Aesthetic relativism

Aesthetic relativism is the philosophical view that the judgement of beauty is relative to individuals, cultures, time periods and contexts, and that there are no universal criteria of beauty. For example, statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf or the women in the paintings of Rubens would have been considered ideal forms of beauty when painted, but today may be regarded as fat, while contemporary standards of beauty (such as those that feature on the covers of contemporary fashion magazines) may have been considered less than ideal in Rubens' time.

Aesthetic relativism is a variety of the philosophy known generally as relativism, which casts doubt on the possibility of direct epistemic access to the "external world", and which therefore reject the positive claim that statements made about the external world can be known to be objectively true. Other varieties of relativism include cognitive relativism (the general claim that all truth and knowledge is relative) and Ethical Relativism (the claim that moral judgments are relative). Aesthetic and Ethical relativism are sub-categories of Cognitive Relativism.

Philosophers who have been influential in relativist thinking include:

Philosophers who have made influential objectivist accounts include

  • Plato, and in particular his Theory of the Forms
  • Immanuel Kant, who argued that the judgment of beauty, despite the standards of which being unique to individuals, is a universally practiced function of the mind.
  • Noam Chomsky, whose "nativist" theory of linguistics argues for a universal grammar (i.e., that language is not as contingent as relativists have argued that it is).

The question whether or not such agreement pre-exists social conditioning is an ongoing one, and mirrors the broader nature versus nurture debate within the social sciences, and within science and philosophy in general. (For example, an informed and educated public might have been informed and educated in different ways, and their tastes might then have been quite divergent.) The extent to which taste might be explained in fundamentally sociological as distinct from aesthetic terms, is a matter of ongoing debate.

On the relationship between aesthetics, sexual attraction and reproduction see Arthur Schopenhauer "On the Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes". For Schopenhauer, the criteria for sexual attraction are (in women from the perspective of men) beauty, youth and health; and (in men from the perspective of women) status, strength and wealth. This is because these are believed to be the optimal conditions for the reproduction of the species: the well-being of the potential offspring is always the key concern, although one or both of the partners may be quite unconscious of this.

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