Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


The Eye of the Beholder ✎

What do you see? A nice painting, the face of “beauty” staring you in the face, or is it the sun grazing the horizon sinking beneath the clouds? These scenes that I described likely painted a picture inside your head prompting you to recall the momentary essence of an aesthetic experience you’ve had in the past. Just as Rene Descartes once said, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” where the defining factor of beauty is entirely subjective to individual taste. My internalized definition of an aesthetic experience is primarily based on this principle of taste. Simultaneously, I am also a believer that an aesthetic experience does require some form of rational thought, sometimes enhanced by more senses initiated by the preceptor sense of vision and even memory. Yes, beauty does go beyond what meets the eye. After all, the etymology of the word ‘aesthetic’ relates to perception by the senses, or as the beloved Kant puts it: “science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception” [OED].

On a personal note, an aesthetic experience can be enhanced (or created) with the simultaneous stimulation of various senses. Say you’re sitting at the beach as the sunset slowly approaches and you find it aesthetically pleasing regardless of the theories of immediacy (taste) or rationalist judgment (“actual” thinking). If you were to put on some ear-phones and play a fitting tune to the scene, how would this affect the entirety of the aesthetic experience? Now focus on the distinct smell of the sea breeze, the feeling of sand in your hands? If the combined essence of each sense is creating an increase in appeal to the sunset, then your aesthetic experience is being heightened by various external senses— sound, smell, feeling, and of course sight. As the experience is subjective to each individual, my experience would likely be a rational one, not an innately immediate aesthetic experience. The sunset itself may instigate immediate sensations of disinterested aesthetic appeal, yet as more senses are being stimulated, the more thought-provoking the experience becomes—each sense adding an element of internal pleasure in the judgment of beauty. In my mind an aesthetic experience can be one or a combination of the internalist and externalist theories of the aesthetic experience, just as I believe that an individual is not pre-fixed to be a rationalist or an empiricist thinker since conclusions of thoughts are drawn circumstantially.

Internalist theories appeal to features internal to experience, typically to phenomenological features, whereas externalist theories appeal to features external to the experience, typically to features of the object experienced.[1]

In this excerpt, the debate of contemporary philosophers Monroe Beardsley (internalist) and George Dickey (externalist) in the mid-late twentieth-century draws the difference–to put it simply– between the experience of features (internals) and the features of experience (externalism).

Whilst an aesthetic experience can require rational thought there is often plentiful ‘space’ for immediate appeal. As the University of Stanford’s Department of Philosophy puts it: 

The fundamental idea behind any such theory—which we may call the immediacy thesis—is that judgments of beauty are not (or at least not primarily) mediated by inferences from principles or applications of concepts, but rather have all the immediacy of straightforwardly sensory judgments.[1]

When judging the beauty in a landscape, a street corner, a person or a piece of art– whether that be verbal, visual or both– sometimes we activate this sense of immediacy, this seemingly intuitive and pleasing experience not challenged by rational thinking. If we directly refer to Kant’s point of view on the fine arts, illustrating the boundaries of rationalism drawn within aesthetic judgments, he argues that there exists an absence of concepts, or things that can be known about a subject that provides an aesthetic experience purely based on intuitive sensation. In other words, if you find something physically appealing you’re not deliberately thinking about why or how it pleases you, the subject matter just makes you feel that way. When strictly speaking of art, Kant argues that while we may appreciate the technique and skill used to craft an aesthetically pleasing work, it is often forced upon our judgment of beauty. Appreciation of ‘beauty’ derives from its form, but not on its process of creation

During the holidays I went on a trip to Mexico City to see the family. It was a unique kind of trip. Just me and my brother going back to visit after three years of not being back “home”. To be entirely honest, I did not retain many ‘new’ aesthetic experiences in a deliberate form of immediacy other than looking at San Francisco from my airplane window some form of attraction to particular women— I know, it sounds kind of cheesy but we’ve all been there. I did however, re-visit the architecture of the City as well as the good food which all offered their own unique form of aesthetic appeal.

Tacos Al Pastor in ‘El Tizoncito’, Mexico City

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Soumaya Plaza Carso Museum, Mexico City

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Torres de Satelite in the night, Mexico City

Instead, I experienced aesthetic appeal to places of my childhood, with a sense of nostalgia manipulating my sensuous perception. Re-visiting the houses of my family members– and my own for that matter– restaurants, buildings or even parks generated an aesthetic experience where I was fascinated and appraising of settings in which I felt inherently unified with. While I did feel a sense of immediate pleasure upon arriving to Mexico (because I hadn’t been there for so long) this form of aesthetic pleasure was a much more rational one, situated on an epistemological foundation. My experiences were heightened–as seen in my post on epistemology– by the accumulated synthesis of conscious experiences.

As the US National Library of Medicine states, my aesthetic was defined:

as an experience qualitatively different from everyday experience and similar to other exceptional states of mind. Three crucial characteristics of aesthetic experience are discussed: fascination with an aesthetic object (high arousal and attention), appraisal of the symbolic reality of an object (high cognitive engagement), and a strong feeling of unity with the object of aesthetic fascination and aesthetic appraisal.,[2]

What I discovered is that often an aesthetic experience is more meaningful when an epistemological foundation is inherently linked to the aesthetic (which usually tends to occur). In my case, going back to Mexico City re-amped my emotions towards places linked to my memory. Each building, restaurant, house, park and street corner re-visited was an aesthetic experience in itself.



Shelley, J. (2009, September 11). The Concept of the Aesthetic. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetic-concept/#ConAes [1]

Marković, S. (2012). Components of aesthetic experience: aesthetic fascination, aesthetic appraisal, and aesthetic emotion. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485814/ [2]

Kant and the Problem of Disinterestedness. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2017, from http://public.wsu.edu/~kimander/teraray.htm [3]



Is great philosophy, by its nature, difficult and obscure?

A good question posed on the always-provocative site Aeon:

To some degree, all texts need interpretation. Working out what people mean isn’t simply a matter of decoding their words, but speculating about their mental states. The same words could express quite different thoughts, and the reader has to decide between the interpretations. But it doesn’t follow that all texts are equally hard to interpret. Some interpretations might be more psychologically plausible than others, and a writer can narrow the range of possible interpretations. Why should philosophy need more interpretation than other texts?

As we look ahead at some of our more challenging units – thinking specifically of Metaphysics and Epistemology – the article may help frame the difficulty of engaging these more opaque topics, not in as much as it makes the unclear clear, but hopefully for offering the rationale and some inspiration to dig deeper when the going gets tough:

…some great philosophy is creative in a way that is incompatible with clarity. It doesn’t seek to construct precise theories; rather, it reaches out to unmapped areas of thought, where we do not yet know what techniques to employ, what concepts to use, or even what questions to ask. It is more like artthan science, and it makes its own rules. It is not that such work is defective by being ambiguous; it is trying to do something that cannot be done clearly, and its aim is precisely to stimulate diverse interpretations.