Gus: We didn’t find Fong, Driggs did.
Shawn: It’s all semantics, Gus.
Gus: It’s not semantics at all.
Shawn: Note to self: look up the word semantics.

— Psych

Shawn and Gus

There are two ways to look at the study of beauty. The first we can ascribe to the Scottish philosopher David Hume (though it no doubt precedes him): Beauty is subjective. When we find something to be beautiful, there is nothing inherent in that object that makes it so; rather, it is our perception of it, colored by our tastes and personality and maybe our ability to see, that makes it beautiful. Call this the “Humeian View.” The second we will ascribe to another Scottish philosopher, Lord Kames. According to Kames, beauty is reducible to a set of rules. If something is beautiful, it is because it approaches identifiable proportions, colors, and shapes. Predictable ratios are involved. To Kames, we can measure and quantify what we find to be aesthetically pleasing. This we will call the “Kamesian View.”
Da Vinci
If you are to explain this paradigm to someone, I think most people would describe themselves as Humeian. I would not. I agree fully with Kames: we can break down and understand the things we find pleasing to our senses. We understand the ratios that make a major chord sound, well, major. We can grasp the notion that there is a balance at play between salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami that reconcile to a singular, delicious flavor.
Now, calling myself Kamesian does not mean I think everyone should be able to agree on what is beautiful. The world is far more complex than that. When you really step back and look at it, though, you’ll notice that almost everyone can be divided into groups based on what pleases us. Rather than a random distribution of likes, almost everyone adheres to small, coherent clusters. This is why there are only a handful of musical genres instead of, say, thousands. (That and marketing.) And even then, the principles beneath those genres tend to be similar. One person may like hip hop and another folk, but when you break it down they operate by the same rules. We don’t seem to be built to see just anything as beautiful.
I’ve embraced this philosophy in the way I think about everything. (If you’ve read any of my blog before, that should probably be self-evident.) If it exists, there is a way to gain a rigorous understanding of it. Maybe you believe some things cannot – or SHOULD not – be subject to such analysis. But this is the lens by which I see the world. I cannot and will not tell anyone they should not hold the Humesian view. Nor should anyone tell me my Kamesian outlook is fundamentally wrong. Agree to disagree?


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