Truth and Beauty

“Truth and Beauty are fundamentally different. Whereas Truth is a property of statements, beauty reveals itself in the course of an experience with an object.”

Howard Gardner

Do you know what you value? I value beauty. I say in my profile that I value beauty and excellence, as well as truth and kindness. Beauty is #1.

The older I get, the more my values coalesce around the holy trinity of values espoused by Aristotle and others: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

What is the difference between the three? This post isn’t about making those distinctions. For that I recommend Gardner’s book, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed.

Howard Gardner

Or check out his lecture on the topic.

I found Garner’s book to be helpful and insightful. For audio book lovers, it is available on Hoopla for free with a library membership, in many cases. That is how I “read” it.

Beauty is a personal thing. I like blurry backgrounds in my photos, you don’t; I’m mesmerized by the beauty of daisies blowing in a breeze, you find them ugly weeds. You cherish ceramic ornaments of birds for their lifelike beauty, I find them gaudy. You stand enraptured watching majestic eagles soar, I’m unmoved. I can’t get enough of the curled brown leaves in winter, you prefer silk flowers. And on it goes.

Blurry background – is it beautiful?

Truth, at first blush, seems easier, more straight forward. It is a statement that must follow rules. A statement that is true is one that accurately describes something. Simple truth statements are things like, “On earth, things fall if you drop them.” For most of us, that is true.

For me, science is the ultimate arena of truth, because science has the goal of finding out what is real, and expressing it as objectively as possible. But objectivity is a limited quality. Good for establishing baselines, building blocks, and better theories.

Beauty on the other hand, is less objective. We can point to a collection of relationships and elements that are likely to trigger an emotional response that causes people to call something beautiful. Science may adequately predict the response, but it can not really describe beauty. We can analyse things considered beautiful and say why we think they are perceived that way, but such analysis never gets all the way there.

The right combination of blur and focus?

I’ve tried to describe beauty objectively and through story and analogy. I have written two books on a specific kind of beauty. I was somewhat successful.

We can say much about the factors that make up a beautiful object. Things like symmetry and balance. We can talk about the factors that make a place beautiful, things like the evolutionary advantage of one landscape over another, good vantage points, safe havens, etc. But like with so many experiences, it is very difficult to adequately explain why some things are more beautiful than others. My own inner experience of awe and wonder when I really find something of beauty, is usually beyond words.

Some Examples

This first image received 290 likes on my Flickr stream.

Landscape shots that are “dramatic” with good contrast and pleasing gradations of a few dominant colours, are generally considered beautiful by most people.

This next image, fared similarly well, receiving 234 likes.

Notice the similar elements to the first image. It is dramatic, and dominated by a few colours that form a pleasing contrast.

Among the people I follow and who follow me, this next photo was very popular. It received 104 faves and 11 affirmative comments.

My fellow photographers said it was: nice, very nice, beautiful, truly beautiful, lovely, and even exquisite. These comments mean more to me than the higher number of faves on the other photos, because the opinions of these folks are ones I value.

I know, because of my familiarity with these photographer’s work, that they understand what it means to appreciate this image and they know what it took to achieve it.

In my opinion this image has better composition, more pleasing imperfections, more complexity of colour, and especially more depth. All these lead to a different emotional impact. Where the other wider vistas garner a lower case “wow;” this image brings a wide eyed, “WOW” from people who have tried to capture this kind of beauty.

This refinement of opinion is what is sometimes referred to as taste. An educated eye, or palette, or ear. Studies have been done to show that in wine tasting, at any rate, very few people can accurately select expensive wines. This does not mean they can’t distinguish pleasant tastes from unpleasant ones, but it does suggest that marketing and other factors impact our perception of taste. It also highlights that wine is a complex substance with many inter-blended elements.

This last image is one of my personal favorites. It did not receive the same attention as the more dramatic images but for me, someone who loves subtlety, gentleness, stillness, and peace, this morning image wonderfully captures the beauty of that early hour when most of the agitation of the day is still to come.

I would be interested to hear in the comments which image you find most beautiful and why. They are each available as high resolution images by clicking on them.

All images are copyrighted, please ask if you would like to re-use or reproduce them.

Published by Richard

I am a writer, photographer, and contemplative. My highest value is beauty and excellence. I seek to find and appreciate it, and create it. My second value is truth. I try to clearly and accurately communicate what is real and true. My third value is kindness. I study religion and science to help me understand how to increase kindness in myself and others.

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