard beautiful, it seems odd to speak of beautiful smells or tastes. So how are we to take this?

One approach is to take this as a denial of beauty as a transcendental. There is nothing odd in speaking of things that taste good or have a good scent, nor is there anything odd in using any sense as a standard for truth, like smelling that there is a gas leak in the kitchen. Beauty does not convert with being, but with something more refined and set apart, and which can only arise or be seen through greater cognitive precision.

Another approach is to say that beauty is transcendental, but that imprecision in the cognitive power leads to imprecision in beauty. All we can mean by a beautiful smell is a pleasant one, but the pleasant counts as beautiful. We might say more than this: the various characteristics of beauty, like proportion, might apply to the balance of the ingredients or elements in the taste of something.

I lean towards the idea that tastes, scents and the tactile are not beautiful. Calling even a perfect wine “beautiful” seems forced or metaphorical, and calling a disgusting smell “ugly” doesn’t seem to amount to anything more than calling it “bad”. Taken in this way, beauty just collapses into the goodness.

Notice that everything turns on the idea of whether the pleasant as pleasant is beautiful. Given the pleasant as such is good, and beauty is distinguished from goodness, it seems as though we should say no. Said another way, to call something pleasant suffices to call it a good, but it does not suffice to call it something beautiful. The same case can be made from a consideration of what is useful. Beauty requires a higher mode of objectivity – mere subjective agreement or fittingness does not suffice, still less does mere usefulness for some task. There is a sort of goodness that is not based purely on the object, but on its relation to the subject, which is why subzero temperatures are good for polar bears and feces smells good to flies and dung beetles.

Beauty therefore is divided from goodness by its greater degree of objectivity. There is no subjective beauty, and to the extent we say there is we are only speaking about goodness (specifically, what is pleasant or useful.) The account of beauty as “what pleases when seen” gives an elemental account of its genus and difference: it is what is agreeable to a cognitive power precisely because of that power has a degree of perfection that allows for a pure objectivity, and not just a subjective relation to the cognitive power.




  1. PG said,

    January 6, 2014 at 11:07 am

    (first of all, I will confess that a lot of the conversation here is out of my league, so forgive me if I cannot speak with much rigor or if I miss the point entirely)

    This is all an interesting train of thought to me. I don’t find it particularly odd to think of beauty in terms of smells or tastes. Would a blind and deaf person be exempted from experiencing beauty? Certainly from some modes of it, but surely they are not shut out?

    It occurs to me that part of the reason beauty is easier for us to conceive in terms of sight and sound is that we are all inveterate lookers and hearers. We spend nearly every waking moment of our lives practicing the art of looking and seeing. Those senses are being honed at every moment.

    Taste, touch, and smell, on the other hand, tend to stay in the background until their services are called for, but one wonders if beauty does not translate just as well into those senses for those that take the time to train them, whether out of necessity, such as a blind person honing their sense of touch, or for some other reason.

    I speak of this as someone who worked as a chef in fine dining for many years and actively honed his sense of taste on a daily basis. The first rule of the kitchen is that you do not serve something that you have not tasted yourself. I no longer cook for a living, but I do dine frequently at the many wonderful restaurants my city affords, and would certainly say that food can be beautiful. I often tell people that the mark of having had a great meal is not that you think to yourself, “That was a great meal!”, but rather that you think to yourself, “Life is wonderful!”

    Furthermore, while there are certainly other senses involved, taste and smell are a large element of (among other parts of the Liturgy) taking Communion. They are senses that have been trained through repetition to recognize the beauty of what has happened and is happening. We may not recognize it at first, but like all of our senses, they are being trained to “see” the beautiful.

    • January 6, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      We can only taste things by destroying them, which makes it problematic to account for what it would mean to see a value in food for itself. If I’m right about the objectivity of beauty in distinction from the subjective modalities of goodness and truth (though these are not subjective primarily) then “beautiful taste” would be a metaphor. The metaphor does real work, perhaps.

      Your account of the sensation after a meal needs to be taken seriously though I’m not sure what to say about it. There is something, to be sure, that makes a meal a properly rational activity as opposed to mere animal feeding. This rational element adds something beyond the mere sensation of taste and smell. temperance does something analogous to the cloudy but volcanic pleasures of touch. All such activities will have notes of beauty enter in. But for all that beauty still seems to require some transcendence of the less discerning modes of consciousness.

      • PG said,

        January 7, 2014 at 11:07 am

        Here I had all these additional thoughts last night, and I didn’t bother to write them down then… I will try to recall as best I can. And again, I am not much of a philosopher, and cannot speak with much rigor, I am much better at waxing poetic…

        It still seems odd to me to restrict beauty to only two senses because of their enhanced cognitive power. Sight and hearing may be more refined senses, but still require training to recognize their proper object. A 14 year old boy will easily mistake pornography or speed metal music for beauty, simply because they excite enjoyable feelings in him. He will probably abhor the thought of having to sit through one of Wagner’s operas or having to spend an entire day in a museum of fine art…

        Likewise scent, taste, and touch can be refined to cleave to the beautiful and not the merely pleasant or enjoyable.

        We have already spoken some of taste, and to my previous statement I would add that a great dish or a great meal is quite literally a performance art. The kitchen is the instrument and the food on the plate is the medium through which your body receives the performance of the chef. There is much beauty to be appreciated, even in foods whose taste I do not care for, when a talented chef is performing. In those cases, I seriously think of my distaste as a defect in my ability to perceive the beauty on the plate.

        A sommelier will have spent years training his sense of smell not just to recognize pleasant smells, but to attune to the beauty present in the aromas of a bottle of wine. There is a story, a performance of the creation of that wine, that they are being told by those scents. They detect beauty where I cannot, but again, I would say this is a defect in my perception, not a lack of beauty in the object perceived or the mode in which it is received.

        A luthier or an instrument maker will select their materials not just by sight, but by feel. Again, the fact that I don’t know a beautiful piece of wood from an average one is a defect of my untrained perception.

        All of this to say, it seems to me that beauty is available to be perceived in many modes, only most of us do not spend time honing our other senses to receive it, and are content with “pleasant” smells, tastes, and touches. I don’t think this is /inherently/ bad, but we should not mistake our inability to detect it for its absence.

  2. whitefrozen said,

    January 6, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    How would music figure in here, or even sound – say, the waves on a beach?

    • January 6, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      Waves have that sense of immutability and therefore eternity. We know that we’ll never come up to the ocean like a still pond. Fire is worth mentioning too: I think we can’t stop looking at it since it seems inherently vital, sui generis, and having something crucial to existence in it by nature.

      One of the oddest aspects of music is how we find continual repetition in it delightful. Music is unique in giving such a thrill by mere repetition.

      But every time I speak about music someone goes completely nuts and the discussion craters, so we’ll leave of that for the moment.

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