Familiarity Begets Beauty: Surfacing of Splendour Through Interpretive Communities

Abstract: The existence of beauty and the question of reality had been baffling the philosophical inquiries for centuries. The current paradigm of space and time set limits for man, a finite being, to solve the problem of the ‘one’ and the ‘many’. As the concept of “interpretive communities” forms a theoretical basis for the common reading of texts, the recurring common mental representation of the same milieu, in addition to other symmetrical perfections and repetitions constitutes the enigmatic presence of beauty. In spite of the sayings like ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and ‘first impression is the best impression’, one could find familiarity contributing largely in making something beautiful and comprehendible.

Keywords: Interpretive Communities, beauty, ‘One and Many’, symmetry, familiarity, concept of beauty, common mental representation

Beauty has been a central object of philosophical inquiries for centuries. However, as many other puzzles, it had been slipping out of our comprehension all the time. The first problem on the existence of beauty is whether it has absolute existence or does it have only a relative existence in the mind. In fact, the riddle of beauty is included in the greater philosophical question on reality itself. Great philosophers have deliberated on the existence and nature of reality for ages. But the current paradigm of space and time may not be sufficient for human being, a finite being, to solve the problem of the ‘one’ and the ‘many’. In spite of all doubts, human being may make a compromise for all practical purposes in life by accepting the possibility of ‘one in many’. In literature, one solution to the acceptance of a common reading from many readings has its theoretical basis on ‘interpretive communities’. Similarly, when we think of beauty, there emerges the scope of familiarity as a major contributor to the common mental representation of it.

Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies (January 2014) Vol. XIV. No. 1

The reality and its comprehension were a major concern for the early philosophers. During middle ages, Rationalists like Descartes tried to understand the world by careful use of reason. Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume based all knowledge as acquired through perception and experience. Locke even called the mind as a tabula rasa, a “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas” (53). Bishop George Berkeley denied even the primary qualities like extension from an object and became an advocate of immaterialism, when he proclaimed the esse (existence) of the unthinking things as percipi (perception) (Armstrong 62). According to Immanuel Kant we attain phenomena from the perception of the ‘noumena’ through senses and categories of the mind. One could reach synthetic a priori judgments which provide new information that is necessarily true. “The postulate concerning the cognition of the reality of things,” argues Kant, “requires perception, consequently conscious sensation … exhibit all kinds of real connection in experience”(Critique of Pure Reason 169). The concept has been further investigated by the philosophers of the twentieth century as well. The phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger et al. have left no stones unturned with regard to this issue.

Even without much philosophical speculation one can reach the concept of the ‘one in many’. Whatever be the ‘real’ reality, we can at least comprehend how it appears to us. We can also understand that other people too have similar experiences from that object. At least we could reach a consensus.

When we think about the concept beauty, we soon find ourselves in the realm of reality and appearance. Nick Zangwill says, “Beauty is a property that depends on other properties” (1). Therefore, we tend to go after the same philosophers for enlightening us. The original meaning of the Greek word for beautiful is healthy, powerful, virtuous, beautiful in appearance etc. For the Greeks beauty implied order and symmetry. At an early date the Pythagoreans pointed out the importance of symmetry; Democritus emphasised that that which is beautiful is necessarily balanced. (Elders 136)

For Plato, beauty is the orderly and harmonious arrangement of a particular’s elements. The beautiful things we see are not beauty in itself but participate in it. Setting out from the experience of the beauty of material things we should ascend through the beauty of moral actions and knowledge to Beauty itself. Plato even makes the beautiful the highest principle in the hierarchy of being identifying it with the good: “Everything that is beautiful is good and everything that is good is beautiful” (Riegel 143).

Aristotle allied the beautiful with the divine, that is, with that which is most excellent. He describes the beautiful as the pleasant and as that which is pleasing in itself. He mentions the attributes of the beautiful as order (taxis), symmetry (summetria), limitation (tohôrismenon) and size. (Lear 118)

For Plotinus Beauty cannot exist without Being, no more than Being without Beauty. He contends: “Whenever Beauty leaves Being, Being loses something of its essence. Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty; Beauty is loved because it is Being. In order to exist, Being must participate in Beauty in one way or another” (Elders 137).

Given the large amount of attention devoted by Neo-Platonism to beauty, it is not surprising that Augustine, the scholastic philosopher, discourses on beauty in several of his works. He notes that in order to be beautiful a thing must be one, where the parts of beautiful things are ordered to each other and to their source of unity. “[A]ll creatures …have their own measure, number, and order…. The changes that occur in them … are governed by a hidden plan that rules the beauty of the world and regulates each according to its kind” (92).

Aquinas differentiates between good and beautiful: “The beautiful and the good are the same in the subject, because they are founded on the same thing, namely the form….But they differ in their conceptual content…[G]ood has a nature of a goal…while the beautiful…is related to the cognitive faculty…. Hence the beautiful consists in the right proportion”(qtd. in Elders 139).

Kant asserts that the judgment of taste is not a judgment of cognition, but is based upon purely subjective factors:

[I]t is not pleasure, but the universal validity of this pleasure, perceived as connected in the mind with our mere judging of an object, that we present a priori as [a] universal rule for the power of judgment, valid for everyone. That I am perceiving and judging an object with pleasure is an empirical judgment. But that I find the object beautiful, i.e., that I am entitled to require that liking from everyone as necessary, is an a priori judgment. (Critique of Judgment 154)

Kant makes us believe that beauty is subjective and things are ugly. Elaine Scarry agrees with Kant: “Our desire for beauty is likely to outlast its object because … unlike all other pleasures, the pleasure we take in beauty is inexhaustible” (50).

Heidegger argues that knowing is not objectively present in human beings. For him, “knowing is a kind of being of being-in-the-world […and] constitutes the being of Da-sein”(57). Jean Paul Sartre thinks that an object does not disclose all its possible appearances in one moment. Experience is successive: a continuum in which aspects appear and disappear, in which appearances are revealed and then withdrawn. The object is not present to the person in exactly the same way it was a moment ago. If all impressions were present in one instant, the objective would dissolve in the subjective. He says, It is impossible that the percipere affects the perceptum of being, for in order for the perceptum to be affected it would of necessity have to be already given in, some way and exist before having received being”(Being and Nothingness 19). It is the absence of impressions which gives them objective being. Thus the being of the object is pure non-being, a lack.

It is better to follow the phenomenological method of bracketing (epoché)1 propagated by Edmund Husserl in the case of appearance. Let us stop thinking about the real objective existence of beauty. Believe what appears to our senses as true for all practical purposes. At the same time, we should restrain ourselves from making absolute claims regarding beauty and ugly.

However, our experience of beautiful things conflicts with these theories. None of them explains why a beautiful thing is experienced as objectively beautiful: a mountain range, a sunset, animals, trees and flowers are experienced as beautiful in themselves. William Shakespeare expressed beauty as self-evident, needing no explanation: when you see or hear it, you recognise it immediately. He voices this in The Rape of Lucrece:

Beauty itself doth of itself persuade The eyes of men without an orator. What needeth then apologies be made,

To set forth that which is so singular? (102)

Elaine Scarry echoes Keats’s equalisation of beauty with truth when she asserts:

What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere … the beautiful person or thing incites in us the longing for truth because it provides by its compelling ‘clear discernibility’ an introduction … to the state of certainty yet does not itself satiate our desire for certainty since beauty, sooner or later, brings us into contact with our own capacity for making errors. (31)

Scarry is very accurate in placing beauty as a beginning stage of education. Beautiful things are like goddess Janus who makes us look forward and backward at the same time. Beauty does not allow us to leave anything as insignificant. She further says:

[B]eautiful things have a forward momentum, the way they incite the desire to bring new things into the world: infants, epics, sonnets, drawings, dances, laws, philosophic dialogues, theological tracts. But we soon found ourselves also turning backward, for the beautiful faces and songs that lift us forward onto new ground keep calling out to us as well, inciting us to rediscover and recover them in whatever new thing gets made. (46)

Many a time we hear that the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and make claims that beauty is subjective. But at the same time we reserve this connotation to a few and practice the other way around. To begin, take the faculty of sight. It is scientifically proved that the colour is nothing but the ability to reflect certain wavelengths of sunlight. The nerves system in our brain makes us to see particular colours. If all human beings in the world were blind, we would not have even thought about colours, unless by having some indirect knowledge of it, similar to that of ultraviolet rays. Even the angle from which we see a particular thing alters our way of seeing it. It is the particular arrangement of our eyes which facilitates the 3-D perception and enabling us to understand depth. If you think of sound, it is nothing but a vibration which reaches the ear through air. We get taste and smell from chemical reactions occurring at our taste buds in the tongue, and at the receptors in the nose respectively. It is the brain which ultimately deciphers these sensations too. That is the reason why we feel delicious food items as tasteless when we are feverish. Dishes that are discarded due to foul smell and taste are considered delicious and are eaten by pigs. Even size is relative to the subject of perception. The beautiful smooth face which many of us admire has mountains and hollows, when looking through certain microscopes. It means that the perception of a particular object as beautiful is dependent on the subject who perceives and the medium through which he/she attains this perception.

Keeping the physiological factors aside, one may find other factors responsible for our perception of beauty. Had we been familiar with only “ugly” faces in the world, we would have found some beautiful ones among them. For example, if all of us had faces like monkeys (assuming monkeys are looked down on), we certainly would make miss/mister universe from them. Similarly, if one looks at a familiar beautiful face through a mirror, the same face would seem different and sometimes less beautiful. We may not like people belonging to a particular race. But they may have their own beauties among them, and if we had belonged to that race, our own opinion would have been different. This means that familiarity has a greater part in making something beautiful.

Thus we find a common agreement among a group with regard to beauty. How does this agreement occur? When we think about literature, it is now assumed that an author has only a limited role with regard to his finished work. It is the reader who is born “at the cost of the author” (Barthes 148). This concept, in fact, leads to plurality of readings (or “texts”) from a single text (book).

However, there are different approaches within this theory of “reader response” as it is called. Some theoreticians look at the work from the individual reader’s point of view, while others focus on how groups or communities view the text. Gadamer argues that “a literary work does not pop into the world as a finished and neatly parceled bundle of meaning; rather meaning depends on the historical situation of the interpreter” (qtd. in Selden 62).

Norman N. Holland says, “a reader responds to a literary work by assimilating … to his search for successful solutions within his identity theme to the multiple demands … on his ego” (Five Readers 218). There are similarities among readers. Holland argues, “When you and I apply ideas we share to the same text, then very likely we will come to the same conclusion about that text. In those respects we read alike” (“Old Criticism” 5).

This possibility of a common reading is further explicated by Stanley Fish, who maintains that it is the readers who ‘write’ the ‘text’. In the sense there are innumerable ‘texts’ as readings. (Even the ‘texts’ created by readings of a particular reader at different times are varied insofar as the interpretive strategies differ.) Similarly, the sharing of interpretive strategies by the readers by a community of readers leads to a universal reading. He seeks to know why different readers should ever agree and why should “regular…differences in the career of a single reader ever occur” (171). This is because of the presence of

interpretive communities … who share interpretive strategies not for reading(in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. [These] strategies exist prior to the act of reading and

therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around. [If] it is an article of

faith in a particular community that there are a variety of texts, its members will boast a repertoire of strategies for making them,. [while if another community] believes in the existence of

only one text, then the single strategy its members employ will be forever writing it.(171)

It is the universality and similarity of perception that makes human life possible. The collective name ‘human being’ or even ‘being’ is given to a particular group that shows the similarity of the same sorts. It is our belief that what we perceive is similar to that of others. Absolute similarity is not possible as A. J. Ayer contends: “[The other] tells me that he is in pain, but may it not be that what he understands by pain is something quite different from anything that I should call by that name”(205). But our continuation of life in this world is possible through the belief in a similarity of perception.

People, especially of a particular society, share the same milieu. Sartre states, “people of the same period and community, who have lived through the same events, who have raised or avoided the same questions, have the same taste in their mind” (What is Literature? 51).

Edward A. Vessel and Nava Rubin says, “Any common preferences observed across individuals would be the result of common experiences with a stimulus, not stimulus attributes per se.” Aesthetic judgments are influenced by variables such as figural goodness, figure- ground contrast, stimulus repetition, and symmetry.

We usually hear sayings like ‘love at first sight’. But these usages have, in fact, resulted from some complex elements already present in one’s attitude from certain previous experiences. We have already created a concept of beauty inwardly and participate in a community of people experiencing similar things in common. Therefore, it is possible to feel love at first sight. But the first sight is not first sight at all. It is only in conformity with what we have already in the mind.

There is nothing to be called gorgeous in objective world. Similarly, there is nothing to be called repulsive and nauseating in the objective world. Believing in the interpretive communities for sharing the concept of beauty is apt when we take a pragmatic and democratic view of life. But we should be humble enough to accept the possibility of getting our notions wrong. Our life will be beautiful if we stop grabbing and possessing the objective world by categorising and branding them into certain binaries of good and bad. It will be good, if we can feel with John Keats who expressed a universal thought in his verse “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”


1 The act of suspending judgment about the natural world to focus on analysis of mental experience.


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BENOY KURIAN. Teaches in the Department of English, St. George’s College, Aruvithura, Kottayam, Kerala.

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Teaches in the Department of English, St. George’s College, Aruvithura, Kottayam, Kerala.

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