Nature, aesthetic appreciation of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M032-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2010
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

2. Background to contemporary developments

As theoretical study of the aesthetics of nature declined, a new view of nature was initiated that eventually gave rise to a different kind of aesthetic appreciation. This conception of nature appreciation had its roots in the American tradition of nature writing, such as the essays of Henry David Thoreau. It was initially influenced by the idea of the picturesque, especially in, for example, the paintings of Thomas Cole. However, as nature writing became its more dominant form of expression, the conception was increasingly shaped by the natural sciences. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was further influenced by the geographical work of George Perkins Marsh, who argued that humanity was causing the destruction of the beauty of nature. The idea was most forcefully presented toward the end of the century in the work of American naturalist John Muir. Muir explicitly distinguished this kind of understanding of aesthetic appreciation from that governed by the idea of the picturesque (Muir, in Carlson and Lintott 2008). Muir saw all nature and especially wild nature as aesthetically beautiful and found ugliness only where nature was subject to human intrusion. These ideas strongly influenced the North American wilderness preservation movement and continue to shape aesthetic appreciation of nature associated with environmentalism (see Environmental aesthetics). They have also become associated with the contemporary point of view called positive aesthetics (Carlson 1984). Insofar as positive aesthetic appreciation eschews humanity’s marks on the natural environment, it is somewhat the converse of aesthetic appreciation influenced by the idea of the picturesque, which finds interest and delight in some evidence of human presence. It became and remains the rival of picturesque-governed appreciation as the contemporary mode of aesthetic appreciation of nature, although popular appreciation is typically a somewhat uneasy balance of the two.

In spite of these developments in popular aesthetic appreciation of nature, philosophical aesthetics, with few exceptions, generally ignored nature during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries. A few thinkers of the Romantic movement dealt with it to some extent, and in the twentieth century George Santayana and John Dewey both discussed it. But, by and large, aesthetics was dominated by an interest in art. By the mid-twentieth century, philosophical aesthetics within the analytic tradition was virtually equated with philosophy of art. Moreover, when aesthetic appreciation of nature was mentioned, it was treated, by comparison with that of art, as a messy, subjective business of little philosophical significance. In this context, the work of Ronald Hepburn in the 1960s had special importance. In his classic essay ‘Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty ’, Hepburn argued that aesthetic appreciation of nature is as significant and as rich as that of art, and that it could be, although not a carbon copy of appreciation of art, similar to that of art – shallow or deep, frivolous or serious, appropriate or not (Hepburn 1966). Therefore it required serious philosophical study.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature, generated in part by Hepburn’s work, resulted in a number of different positions on aesthetic appreciation of nature. Many of them share the view that such appreciation cannot simply be assimilated to 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. For example, it is argued that appropriate appreciation of nature cannot involve simply viewing natural objects in the same way that we frequently view some traditional art objects such as works of nonrepresentational sculpture – that is, as objects of passive 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 appreciators 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 the aesthetic experience of nature to that of a series of two-dimensional scenic views. Thus these observations call into question much of the tradition of aesthetic appreciation of nature dominated by the idea of the picturesque as well as by other art-oriented models of such appreciation (Carlson 1979). However, it should be noted that, in addition to being supported by powerful and long-standing traditions of thought, these art-based approaches are defended in some recent work on the aesthetics of nature.

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. Background to contemporary developments. Nature, aesthetic appreciation of, 2010, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M032-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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