Overweening Generalist

Monday, January 16, 2012

Of the Quantification of Beauty, Part 1

What an odd road beauty has taken since Plato and other Greeks decided that all values seemed to reduce to the tripartite and triumvirate truth/goodness/beauty. In the ensuing 2500 years, goodness seems irreparably relative and mired in its own high level of abstraction. "That which is the good is that which is true blah blah..." palaver seems to elicit yawns from all but the most semantically confused. Truth was doing fairly well until the 20th century hit, then the means for ascertaining capital tee Truth bogged down and seems to have crashed; no one can find the Body of Truth, although, like Elvis and Bigfoot spottings, almost everyone seems to have caught a glimpse, or is laughing at those who say they've seen It. (Or maybe the Truth is more like Amelia Earhart?) Relativity, quantum mechanics, neuroscience and human perception, cultural relativity in Anthropology, Wittgenstein and Korzybski with language, and even Godel's Theorem in math seem to have killed off that big swath of axiology that truth had made up. We mostly speak of truth in pragmatic ways these days, or if one is deducing from necessary elements. 3 + 3 = 6, we say. And most everyone nods their head in agreement: what she said about threes is True, lo and verily, aye. The guy who wants to dispute 3+3=6 is just a pain in the ass, and I think we will all agree what I just wrote was a True statement, although it seems not to partake much in the Good, and if you get some Beauty out of it, hey, good for you, you weirdo.

Truth largely got derailed because it seemed inextricably related to perception and thought, although I simplify the story wildly here. The Good was caught up in desire and action, and it turns out we all desire different things and take some really bizarre and unwise actions in our forays towards the "good." (And who among us says "Good riddance!" to the Good?)

On to Beauty.

Beauty has taken an odd, twisty-turny course over that same 2500 year period. While Plato, influenced by the Pythagoreans, thought beauty (or should I write Beauty?) followed from the Ideal forms, and that human beauty (which is most of what these posts will be about) actually contained pure geometrical ideas that underwrote it - although today we might say they were "wingin' it good" - it was a "pretty" (Ha!) good wing, viz: Plato's complete works are chock-full of ideas about proportions and beauty...and symmetry. Regarding art, regarding consumption of food and wine, how much one should exercise in proportion to engaging in intellectual dialogue, how much this in relation to how much that...this notion of just proportion and idealism feeds his ideas about politics and the ideal state, which, in The Republic, is brilliant, very engaging, and, I think, fascistic.

In the Phaedrus Plato, still transfixed on his vision of a More Real, Perfect World in some other Reality of Being, says it's the "privilege of beauty" to offer us the easiest access to the world of Pure Forms, and that beauty allows the soul "to grow wings." I think he's basically right ; but it's because we evolved as sexy beings and biology drives this stuff, not some Eternal Ideal Realm.

                                                 So this is what it's come to, eh?

This notion of proportion and symmetry, in a sort of Eternal Return or akin to Odysseus's long road out to Troy and his very interesting ten-year adventure getting back home to Ithaca, harmonizes with computer-modeled attempts in the last 30 years to measure, quantify, and mathematize the idea of a beautiful face. How odd that beauty turned out to be the one of the Big Three axiological ideas to actually cash itself out and become amenable to our efforts to mathematize and quantize almost everything.

Of course, along the way, guys like Spinoza and John Stuart Mill saw pleasure and utility as the criteria for both beauty and goodness, and one could easily argue that utility and pleasure were more important values for both men. There are many values to go around. More than five, I daresay.

Spinoza (b.1632) thought goodness and beauty, as values, were subjective, but that truth was objective, and we've seen that that project largely fell apart in the 20th century. I surmise that a rationalistic bend of mind, particularly one enamored of mathematics, tends to think along the lines of Spinoza.

Earlier, Montaigne, who I in many ways see as more Modern than Spinoza, talked of the relativity of beauty, and in a memorable passage from his (by far) longest essay, "Apology For Raimon de Sebonde," turned to the most recent proto-anthropological data of his time, which was filled with wild tales from missionaries and other disreputable folk, but Montaigne nevertheless makes his point, saying that if there was truly one True idea of beauty, we'd know it by now and, furthermore, of faces:

"Indians paint it black and tawny, with great swollen lips, big flat noses, and load the cartilage betwixt the nostrils with great rings of gold to make it hang down to the mouth; as also the nether lip with great hoops, enriched with jewels, that weigh them down to fall upon the chin, it being with them a special grace to show their teeth even below the roots. In Peru, the greatest ears are the most beautiful, and they stretch them out as far as they can by art..." Montaigne, born in 1533, goes on and on in this passage, which must have been the most wonderous for the local folk in southern France to read!

Later 19th and early 20th century geniuses Darwin and Freud made no bones about Beauty, asserting frankly that it had to do with the instinct for nookie.

Enough of Great Men in the Western Tradition and their ideas about Beauty, I've buried the lead! What of this "quantification"? Okay, probably a lot of you are way ahead of me: the notion of measuring beauty has been pretty hot in academia the past few decades. A lot of it hinges on using Photoshopped images of faces, tweaked into different ratios of eyes to mouth, length and width of face, and asking study respondents which photos they found most attractive. And the degree of uniformity of agreement is both astonishing and sorta creepy, methinks.

HERE's a pretty good overview of recent books that discuss these beauty measurements and many other findings about the sociobiology/evolutionary psychology/economics/sociology/phenomenology of beauty and attractiveness in out world, today, as gleaned from all sorts of studies.

Here's a short article on Measuring Beauty in Women, jointly conducted by U. of California at San Diego, and the U. of Toronto. This article elaborates on the previous one, and note that Shania Twain "is" more beautiful than both Elizabeth Hurley and Angelina Jolie. THIS article shows that women fantasize about symmetrical men, especially at certain times of the month, and why. German students seem very much caught up in this stuff, as shown at this website, that offers self-tests, etc. You may have seen John Cleese hosting a public broadcasting series on this topic, and it's all on You Tube; a key short episode is HERE, and if you want to watch more they're easy to find. NB: how the 1:1.618 ratio plays out with faces.

As an overweening generalist, I first became acquainted with these ideas by reading Helen Fisher's early books The Sex Contract and The Anatomy of Love.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

What an interesting post. It raises a lot of questions in my mind, and not just, "When am I going to find time to read those Helen Fisher books, now that I've heard of her?"

If there are objective criteria for female beauty, does that mean that men who appreciate attractive women are aesthetes, just like the folks who go to art museums? If we are aesthetes, can we sell that notion to our wives when we look at attractive women?

If appreciating an attractive woman is different from appreciating a work of art, what about erotic art? Is the "art" part negated if the woman in the painting looks good?

Anyway, thanks for the posting.

michael said...

The Fisher books are well-written, and IIRC she was sort of an independent scholar at one point, but is now a full-on academic. The data in the field has exploded since her early books, and there are probably 20-35 books on aspects of beauty, written from a biological or quantitative social science POV for the intelligent layperson in a well-stocked public library. I've noticed a marked difference in tone towards data dependent upon whether these writers are men or women...although Fisher, for example,still seems pretty bare-knuckles.

I think WE ought to be able to negotiate looking at attractive people with our mates, and it goes both ways. 'Tis easier asserted than done, probably, for some. Hey: we're looking anyway, right? If you look at the (scads) of data on women and the subtle changes in the days before and after her period: she's looking at men in a different way then usual. Meanwhile, it seems we guys - gay or straight - are ALWAYS looking. Down to the brass: if enough women become engaged in the various biologically-based discussions of physical beauty, the attitudes about looking at other attractive women seem to liberalize, the appeal to rationality carrying appreciable weight here, but not always. COMMUNICATION with your partner seems vital here.

But yea: men must realize what's good for the goose...

The difference between works of art and sex seems to be that the one is far more biologically-based than the other. This is a typical area where Plato and platonified ideas break down: they assert there's an "essence" behind a word, and it's idealized enough to wash out the biology, and that's just a huge mistake. Similarly, the "art" part of the erotic art seems to get hijacked - at least for men - if we are horny enough. We are wired that way, and ought not feel shame. (I don't think this is the naturalistic fallacy, but one may argue.)

One of the interesting aspects of the quantification of beauty, for me, is that, in the Big Picture, it still leaves out all sorts of widespread anomalies. For example: personally, I'm attracted to women who some men - and presumably these "golden ratio" studies - think are "not really" attractive. And there's plenty of data that shows mom really does believe her "ugly" kids are beautiful. Also: if someone finds you attractive, you immediately start to see them as more attractive than before.

It's fascinating stuff, innit?

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty" - John Keats

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever." - John Keats

michael said...

I think I gave Truth shorter shrift than it deserved in this post. I made it sound way too easy, and I don't think "it" "is."

michael said...

"'beauty is difficult" sd/Mr Beardsley" - Canto 74

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I had forgotten about that line. Man, the Cantos has a lot of stuff in it.