Nature, aesthetic appreciation of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M032-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

1. History

Although a tradition of viewing art as the mirror of nature has existed since antiquity, the idea of aesthetically appreciating nature itself is sometimes traced to Petrarch’s novel passion for climbing mountains, simply in order to enjoy the prospect. Yet from the dawn of the Renaissance to the present, the development of aesthetic appreciation of nature has been uneven and episodic. Initially such appreciation, together with its philosophical investigation, was hamstrung by a religious tradition that saw mountains as despised heaps of wreckage left behind by the flood, wilderness regions as fearful places for punishment and repentance, and all of nature’s workings as a poor substitute for the perfect harmony lost in humanity’s fall. It took the rise of a secular science and an equally secular art to free nature from such associations and open it up for aesthetic appreciation. Thus, in the Western world, the evolution of aesthetic appreciation of nature has been intertwined with the objectification of nature achieved by science and the subjectification of it completed by art.

Early in the eighteenth century, British aestheticians initiated a tradition that gave theoretical expression to the connection between aesthetic appreciation of nature and scientific objectivity. Empiricist thinkers, such as Joseph Addison and Francis Hutcheson, took nature rather than art as the ideal object of aesthetic experience and developed the notion of disinterestedness as the mark of such experience. In the course of the century, this notion was elaborated so as to exclude from aesthetic experience an ever-increasing number of associations and conceptualizations. Thus, the objects of appreciation favoured by the tradition – British landscapes – were eventually severed not only from religious associations, but from an appreciator’s personal, moral and economic interests. The upshot was a mode of aesthetic appreciation that looked upon the natural world with an eye not unlike the distancing, objectifying eye of science. In this way, the tradition laid the groundwork for the idea of the sublime, by which even the most threatening of nature’s manifestations, such as mountains and wilderness, could be distanced and appreciated rather than simply feared and despised (see Sublime, the §§2–3).

However, if disinterestedness laid the groundwork for the sublime, it also cleared the ground for another, quite different idea: the picturesque. This idea secured the connection between aesthetic appreciation of nature and the subjective renderings of nature in art. The term literally means ‘picture-like’ and indicates a mode of appreciation in which the natural world is divided into scenes, each aiming in subject matter or in composition at an ideal dictated by art, and especially by poetry and landscape painting. Thus, while disinterestedness and the sublime stripped and objectified nature, the picturesque dressed it in a new set of subjective and romantic images: a rugged cliff with a ruined castle, a deep valley with an arched bridge. Like disinterestedness, the picturesque had its roots in the theories of early eighteenth-century aestheticians, such as Addison, who thought ‘works of nature’ more appealing the more they resembled art. The trend of the picturesque culminated later in the century, when, popularized primarily by William Gilpin and Uvedale Price, it became the aesthetic ideal of English tourists as they pursued picturesque scenery in the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. Indeed, the picturesque remains the preferred mode of aesthetic appreciation for the form of tourism that sees the natural world in the light of travel brochures, calendar photos and picture postcards.

While the picturesque lingered on as a popular appreciative mode, theoretical study of the aesthetics of nature, after flowering in the eighteenth century, went into decline. Many of the main ideas, such as disinterestedness and the centrality of nature rather than art, reached their climax with Kant (Sublime, the §3), and in his third critique these ideas received such exhaustive treatment that a kind of closure was achieved. In the new world order initiated by Hegel, art was a means to the Absolute, and it, rather than nature, was destined to became the favoured subject of philosophical aesthetics.

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. History. Nature, aesthetic appreciation of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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