Nature, aesthetic appreciation of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M032-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 12, 2018, from

3. Positions and problems

In the latter part of the twentieth century, renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature has generated a number of different positions on aesthetic appreciation of nature. Many of them share the view that such appreciation cannot simply be assimilated with standard accounts of aesthetic appreciation of art. In this they affirm Hepburn’s insight that the appreciation of nature, although comparable to that of art, does not mimic it. The rejection of some of the traditional modes of aesthetic appreciation is implied. For example, it is argued that appropriate appreciation of nature cannot involve viewing natural objects in the same way that we frequently view traditional art objects such as works of sculpture – that is, as passive objects of contemplation divorced from both their and our spatial and temporal contexts. By contrast, natural objects belong in an environment that not only surrounds and engages them, but surrounds and engages the appreciator. Thus, the physical or contemplative removal of natural objects or ourselves from their environments results in inappropriate appreciation. Likewise, it is held that viewing nature as we might view a landscape painting, that is, as a static scene that we behold from a predetermined distance, is equally inappropriate in that it misleadingly reduces nature to a series of two-dimensional scenic views.

Given the rejection of traditional modes of aesthetic appreciation of nature, an alternative approach becomes necessary. The most radical of such alternatives elevates the neglect of nature by analytic aesthetics to a philosophical position, denying either implicitly or explicitly the possibility of aesthetic appreciation of nature. When explicitly developed, this position leaves traditional modes of appreciation intact for art, but concerning nature argues as follows: aesthetic appreciation necessarily involves aesthetic judgment, which entails judging the object of appreciation as the achievement of a designing intellect. However, since nature is not the product of a designing intellect, appreciation of it is not aesthetic. In the past, the appreciation of nature was deemed aesthetic only because of the assumption that nature is the handiwork of a designing creator; this assumption is either false, or at least inadequate for grounding an aesthetic of nature. This position is problematic, however, since it runs against both the orthodox view that everything is open to aesthetic appreciation and the common-sense idea that at least some natural objects, such as certain landscapes and sunsets, constitute paradigm objects of aesthetic appreciation.

A second alternative rejects traditional modes of aesthetic appreciation not only for nature but for art as well. This position argues that the disinterestedness tradition involves a mistaken analysis of the aesthetic and that this is most evident in the field of aesthetic appreciation of nature. In such appreciation the quality of disinterestedness, with its isolating, distancing and objectifying gaze, is out of place, for it is the means by which both natural objects and appreciators are wrongly abstracted from the environments in which they properly belong and in which appropriate appreciation is achieved. Thus, this position replaces disinterestedness with engagement, distance with immersion, and objectivity with subjectivity, and calls for a new aesthetic of engagement. Such an aesthetic, it is argued, yields a mode of appreciation not only more appropriate for nature, but also for most works of art, at least for those of the twentieth century. However, this second position is also problematic. First, since disinterestedness constitutes the favoured analysis of the aesthetic, its rejection may constitute a rejection of the aesthetic itself, reducing this second alternative to a version of the first. Second, this position seemingly embraces an unacceptable degree of subjectivity in aesthetic appreciation of both nature and art.

A third position attempts to maintain much of the traditional analysis of the aesthetic, while yet accommodating features unique to nature. The motivation for this alternative is not only to find a mode of aesthetic appreciation especially appropriate for nature, but also to avoid excessive subjectivity. This position notes that in aesthetic appreciation of art both appropriateness of appreciative mode and objectivity are achieved by tying appreciation to understanding in terms of art-historical and art-critical knowledge. It thus adopts a parallel approach for aesthetic appreciation of nature. However, although the appropriate knowledge for art is derived from art history and art criticism, nature is not art and such knowledge is not relevant to nature’s appreciation. For nature, it is argued, the relevant knowledge is that which provides our understanding of the natural world, that is, the knowledge given by the natural sciences. For example, just as art-historical knowledge of mid-twentieth century schools of painting endows appreciation of an abstract expressionist work with appropriateness and objectivity, so knowledge of geology, biology and ecology similarly endows appreciation of an alpine meadow. In this way, aesthetic appreciation of nature is once again linked to the objectifying eye of science.

Like the other two alternatives, however, this third alternative faces some philosophical difficulties. One is that a scientific approach may not yield real aesthetic appreciation. However, unlike the second alternative, the third position does not reject traditional resources, such as disinterestedness, as constitutuents of aesthetic appreciation. Thus, a science-based mode of appreciation can be sufficiently disinterested to be truly aesthetic. Indeed, the problem may be the opposite one, that such a mode of appreciation, given its essential dependence on science, is too distancing, too objectifying. It thus runs the risk of wrongly abstracting natural objects from their environment and in this way making appropriate appreciation impossible. In reply it is argued that since aesthetic appreciation necessarily involves distancing and thus some degree of abstraction, the issue is not whether to abstract. Rather it is how to supplement the required abstraction so as to achieve rich and appropriate appreciation. The problem with traditional approaches is not that they involve abstraction, but that, having abstracted nature, they reconstitute it by means of artistic models, such as the picturesque, and not in terms of relevant knowledge, such as science provides. Moreover, science is not, or at least is no longer, the severely abstracting endeavour it is popularly taken to be. Modern natural science, as exemplified by ecology, increasingly views nature in holistic terms.

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. Positions and problems. Nature, aesthetic appreciation of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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