Environmental aesthetics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M047-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

7. The aesthetics of human environments and everyday life

Both noncognitive and cognitive approaches in environmental aesthetics were initially developed mainly by reference to large-scale environments and in many cases originally tailored primarily to address issues concerning the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments (Carlson and Berleant 2004, Carlson and Lintott 2008)(see Nature, aesthetic appreciation of). However, as noted above in §3, the scale of the objects of appreciation of environmental aesthetics runs from pristine natural environments to human environments, from large to small, and from the extraordinary to the ordinary. Some more recent work in environmental aesthetics focuses more directly on the human, small and ordinary ends of these spectra, more fully developing the aesthetics of human-influenced and human-constructed environments and in particular the aesthetics of everyday life (Light and Smith 2005, Berleant and Carlson 2007). Each of the cognitive and the noncognitive approaches has resources that may be brought to bear on these areas of investigation.

Cognitive accounts hold that appropriate aesthetic appreciation depends on information about what something is, what it is like, and why it is as it is. Thus, for human environments and for the objects, events and activities of everyday life, what is relevant to appropriate appreciation is knowing about their histories, their functions, and their roles in human life (Parsons and Carlson 2008). Consequently, just as knowledge provided by the natural sciences is central to appreciation of natural environments, in the case of human environments that provided by the social sciences, especially history, geography and anthropology, is applicable (Carlson 2009). Some cognitively oriented accounts especially stress cultural traditions in the aesthetic experience of human environments and everyday life. Such traditions seem particularly relevant to the appreciation of human environments, more so than to the appreciation of natural environments. They are germane to what might be termed cultural landscapes – environments that constitute important places in the histories and cultures of particular groups of people (Sepänmaa 1993). What is called ‘a sense of place’ together with ideas and images from folklore, mythology and religion frequently play a significant role in individuals’ aesthetic experience of their own home environments. Again, as with natural environments, examples illuminate the cognitive position. Consider the hedged and stone-fenced landscapes of England and Scotland. In their aesthetic appreciation, knowledge of traditional farming practices is especially relevant, as well as information about the social, political and economic forces that have shaped the look of the land. By contrast, consider the human environments of contemporary North American agriculture. In this case, 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 appropriately to appreciate the sweeping, uniform landscapes that result from such farming practices.

The noncognitive approaches to environmental aesthetics also provide several channels for exploring the aesthetics of human environments and especially for pursuing the aesthetics of everyday life. The aesthetics of engagement is presented as a model for the aesthetic appreciation of not simply both nature and art, but also of just about everything else. It studies the aesthetic dimensions of small towns, large cities, theme parks, museums, and the like. Moreover, under the name social aesthetics, it even investigates the aesthetics of human relationships, delving into the idea of ‘getting along beautifully’ (Berleant 2005). Likewise, accounts that emphasize related dimensions of experience, such as various kinds of emotional and feeling-related states and responses, help to illuminate appreciation, aesthetic and otherwise, of human environments and especially of the objects, events and activities of everyday life. How people feel about where they live and what they do cannot but play a role in aesthetic appreciation. In the tradition of John Dewey, some noncognitive accounts tend to construe aesthetic experience in a broad way, giving a central role not primarily to the distal senses of sight and hearing, but to the proximal senses of touch, smell and taste. Although this revision of the concept of the aesthetic is not philosophically uncontroversial, it seems particularly appropriate when considering the appreciation of the objects, events and activities of everyday life, which humans experience in an especially intimate fashion.

Fruitful approaches to the aesthetic appreciation of human environments and other aspects of everyday life can also be found in views that draw on both the cognitive and the noncognitive accounts (Berleant 2002, Berleant and Carlson 2007, Arntzen and Brady 2008). Several positions forge connections between the two orientations and, without being totally either cognitive or noncognitive, consider the aesthetic appreciation of commonplace human environments, as well as more specialized environments, such as shopping centres and industrial parks. Beyond the consideration of these large, public environments, the aesthetics of everyday life pays particular attention not only to the aesthetic appreciation of smaller, more personal environments, such as individual dwelling spaces and places – for example, houses and gardens – but also to that of normal day-to-day experiences and everyday activities, such as playing sports and dining (Korsmeyer 1999, Light and Smith 2005, Saito 2007). With the aesthetic investigation of things such as sports, food and gardens the aesthetics of everyday life begins to come full circle, connecting environmental aesthetics with the edges of more traditional aesthetics. At this point, environmental aesthetics merges with the philosophy of borderline art forms, not only the ‘arts’ of sport and cuisine, but also the arts of gardening, landscaping and architecture. In the consideration of landscaping and related activities, environmental aesthetics also has contact with traditional fields of environmental investigation, such as landscape architecture, landscape ecology, and cultural geography, as well as the empirical research in environmental aesthetics mentioned in §3.

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. The aesthetics of human environments and everyday life. Environmental aesthetics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M047-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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