XVI. Aesthetic Emotions

There are certain feelings that arise with the perception of beauty, and the reasons that we like certain perceptions of sensory impressions defies logical explanation and are thus relegated to the realm of the emotions.

The concept of beauty is as a feeling of pleasure that is experience at the perception of an "assemblage of qualities" in an object, expression, or idea. When a person appreciates the qualities that are culturally considered to be acceptable, it is said that they have "good taste" which is predictive of their reaction to certain stimuli. Tastes differ significantly between individuals even within a given culture, so much that it is utterly impossible to define a standard of taste applicable to all men.

It is believed that the aesthetic senses are proceeded by functional evaluations. The reason a bear chooses to make its den in one cave rather than another, or a bird chooses to build on a given bough of a given tree, is because it is more suitable to their functional needs. While animals do not possess the intellect to develop criteria and perform a comparative analysis, they are driven by instinct to seek out those things that are most functional to their needs: they choose a lair, a mate, a meal, and other necessary items because they recognize their suitability - and shun other alternatives that are less suitable or unsuitable.

Aesthetic appreciation is by definition non-functional and impractical. So while the basic instinct of an animal is to choose something that serves a specific purpose, aesthetics drive choices that do not have a functional result. In the animal kingdom, there are certain species of birds and rodents that adorn their nests with objects that do not add to the integrity of functionality of the nest itself. Consider the pack rat, which has an attraction to shiny objects for which it has no functional need, but is driven by instinct to gather them into a horde.

Man is likened to such animals, in that once the functional needs of his survival have been met he has a strong proclivity to adorn himself and his lair with those things he finds to be beautiful, for reasons logic cannot explain. The aesthetic sense in man is so pronounced that he may even prefer beauty over functionality: consider that what is fashionable in dress is often highly impractical, as a woman may choose a pair of shoes that is uncomfortable or even painful to wear because she has an appreciation of their aesthetic qualities.

The "need" to surround ourselves with beauty defines reason, but can be experienced through the feelings. We experience pleasant feelings when we perceive something as beautiful, and wish to possess it. We experience unpleasant feelings when we cannot have it, and experience them sharply when something beautiful is lost or destroyed.

The perception of beauty is itself subjective, as these feelings are aroused by different things in different people. There is little agreement, and certainly no universal standard, upon the kind of music that is pleasant. Some sights are agreeable or disagreeable to different people. We are culturally guided to claim to appreciate beauty that meets a defined standard, but our genuine emotional reaction is highly idiosyncratic.

Neither is beauty a matter of fashion - as what is fashionable is adopted not for our own pleasure, but for the appreciation of others. Return to the example of garments: a person will adorn themselves with something they find not only uncomfortable, but hideous, if there is the sense that others will be impressed. This is a contrivance that does not reflect genuine appreciation.

It is generally found that crude and vulgar people are pleased by very basic qualities: they gravitate toward garish colors, simple and repetitive musical compositions, and anything that is intense and not too unusual. Those things that are complex and subtle are appreciated only by those of refined tastes.

It can also be said that the tastes are influenced by the intellect: to understand things is to better appreciate them. Hence a person who has been instructed in art is more attentive to subtleties and better able to appreciate things that others fail to notice. In the same manner a person's tastes change with their experience - a traveler who spends any amount of time in a foreign land develops an appreciation of things from that culture, and this influences his tastes in general.

There is also the influence of association: isolated sensory qualities (color, shape, texture, scent, taste, sound) that is experienced during a pleasant moment becomes evocative of the feelings of pleasure. A color that was worn by someone beloved revives the positive emotions experienced with or associated to that person, and so the reaction to its appearance creates pleasure even if we are not consciously aware of the connection that is being made. It is thought by some psychological theorists that our most spontaneous reactions to things can be traced back to previous experience and association with pleasant or unpleasant experiences.

He turns for a moment to the opposite of beauty: ugliness is also subjective, as people are not all attracted or repelled by the same things. Consider the use of words - which are concepts that describe objects. The word "sweat" is to some quite disgusting and they recoil when it is spoken, but they show no objection to "perspiration" even though it applies to exactly the same thing. Those words that are considered vulgar by some are unremarkable to others. This is sometimes the effect of fashion or style, but there are cases in which a person finds something to be repulsive, even if it is accepted by others.

Insofar as the development of taste is concerned, it is believed that it can be cultivated by knowledge and practice: a person can be taught, or can learn through introspection, the qualities that should cause a thing to be regarded as pleasant - and through repeated exposure to them develop a level of familiarity that becomes habitual. That is, if we learn that a given scent is to be regarded as pleasant, we can seek out that scent and associate it to pleasant emotions, until the association is made firm and its perception causes pleasant emotions to arise.

But because taste is subjective, there is no guidance for the things that a person should find to be pleasant. Some people are quite fond of attempting to influence the tastes of others to align with their own, as a method of validating their own superiority - and as such to allow others to dictate what is in "good taste" is to subordinate oneself to their suggestions and to lose one's personal integrity.

It is for this reason that people feign tastes and adopt fashions that cause themselves little pleasure: they have no genuine appreciation and may in fact be revolted by that which is popular with others, but because they are motivated to ingratiate themselves and win approval, they pretend to like the same things that other people like. This is not the same as having genuine good taste, though it may be easily mistaken - the entire point of pretending is to fool others, and they are in fact quite easily fooled.