Leibniz's aesthetics: the metaphysics of beauty
Portales, Carlos Nicolas
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Here I argue that Leibniz’s notion of beauty constitutes a coherent, although somehow implicit, position of realist and cognitive aesthetic formalism: beauty is metaphysically and ontologically explained as a formal structure, which is an objective property of things with objective value, yet at the same time accessible for subjective experience. In the first part of the thesis, I respond to the question what is beauty for Leibniz? The general answer is that beauty is a nominalist notion grounded on a formal structure, which corresponds to the formula of unity in variety or harmony. Beauty is not something in itself, but it is in things that comply with the formal structure of unity in variety, as well as some formal features entailed by this formula, such as wholeness, intelligibility and potential for pleasure. After gaining an insight into a general definition of beauty, I focus on the notion of variety and argue that it is not just a multiplicity of things, but also the degree of difference between those things. For Leibniz greater variety, and thus greater beauty, is achieved when something expresses a harmonic whole that includes not only perfectly consonant and similar elements, but also conflicting and dissonant elements. In this way, beautiful things can exhibit a sort of complexity in their variety –which may even appear as disorder–, as long as this variety finds an underlying order that reduces complexity and guarantees beauty. For Leibniz, order is indeed an essential requirement for beauty. I argue that what unites this variety and effects beauty is not one entity imposing over many, but an abstract principle of order that organises many diverse things. This principle is the unity that the postulated formula of beauty expresses. Thus, an entity is beautiful when its diverse components relate among each other in accordance with one principle of order. In the second part of the thesis, I argue that for Leibniz beauty is not only an objective property, but also an objective value, which is, nonetheless, available for subjective experience. The objectivity of beauty as a property consists in its independence from three factors: subjective recognition, existence, and God’s will. I explain that, in accordance with Leibniz’s philosophy, something is beautiful as a possible thing, before it gains existence, so even before it can be grasped by any subject. The beauty of a possible thing is determined by its compliance with the formal structure and requisites mentioned above. These rules of beauty do not depend on God’s will, but they are in his intellect just as are mathematical truths. Hence, beautiful things are as such not only independent from finite subjects, but also from God’s will. Likewise, the aesthetic value of the universe is also objective. This means two things; firstly, that beauty is not only valuable when appreciated by finite beings, and secondly, that nature’s aesthetic value is not meant only for our pleasure and happiness. I explain that the world’s value is perfection and, in turn, perfection is a rational order in the form of unity in variety, which is also beauty. Thus, unity in variety is valuable independently of valuers. Finally, I claim that for Leibniz we can experience beauty through distinct knowledge and also through confused perceptions. Since unity in variety is a formal abstract structure it is better experienced through distinct ideas. However, Leibniz also considers that this structure manifests itself through matter and we can experience confusedly through our senses. Accordingly, even if we are not conscious of the structure of beauty itself, we still can experience it. Indeed our aesthetic experiences can have confused elements as well as distinct ones at the same time. Moreover, experience of beauty can be a progression from more confused to more distinct not too different from the progress of knowledge.