Wittgenstein on “Beautiful” and “The Beautiful”

Gabriele Tomasi


In an entry in his Notebooks 1914-1916 Wittgenstein appears to give some credit to the idea widespread in modern aesthetics that «the end of art is the beautiful »: «[…] there is certainly something» – he writes – in this conception. And he comments on: «[…] the beautiful is what makes happy » (NB 21.10.16).
Maybe influenced by Tolstoy, who wrote that «people will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e. pleasure», Wittgenstein does not adopt the idea without reservations. However, he admits that there is some validity to it. Therefore what we read in his Lectures on Aesthetics (1938) is rather intriguing: «It is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetic judgments are made, aesthetic adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, etc., play hardly any role at all» (LE, I, 8). Why is this a remarkable fact? Is it because, in spite of beauty being the aim of art, when aesthetic judgments are made, the predicate ‘is beautiful’ plays a marginal role? And if this is the case, why is the supposed end of art almost neglected in art appreciation? Or is Wittgenstein simply bringing a word back from its metaphysical to its everyday use here (cf. PI, 116)?
I will argue that, while in the Notebooks entry Wittgenstein tells us something important on what makes an aesthetic experience a valuable experience and/or an experience of value, in the Lectures the topic is a bit different. Wittgenstein is talking about the appreciation of objects and works of art, about the ways we aesthetically react to them. I will focus on this shift in point of view and on a distinction introduced in the Lectures between approval and appreciation. It is in the light of this distinction, that we can understand the observation about the unimportance of ‘beautiful’ in aesthetic judgment. In the final part of my talk I will argue that, contrary to this opinion, the adjective ‘beautiful’ is of significance in aesthetic judgment.


Wittgenstein; Aesthetics; Beautiful; Value; Aesthetic judgment

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13128/Aisthesis-12842

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