Beauty according to Darwin's Theory

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Beauty according to Darwin's Theory – Listening Practice – advanced level


Delighted to be here and to talk to you about a subject dear to my heart, which is beauty. I do the philosophy of art, aesthetics, actually, for a living. I try to figure out intellectually, philosophically, psychologically, what the experience of beauty is, what sensibly can be said about it and how people go off the rails in trying to understand it. Now this is an extremely complicated subject, in part because the things that we call beautiful are so different. I mean just think of the sheer variety -- a baby's face, Berlioz's "Harold in Italy," movies like "The Wizard of Oz" or the plays of Chekhov, a central California landscape, a Hokusai view of Mt. Fuji, "Der Rosenkavalier," a stunning match-winning goal in a World Cup soccer match, Van Gogh's "Starry Night," a Jane Austen novel, Fred Astaire dancing across the screen. This brief list includes human beings, natural landforms, works of art and skilled human actions. An account that explains the presence of beauty in everything on this list is not going to be easy.


I can, however, give you at least a taste of what I regard as the most powerful theory of beauty we yet have. And we get it not from a philosopher of art, not from a postmodern art theorist or a bigwig art critic. No, this theory comes from an expert on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding, and you know who I mean: Charles Darwin. Of course, a lot of people think they already know the proper answer to the question, "What is beauty?" It's in the eye of the beholder. It's whatever moves you personally. Or, as some people, especially academics prefer, beauty is in the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder. People agree that paintings or movies or music are beautiful because their cultures determine a uniformity of aesthetic taste.


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