Environmental aesthetics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M047-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved December 04, 2021, from

6. Positions and problems: cognitive approaches

The second basic kind of philosophical approach in environmental aesthetics may be classified 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 can thereby fashion initially engaging and largely noncognitive experience of environments into appropriate, serious aesthetic appreciation.

This second kind of approach is characterized as cognitive since the resources with which appreciators can fashion the experience of environments into appropriate, serious aesthetic appreciation are largely cognitive in nature. Such approaches are united by the thought that knowledge and information about the nature of the object of appreciation is central to its aesthetic appreciation. Thus, they champion the idea that objects of appreciation must be appreciated ‘on their own terms’ (Saito, in Carlson and Berleant 2004). These positions tend to reject aesthetic approaches to environments, such as focusing primarily on picturesque scenery in the appreciation of natural environments, that draw heavily on the aesthetic experience of art for modelling the appreciation of the world at large. Yet they affirm that art appreciation can nonetheless show some of what is required in an adequate account of the aesthetic appreciation of both natural and human environments. For example, in serious, appropriate aesthetic appreciation of works of art, it is taken to be essential that we experience works as what they in fact are and in light of knowledge of their real natures. Thus, for instance, appropriate aesthetic appreciation of a work of art such as Picasso’s Guernica (1937) requires that we experience it as a painting and moreover as a cubist painting, and therefore that we appreciate it in light of our knowledge of paintings in general and of cubist paintings in particular.

Adopting this general line of thought, one cognitive approach in environmental aesthetics, sometimes called scientific cognitivism, holds that just as serious, appropriate aesthetic appreciation of art requires knowledge of art history and art criticism, aesthetic appreciation of the world at large likewise requires relevant knowledge. In the case of natural environments the knowledge is that provided by the natural sciences and especially geology, biology and ecology. The idea is that such knowledge can reveal the actual aesthetic qualities of natural environments in the way in which knowledge about art history and art criticism can for works of art. In short, to appropriately aesthetically appreciate the world at large ‘on its own terms’ is to appreciate it as it is characterized by science (Carlson 2000). Other cognitive accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of environments differ from scientific cognitivism concerning either the kind of cognitive resources taken to be relevant to such appreciation or the degree to which these resources are considered relevant. On the one hand, several cognitive approaches emphasize different kinds of information, claiming that appropriate aesthetic appreciation of the world at large may well involve experiencing it in light of various local and regional narratives, folklore and even religious and mythological stories (Saito, in Carlson and Lintott 2008). Such information is endorsed either as complementary with or as alternative to scientific knowledge. On the other hand, some related views hold that although objects of appreciation should indeed be appreciated as what they in fact are, aesthetic appreciation of at least natural environments cannot be constrained by relevant knowledge to the same extent that such knowledge properly delineates appropriate aesthetic appreciation of art and thus the former is necessarily more open-ended and free Budd, in Carlson and Lintott 2008).

Unlike noncognitive approaches that stress immediate sensory and feeling responses to environments, cognitive approaches offer a somewhat more complex account of aesthetic appreciation of the world at large. Also by contrast with the former, cognitive accounts make demands on appreciators in terms of relevant knowledge and thus are sometimes accused of elitism or of overintellectualizing aesthetic appreciation. Consequently, in spite of whatever problems plague the noncognitive accounts, to be equally convincing cognitive accounts must be supported by illustrations that make them intuitive and plausible. Since the basic idea of cognitive approaches is that for appreciation to be serious and appropriate it must be guided by information about the origins, types and properties of the objects of appreciation, these approaches depend on examples such as the following: Consider 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. In such a case, appropriate aesthetic appreciation, and especially its feeling component, will differ accordingly. Or 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 appropriately to appreciate miniature plants and flowers and their subtle fragrances and textures. Without this kind of knowledge what there is to appreciate aesthetically might simply be overlooked.

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. Positions and problems: cognitive approaches. Environmental aesthetics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M047-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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