Environmental aesthetics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M047-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

5. Positions and problems: the engagement approach

The questions of what and how to appreciate aesthetically in the world at large have generated a number of different philosophical positions within environmental aesthetics, but two basic kinds of approaches can be distinguished. The first takes as its starting point environments, such as large natural environments, that most literally and completely surround appreciators, impinging on all their senses and engaging them as integral parts of the environments themselves. This approach considers this kind of engaged experience of environments to be the essence of aesthetic appreciation. It holds that appreciators must transcend traditional dichotomies, such as subject/object, and diminish the distance between themselves and objects of appreciation, aiming at total, multi-sensory immersion of the former within the latter. This engagement approach to the aesthetic appreciation of environments is, moreover, not restricted to large natural environments, but is advocated as a model for the appreciation of all kinds of environments and objects, including even some works of art. Thus it is a major factor in broadening the scope of environmental aesthetics beyond that of landscape aesthetics and shaping it into a field not simply focusing on nature, but encompassing the aesthetic appreciation of the world at large.

The engagement approach centres on immediate sensory involvement with any object of aesthetic appreciation. Related approaches emphasize similar dimensions of the appreciation of both natural and human environments, arguing that these dimensions, although perhaps not exhaustive, are nonetheless essential. Different positions stress various kinds of emotional and feeling-related states and responses, for example, arousal, affection, reverence, awe, wonder, ineffability, aloofness and mystery. The engagement approach and these related positions thus emphasize what might be considered the more non-cognitive dimensions of aesthetic experience. Consequently, they tend to imply rather subjective answers to the questions of what and how to appreciate aesthetically in environments. They suggest that, since appreciators appear to lack resources such as frames, artists, traditions and designs, as well as the guidance these provide, questions concerning the appreciation of everyday environments cannot be adequately answered. The implication is that for the world at large there is no such thing as correct or appropriate aesthetic appreciation; rather, it is simply a matter of appreciators opening themselves to being immersed, responding as they will, and enjoying what they can.

In granting a central place to immediate sensory and feeling responses to environments, the engagement and related positions draw attention to important components of aesthetic experience. These views also have other strengths: they effectively treat the central issue of the field by clearly recognizing the open, unlimited and promiscuous nature of the objects of appreciation of environmental aesthetics and by correctly construing these features as aesthetic virtues rather than as defects of such objects. Moreover, they require no complex or elaborate theory to account for the aesthetic appreciation of environments and thus have an immediate intuitive appeal. Nonetheless, such approaches also have problems. For example, perhaps they too quickly embrace an overly subjective account of the aesthetic appreciation of the world at large. In doing so, they appear to leave little room for the distinction between more and less appropriate aesthetic appreciation. Consequently, they seemingly not only endorse a somewhat trivial rather than a serious form of aesthetic experience of the world at large, but also create a worrisome rift between the nature of such experience and the aesthetic experience of art, which clearly allows both for more or less appropriate aesthetic appreciation and for serious as well as trivial forms of it.

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. Positions and problems: the engagement approach. Environmental aesthetics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M047-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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