Can one Know that Something is Beautiful, but not Experience it?

Suppose someone approached you and said, “X is beautiful, but it’s a shame that I can’t experience it.”  Would that make sense to you?

When it comes to beauty, there are two types: sensual and intellectual.  I’ll start with the latter.

Intellectual beauties are those that deal with the mind.  Often when scientists or mathematicians look at their equations, they can’t help but wonder at the beauty behind the intricacies of what they’re working at.  They see something that grabs their mind, and those who have not had the training do not see it.  I hear this, and it makes sense to me.  Yet, when I look at these equations, I don’t see the beauty; I just see a garbled mess of equations and symbols.  Yet, I can see how there is beauty if I had the proper training and the right ideas of what I’m missing.  That, I think, is the key word.  I’m missing something.  Sure I’m missing the intellectual training and the higher pursuits of having these abilities, yet I’m also missing this aesthetic experience that these scientists and mathematicians see.  In that sense, I can say that the math and the equations of science are beautiful, and it’s a shame that I can’t experience it.

Sensual beauties are simpler to grasp.  It’s the beauty that we perceive with our senses.  The paradigmatic cases are art pieces, but they could be anything that we perceive.  So could we say that we find something beautiful, but we just can’t see it.  At first glance, this seems strange.  After all, if sensual beauty is something that we sense, and we can’t see the beauty, then it’s like saying I see the beauty, but I don’t see it.  Perhaps I’m being too quick.  I’ll give an example.

I have a lot of friends who don’t appreciate classical music.  The beauty behind the notes, melodies, harmonies, and the emotionality can really grab you.  Yet, these friends don’t get it, nor do they want to.  Yet, they understand that classical music is a “higher” art form.  (I won’t even go into what makes something “higher” or “lower”.)  By understanding this, they can see that classical music is beautiful, yet they cannot hear the beauty.  Now, they don’t lament this fact, but I do.  There were moments when I was listening to a classical piece and I didn’t enjoy the aesthetics behind it all.  Yet, some people I knew that were classically trained said that I had to listen to it again.  They pointed out to me certain notes, the configuration of the sounds, the rhythms and the beats.  In other words, they were pointing out to me that the piece was beautiful.  It was at that point that I begin to understand that the piece was indeed beautiful.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear it.  Perhaps knowing that something is beautiful isn’t just purely based on the senses, but it is something that reason must contribute.

Imagine witnessing an art piece but you don’t see the beauty in it.  You notice that other people are having this joyous aesthetic experience.  You cannot share their experience and you can’t understand their experience.  Imagine this possibility: instead of saying, “this art piece is dumb and those who are getting something out of this must also be dumb,” say this, “Those people are having this experience and I’m not.  I must be missing something.”  Is that possible?  I believe it is.

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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4 Responses to Can one Know that Something is Beautiful, but not Experience it?

  1. mj says:

    I get this strong sensation when I read books or poems in translation… I know a lot has been lost in this translation, but I don’t have the ability to partake of the original richness… yes! it can be enormously frustrating.

  2. thekillerj says:

    What about those people that are missing a sense? Could the blind person appreciate the beauty of a sunset? Possibly!

    • shaunmiller says:

      That’s a good point. In the case of the blind person, she would have to rely on some trust from another person. Pretty much sunsets are good paradigmatic examples of beauty. So yeah, I think it’s possible for a blind person to know that sunsets are beautiful even though she’s never experienced it.

  3. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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