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“I can’t help wondering if ugliness is not indispensable to philosophy.”

More on what beauty is, as UD prepares to teach aesthetics this semester.

A New York Times blogger proposes that the recognition of one’s own ugliness can be a spur to philosophy:

That original self-conscious, slightly despairing glance in the mirror (together with, “Is this it?” or “Is that all there is?”) is a great enabler because it compels us to seek improvement. The transcendent is right here right now. What we transcend is our selves. And we can (I am quoting Sartre here) transascend or transdescend. The inevitable dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance is the engine not only of philosophy but of civil society at large.

As long as we try to be beautiful, we evade our essentially imperfect – improvable – human condition:

In trying to be beautiful, we are trying to be like God (the “for-itself-in-itself” as Sartre rebarbatively put it). In other words, to become like a perfect thing, an icon of perfection, and this we can never fully attain.

Those who, like Sartre, acknowledge their inescapable ugliness early, are more liable to be able to philosophize. Indeed, the beautiful among us must, if they wish to be serious in this way, mar their looks:

I suspect that the day Britney Spears shaved her own hair off represented a kind of Sartrean or Socratic argument (rather than, say, a nervous breakdown). She was, in effect, by the use of appearance, shrewdly de-mythifying beauty. The hair lies on the floor, “inexplicably faded” (Sartre), and the conventional notion of femininity likewise. I see Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot in a similar light: one by dying, the other by remaining alive, were trying to deviate from and deflate their iconic status… Perhaps this explains why Camus, Sartre’s more dashing sparring partner, jotted down in his notebooks, “Beauty is unbearable and drives us to despair.”

Margaret Soltan, August 13, 2010 12:00PM

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One Response to ““I can’t help wondering if ugliness is not indispensable to philosophy.””

  1. Mr Punch Says:

    Camus, one might say, went to extreme lengths to deviate from his iconic status (or maybe he just missed a turn). But ugly as Socrates and Sartre were, the evidence just isn’t there. I’ve known several very well regarded philosophers who were perfectly presentable.

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