Transdisciplinary Design

The Sense Of Beauty

Posted on December 20, 2018

In conclusion of the semester I want to speak on something easily neglected when seeking through all our semesters particular readings to find connections and expend our definition of Design and its potential. Something integral to Design, Beauty. Particularly I want to focus on a book (more specifically part 1) I have been reading through out this semester by George Santayana called The Sense of Beauty for it is a masterpiece needed to to be recognized. Additionally it is one that could be utilized in our explorations of such laborious methods of thought offering possibly a suspending of the intellectual faculties for the sake of feeling the soul of it all or as Santayana puts it The Sense of Beauty. 

For George Santayana the philosophy of beauty is about the pleasure present in the act of perceiving something to be value, a pleasure that lives in our very pursuit of what is pleasurable, yet is only made known through our objectification of that lived experience. Santayana argues that to know a theory of values one must determine how value is formed, particularly how a perception of value comes to be and the conditions needed for this occurrence.  Our preferences of one thing over another cannot be distinguished apart from our experiences of perceiving those things.

In our perceptions we are brought pain or pleasure though sensation and out of our response we attribute value to those experiences; we form the representative ideal of pleasurable perception preferring it over the painful, over the perceptions that fail to meet our standard of the representative ideal. These preferences become instinctive and immediate, directing our attention to the valuable, making preference ultimately irrational. Were reason to rule our preference, it would require of us what rational thought requires, a conscious creation of and reflection on our perceptions. Instead it is the sensation of pain and pleasure that generates value. And this value does not belong to the aesthetic alone. Such perceptions inform moral as well as aesthetic ideals. Moral values are present in a perception of evil that knows in the experience what brings pain and thus tells us what is to be avoided. Though aesthetic values are also formed through perception, it is in a perception of good that knows in the experience what brings pleasure and thus tells us what is to be pursued.

Pleasure differentiates the aesthetic from the moral. Here he compares these concepts to those of work and play, which are used to determine what is necessary and unnecessary for human life. Play, like aesthetic value, is spontaneous unplanned action not needed for human life. Work, like moral value, is planned and necessary for human life. However, when we focus on utility by way of this analogy, we see that all value ends up being traced to the aesthetic. Because the useful is always useful for something, all values have to find an end. Thus all values are in some sense aesthetic. Through our continued perceptions, both moral and aesthetic, a conscientious training takes place, forming within us general principles that shape value. We know what pleasure is and where to find it. As these principles guide our experiences, an “aesthetic consecration” takes place. It is not that our general principle have intrinsic aesthetic value, but because our conscientious training over time has taught us instinctive and immediate perceptions of pleasure that determine what we pursue and avoid. Related to this is the matter of judgment. For Santayana, intellectual and moral judgments can acquire an aesthetic value but do not intrinsically hold one because, as we have seen above, he stresses positive and immediate characteristics of aesthetic perception. However complication arises here because there are pleasures that are both positive and immediate that fall short of the beautiful. Physical sensations of pleasure, while both positive and immediate,  do not define the essence of beauty. They fail to do so because in the sensation of physical pleasure our attention is intercepted and called to focus on our own bodily sensation. Santayana wants beautiful to draw us out of ourselves. Here the appreciation of beauty is  aborted because our attention is not directed towards an external object. Instead our physical sensations of pleasure intercept what is meant to be carried outward, pulling back into consciousness the constraints of our bodily form bringing with it an ill tone of selfishness.

The distinction between the sense of beauty and pleasure, however, cannot be found in a distinction between selfish and unselfish satisfaction because the idea of self in consciousness is a complex of aims and memories all of which at one point began as unselfish and spontaneous interest directed at an object. In our formation of self, made conscious through experience, all our interests were at one time uncalculated perceptions suffused with emotion. We followed our interests of pleasure and then acquired values through the meeting of ideals to determine what perceptions were selfish and unselfish, coming to know instinctively and immediately what is positive, what is aesthetically pleasing. One might wonder if this sense of beauty can then said to be distinguished through its universality. But for Santayana this is not the case. Aesthetic pleasure is not defined by universality because this would require not only only a consensus upon the similarity of origin, nature, and circumstances in which aesthetic pleasure is present, but also upon the equal identity of all judgements and feelings in these conditions. Aesthetic pleasure rather has its basis in specific perceptions of value in an individual human’s nature. Aesthetic pleasure requires the assertion of its capacity to effect all, though not its capacity to effect all equally. Santayana concludes that because the sense of beauty cannot be distinguished by universality nor unselfish satisfaction, it must rather be a matter of its immediate and instinctive perception of value, what is positive and pleasurable.  Here we arrive at beauty: aesthetic pleasure essentially consists in the transformation of sensation into the quality of a thing. The sense of beauty is distinguished only in its objectification of pleasure. “Beauty is pleasure objectified.” 

In our endless attempts of understanding dynamic adaptive systems and the complexities designers face in redirecting or intervening in them, it could serve us well to know that there’s always something beautiful to it and the beauty found never needs to be justified, it is its own reason for existing. This compelling knowledge can offer innumerable leverage points not known to everyone, but seen to those who are patient enough look for it.



Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty. Part 1,  General Books, 2010.