On Beauty, part 2
Beauty and deformity
[Previously: part 1.]
Ugliness is the opposite of beauty. If we can learn what ugliness is, and turn the result upside-down, then the true theory of beauty may fall out.
Ugliness is deformity. Two arguments for this thesis may be given, each in an unimpeachable argument-form: an argument from the dictionary, and an argument from the writings of famous long-dead philosophers.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first entry for “deform” is “To mar the appearance, beauty, or excellence of; to make ugly or unsightly; to disfigure, deface.” But if to deform is to make ugly, then deformity—the condition or state a thing is put in when something has deformed it—is the same as ugliness: q.e.d.. The OED entry for “deformity” confirms this: “The quality or condition of being marred or disfigured in appearance; disfigurement; unsightliness, ugliness.” There it is on the page: ugliness identified with deformity.
One might ask why, if there is just one thing called both ugliness and deformity, we have two words for it. But that’s not unusual; see “pig” and “swine” etc. Modern English has many parents: it was born of Anglo-Saxon mixing with the Old Norse and the Norman French spoken by Viking invaders and by conquerors who were themselves French-speaking descendants of Viking invaders. “Deform” comes from Old French, and “ugly” from Old Norse. Maybe if a language already has one word for something, there’s pressure against adding another—but only if the new word is in the same grammatical category as the old (both nouns etc). “Deform” is a verb and “ugly” is an adjective. Once they’re in, synonymous nouns are practically inevitable, generated by standard language-internal rules for nominalizing verbs and adjectives.
Important treatments of beauty in early modern philosophy assumed that ugliness and deformity were the same. Frances Hutcheson, in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), referred to “that Form which we call now ugly or deform’d.” But Hutcheson strongly preferred “deformity” as a name for beauty's opposite—he uses “ugly” only once, here, and everywhere else uses “deformed / deformity.” This preference is manifest when, for example, Hutcheson wanted to say that the opposite of beauty is not some other “positive” quality, but is merely the absence of beauty, just as, we might say now, cold is only the absence of heat: he wrote that “Deformity is only the absence of Beauty.” It was also manifest when Hutcheson wanted to say that no beliefs or desires can influence whether we perceive something as beautiful or as its opposite. He again used “deformity”: