Environmental aesthetics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M047-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 21, 2019, from

6. Positions and problems: the cognitive approach

The second basic kind of philosophical approach in environmental aesthetics may be characterized as cognitive. It points out that for addressing the questions of what and how to appreciate there are in fact resources to draw upon: appreciators and objects of appreciation. Thus, it suggests that the roles played in appreciation of works of art by frames, artists, traditions and designs may be played in aesthetic appreciation of the world at large by these two resources. In such appreciation the roles of frames and artists are typically taken up by appreciators, and those of traditions and designs by objects of appreciation. Thus, when encountering objects of appreciation, appreciators set frames that limit them in time and space and select senses relevant to their appreciation. Moreover, as artists work with their creations, so too, in setting and selecting, appreciators must work with the nature of the objects of appreciation. In this way environments themselves provide the analogues of traditions and designs, determining their own natures and meanings for appreciators to discover. They offer guidance in light of which appreciators, by setting, selecting and discovering, can reach answers to the questions of ‘what’ and ‘how’ to appreciate. Appreciators thereby fashion initially engaging and largely non-cognitive experience of environments into appropriate, serious aesthetic appreciation.

Unlike the approaches that stress immediate sensory and feeling responses to environments, the cognitive approach offers a somewhat cumbersome account of aesthetic appreciation of the world at large and thus may be somewhat less intuitive than the former approaches. Consequently, in spite of whatever problems plague the former, to be equally convincing the latter must be elaborated by examples. The basic idea of the cognitive position is that appreciation is guided by the nature of objects of appreciation and thus that knowledge about their origins, types and properties is necessary for serious, appropriate aesthetic appreciation. Consider for instance a grove of conifers glowing golden in the setting sun. It is significant to know whether the trees are larch and the golden needles indicative of seasonal change or a different species in which the colour typically means death. Appropriate aesthetic appreciation, and especially its feeling component, will differ accordingly. Consider an alpine meadow. It is relevant to know that adaptation to altitude requires diminished size. Such knowledge guides framing the scene and attuning the senses in order to appropriately appreciate miniature plants and flowers and their subtle fragrances and textures. Consider the human-influenced environments of modern agriculture. It is important to know about the functional utility of cultivating vast fields devoted to single crops. Such knowledge encourages enlarging and adjusting frames, senses and even attitudes to appropriately appreciate the sweeping, uniform landscapes that result from such farming practices. Or consider an ordinary high street and the restaurants it houses. Is it not relevant to its appropriate aesthetic appreciation to know that, although one may have the appearance of a locally owned, family run cafe, it is actually an outlet of an international fast food operation?

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. Positions and problems: the cognitive approach. Environmental aesthetics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M047-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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