By Sharon Dennis Wyeth
This is a story about a young African American girl who initially sees only the ugliness in her neighborhood. After pointing out the various “ugly” aspects of her neighborhood, she seeks to find “something beautiful”. She runs into various people along the way, including Miss Delphine who says, “There is nothing more beautiful tasting than my fried fish sandwiches”. The young girl wants to find her own “something beautiful”. You’ll be surprised at how the girl creates her own piece of beauty.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Isabella Barden
The book, “Something Beautiful” deals with philosophical issues such as beauty and aesthetics. One of the most prominent points within the beauty theory is whether or not beauty is subjective. Is it found only in the “eye of the beholder”? Does the word “beautiful” have meaning if it’s subjective? These are all ideas that fall under the issue around beauty. This book is a good book to discuss with children because it raises questions such as, “Is beauty just a physical thing?”, “Can something be beautiful to more than one person?”, and “ How do you know when something is beautiful?”
The first philosophical question set comes from the part of the book when the young girl looks outside and sees all of the trash and the homeless woman, the intersection between sadness and beauty happens here. These questions should be helpful for the students to discuss the idea that sad things can actually teach us something, such as inspiration and productivity.
The second question set dives into the relationship between knowing something and believing it. These questions; “Have you ever been wrong about something?”, “Before you knew you were wrong, do you remember “knowing” you were right?, and “How do you really “know” something is beautiful, when people are disagreeing with you?” Knowledge often bases itself on belief, which is usually defined as a conviction of the truth, without verification; therefore a belief is a subjective mental interpretation derived from perceptions, reasoning, or communication. Discussing what a belief actually is with the students will strengthen their opinions around this controversial debate between knowledge and belief.
The next set of questions explores aesthetics by discussing the definition of beauty, whether or not you can define something as beautiful even if it doesn’t look beautiful to you, and whether there is a difference between inner and outer beauty. The philosophical question, “What is beauty?” is still a controversial topic for many philosophers today. With these questions, a conversation can be prompted to discuss whether ugliness and dirt can be beautiful. Is a scary, urban neighborhood beautiful? Also, what makes something beautiful? Is it how you look that makes you beautiful? If I say that I am beautiful, does that mean that I am?
The final question set moves away from the topic of beauty, and onto discussing the notion of power, allowing the students to explore another important topic in this story. By definition, power is the ability to do something or act in a particular way. Dry, right? Questions like, “Is there good power, and not so good power?”, “Do you have to be in control to have power” are helpful to ask the students, as this will expand their textbook definition of power, and look at it in a relative way. Power comes with many negative connotations, including over-control and dictatorship, the questions in the question set are trying to help the students realize that the young girls’ action of scrubbing off the word “Die” was powerful, and it was positive! This power was paired with taking some control, and asking the students to discuss power and control in a positive way will benefit their developmental processes.
The inspiration for the question sets came from two major philosophers. David Hume and Immanuel Kant. These two Philosophers, hold different standpoints on the subjectivity or objectivity of beauty. Hume agrees that beauty is in the “eye of the beholder” when he states: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.”
Hume admits that the ability to detect or experience beauty is fundamentally subjective, that things are based on personal feelings, tastes or opinions. In the story, the young girl conversed with many community members who told her what their, “something beautiful” was. For example, Miss Delphine says that her fried fish sandwiches have the most beautiful taste. Hume would ask, if the young girl disagreed, and thought that the fish sandwich was not beautiful, does that make her wrong? Would Miss Delphine’s sandwiches no longer be beautiful?
Kant disagrees with Hume’s account of beauty and says: “We easily see that, in saying it is beautiful, and in showing that I have taste, I am concerned, not with that in which I depend on the existence of the object, but with that which I make out of this representation in myself. Everyone must admit that a judgment about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and is not a pure judgment of taste.”
Kant holds a more objective view of beauty. He thinks it is definitely possible to actually disagree and argue about whether something is beautiful, going back to the idea of “agreeing to disagree.” Kant argues that judgment must be made objectively and independently from typical human desires. He relates to the questions regarding knowledge and belief. He would ask, is beauty really held in the eye of the beholder, or is it merely based on experience? In the story, the young girl conversed with many community members who told her what their, “something beautiful” was. For example, Miss Delphine says that her fried fish sandwiches have the most beautiful taste. Kant would ask: Why do we need to agree the Miss Delphin’s fish sandwiches have a beautiful taste? How do we know she is right about how they taste, and why does the young girl, or anyone for that matter, have to agree? Beauty isn’t in the “eye of the beholder”, Kant would say, it is based on personal experience but in a way that presumes that others will agree.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Sadness and Beauty
The girl saw the trash outside her window, the word “Die” written on her door, and the homeless lady on the sidewalk.
Knowledge and Error
The girl asked her neighbors what they thought was beautiful.
Types of Beauty
At the end of the story, the mother tells her daughter that her “something beautiful”, is the girl.
Forms of Power
The young girl finally found her “something beautiful”, the power she felt when she scrubbed off the word “Die” on her front door.