Human Beauty

Dr. Lisa Katharin Schmalzried

Whereas human beauty is a big issue of our society, it is no issue of contemporary (analytic) aesthetics. To (re-)approach this topic philosophically, the research project asks whether a specific human beauty exists. In other words, does it make a difference for the analysis of a judgment of taste (“x is beautiful”) if the object of the judgment (“x”) is a human being? And, if so, what difference does it make?

Most philosophical theories of beauty explain the beauty of a human being not differently than the beauty of an artwork, a landscape, or an animal. Nevertheless, some prima facie considerations suggest an exceptional position of human beauty. Frist, the beauty of human beings seems to be closely connected with (sexual) attractiveness, and tends to evoke desire and love. Secondly, the empirical research on attractiveness has found some objective features of attractiveness and, one might assume, thereby of human beauty. Thirdly, everyday life and also the philosophical debate mentions inner beauty again and again. And inner beauty is beauty attributed to the character or soul of a person.

To answer the question whether a specific human beauty exists, the research project considers three possible perspectives on human beauty: a body-centered, a dualist, and a character-expressionist theory. According to a body-centered theory, the beauty of a person solely depends on her physical appearance. The empirical research on attractiveness assumes that a person is physically beautiful if she is highly physically attractive. And physical attractiveness can be explained in terms of objective features of attractiveness. According to a dualist theory, human beauty is not only the outer beauty of the physical appearance, but also the inner beauty of the character of a person. Inner beauty is often explained in terms of moral or virtuous character traits. But if one explains inner beauty in terms of character traits which are important for friendship, one can better capture our pre-theoretical intuitions.

The aim of the research project is to argue for a character-expressionist theory of human beauty. A character-expressionist theory gives up the clear distinction between the outer beauty of the physical appearance and inner beauty of a person’s character. Such a distinction cannot be drawn because the appearance of a person is not only her physical appearance. We tend to interpret some bodily and facial movements as visible signs of a person’s character, and this influences how someone appears to us. Based on the body-centered and the dualist theory, the research project argues that a beautiful person is not only physically beautiful, that is, physically attractive as defined by the empirical research on attractiveness, but shows also visible signs of a beautiful character, that is, a character one would wish for of a good friend. Such a “beautiful character”-expressionist theory can explain two seemingly contradictory intuitions, namely how human beauty can be only skin-deep and can still come from within.