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Aesthetics: The Theory of Beauty

Aesthetics mark one of the fields that have received intensive scholarly concerns. As early as the first century, different philosophers have since tried to explain the meaning of aesthetics and specifically identify what really makes an object beautiful in the eyes of the observer. On their part, empiricist philosophers aimed at explaining this phenomenon through the contributions of Shaftesbury, Burke, Hutcheson and Hume. In the mid 18thC, Baumgarten created the current usage of this term (Sheppard 8). However, German philosopher Immanuel Kant and a Greek, Plotinus, have had great contributions in the definition of this term. Accordingly, this paper will identify the perspectives of these two concerning aesthetics and show how their views could be applied in real situation by applying them on the bathroom scene of the movie Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

In his definition of aesthetics, Plotinus borrows heavily from Plato’s rational approach and combines this with mysticism based on the Upanishads of the Hindu teachings. He uses this to come up with a theory that has substantial influence. This could be referred to as neo-platonism. His views were pointed out in the Anneads collections edited by Porphyry. Accordingly, Plotinus came up with a theory that was very popular during the middle ages. He argued that beauty is the total sum or straightly formal unity. This is to say, the soul derives great pleasure when it recognizes a single form that is made up of a harmonious unification of several parts that are either similar or diverse but which result into a unit. The different parts forming a single unit may be experienced within different aspects of art including music, painting or a well curved sculpture. With the combination of different parts to come up with a single unit, viewers are systematically goaded towards unity and hence towards beauty. Using the allegory of a cave, as portrayed in Plato’s theories, he points out that an individual identifies beauty through a systematic process. He has to undergo certain stages as he moves towards the unified form which actually is the beauty. This marks Plotinus arguments on aesthetics (Sheppard 6).

On the other side, Kant gives a more detailed approach towards aesthetics. In his approach, Kant tries to point out what really makes a person decide that a certain thing is beautiful. To point out what actually leads to a person’s decision on beauty, Kant argues that there must be four features upon which the judgments are based. To begin with, the judgment must be devoid of interest. This is referred to as disinterested. In this appoint, Kant argues that pleasure is derived after one judges an item beautiful and not the other way round. Simply, he argues that pleasure is a product of judgment and it is not after identifying the pleasure that we make judgment. In addition, Kant argues that the form of the object marks the basis of this judgment and not the sensible content. The judgment of beauty or aesthetics is purely based on the objects rhythm, arrangement or shape which make up the aspects of form of the object in question and not characteristics like tonal representations or physical color which make up the sensible content (Sheppard 29).

Secondly, Kant argues that judgments of beauty are universal in that an individual’s decision that a certain object is beautiful should be an agreeable statement by every other person. However, some personal expectations and perceptions might make other people feel otherwise. According to Kant, agreement is not a product of coincidence. It is the expected result. However, disagreements occur as a result of erratic influences at some point within the other individual. This leads to the third moment that describes judgments of beauty as explained by Kant. According to him, an object can instill pleasurable feelings to an observer because of its purposive nature. The object should either be favorable in terms of its external purpose which is described by its utility or its internal purpose described by its perfection. However, aesthetic judgments have a purposiveness that is neither external nor internal. In Kant’s own language, aesthetic judgments have purposiveness when actually they have no purpose. Finally, Kant argues that aesthetic judgments must be necessary. Necessity here means a conditioned sense of judgment or a priori principle. It could also be referred to as the “theoretical cognition of nature” (Sheppard 30).

Considering these two positions of argument, it is possible to identify the aspect of beauty or the aesthetic value of an art or object. One could identify the unified form that has been created by the different components as posited by Plotinus. However, this arguments marks a point of agreement with Kant’s explanation on the judgment of aesthetic value. According to Kant, the judgment is usually disinterested. He points out that the basis of the judgment is founded on the aspects of form of the object and not sensible content. By form he means shape, rhythm or arrangement of the object or the work of art. Rhythm and arrangement are similar to Plotinus’s diverse or similar components that make up a unit.

The bathroom scene in the movie psycho has been considered one of the greatest scenes in cinema’s history. It is a scene that portrays Janet Leigh’s character being murdered in the shower. One thing that makes this scene outstanding is the fact that the three minute scene contains camera angles from 77 different positions. In addition, the whole sequence is made up of 50 cuts. To bring out the desired feeling of violence and horror, the scene is developed mostly by extreme close up shots except for a few moments that medium shots were used. This effect is perfectly merged with shot inter-cut duration which makes the scene look longer, and uncontrolled in addition to the effect of violence. To further the effects, background music made of a screeching ensemble of violas, cellos and violins from composer Herrmann play there role perfectly. Finally, chocolate syrup is used as blood. This offers a more effective approach as compared to stage blood when in comes to black and white pictures (Internet Movie Database, par 5).

This combination of different components to bring out a uniform scene that depicts horror forms the basis of what Plotinus refers to as the basis of identifying beauty. In relation to his argument, this marks the aspect of beauty, which in his terms is the formal unity. The formal unity between the camera angles, cuts, background music and the props directs the soul towards “the One.” And this is beauty. Similarly, Kant identifies the judgment of beauty as a product of form which involves arrangement and rhythm of the work of art. Equally, this scene is made up of an outstanding arrangement and rhythm of the different components that eventually make up the whole scene. From Kant’s position, the beauty of the bathroom scene arises from the outstanding coordination of the cameras, props and background music which form a smooth rhythm and arrangement that eventually touches the part of the viewer that it was intended to.

In conclusion, Kant and Plotinus’ arguments about aesthetic value, to some extend merge. They both posit that the different components which eventually merge into one object form the basis of beauty. In Plotinus’ position, these individual parts lead to the formal unity which is actually beauty. On the other hand, Kant emphasizes on the coordination and arrangement of these components to form a single object as the basis of beauty. These two perspectives are clearly brought out in the movie Psycho and specifically in the bathroom scene.

Works Cited

Sheppard, Anne. Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. New York: Oxford Readers, 1987

The Internet Movie Database. Plot Summary for Psycho. 2009. Web.


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