Nature, aesthetic appreciation of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M032-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2010
Retrieved June 10, 2023, from

4. Positions and problems: appreciating nature as nature

Some other points of view find the key to aesthetic appreciation of nature in nature’s own unique qualities and humanity’s unique relationship to them. The first argues that neither attachment nor knowledge facilitates real, appropriate appreciation of nature, not because such appreciation need involve engagement, emotional arousal, or imagination, but rather because nature in itself is essentially alien, aloof, distant and unknowable. This position contends that the appropriate experience of nature incorporates a sense of being separate from nature and of not belonging to it – a sense of mystery involving a state of appreciative incomprehension (Godlovitch, in Carlson and Lintott 2008). A second point of view also depends somewhat on the mysterious character of nature, but returns to the role of imagination in its appreciation, stressing what it calls the metaphysical dimensions of humanity’s relationship with nature. In this position, imagination interprets nature as revealing metaphysical insights into things like the meaning of life, the human condition, or humanity’s place in the cosmos. Thus, this approach includes in the appropriate aesthetic experience of nature those abstract meditations and speculations about ultimate reality that encounters with nature sometimes engender (Hepburn, in Carlson and Berleant 2004). Each of these positions is also open to objections. The former may deem nature so alien as to make any appreciation of it, aesthetics or otherwise, extremely difficult, if not impossible, while the latter may ultimately involve more appreciation of our own human condition than of nature itself.

Another position maintains almost all of the traditional analysis of the aesthetic, while finding the distinction between aesthetic experience of nature and that of art in other dimensions of the appreciation of each. This approach insists that just as art must be appreciated as art, so nature must be appreciated as nature. The justification for this constraint is that aesthetic experience of nature should be true to what nature actually is. However, this marks the limits of the similarity of aesthetic appreciation of nature to that of art. The position rejects the idea that resources comparable to those that determine and reveal the aesthetic qualities of works of art can do the same for natural objects and environments. In the case of nature, it contends, aesthetic qualities are underdetermined by such resources. Moreover, the aesthetic dimensions of nature, much more so than those of art, are relative to conditions of both observation and time. Thus aesthetic appreciation of nature allows for a degree of freedom that is out of place in aesthetic appreciation of art (Budd 2002). It might be argued that this view, like a number of others, can be faulted for embracing an unacceptable degree of relativity and subjectivity in aesthetic appreciation of nature. However, the view rejects this criticism, holding that the relativity and resultant freedom that is possible in aesthetic appreciation of nature is one aspect of nature’s distinctive aesthetic appeal, and consequently that any attempt to limit this freedom with a model of the correct or appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature is mistaken.

One last position concerning the aesthetic experience of nature also holds that just as art must be appreciated as art, nature must likewise be appreciated as nature, although the motivation of this position is not only to find a mode of aesthetic appreciation especially appropriate for nature, but also to avoid excessive subjectivity. This position observes that in aesthetic appreciation of art both appropriateness of appreciative mode and a degree of 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 appreciation is derived from art history and art criticism, nature is not art and thus such knowledge is not relevant to nature’s appreciation. As noted by some other positions, the aesthetic experience of nature should be true to what nature actually is. Thus, for appreciation of nature, it is argued, the relevant knowledge is that which in fact provides understanding of the natural world, that is, the knowledge given by the natural sciences. For example, just as art-historical and art-critical knowledge of mid-twentieth-century schools of painting endows appreciation of a work of abstract expressionism or pop art with appropriateness and objectivity, so knowledge of geology, biology and ecology similarly endows appreciation of an alpine meadow or a prairie wetland. In this way, aesthetic appreciation of nature is once again linked to the objectifying eye of science (Carlson 1979, 1981, 2000).

Like the other positions, this last alternative faces some philosophical difficulties. One is the worry that a scientific approach may not yield real aesthetic appreciation. However, since this alternative does not reject traditional resources, such as disinterestedness, as constituents of aesthetic experience, a science-based mode of appreciation can be sufficiently disinterested to be truly aesthetic. Indeed, the problem may be the opposite: that such a mode of appreciation, given its essential dependence on science, is too distancing, too objectifying. It may run the risk of overly abstracting both natural objects and appreciators from natural environments and in this way make appropriate appreciation difficult. In reply it may be 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 many traditional approaches is not that they involve distancing, but that, having abstracted nature, they reconstitute it by means of artistic models, such as that governed by the idea of the picturesque, and not in terms of relevant knowledge, such as that provided by science. Related to this objection is the idea that a science-based approach to the aesthetic appreciation of nature is not only too objectifying, but also requires too much of the appreciator and is therefore elitist. However, this approach does not hold that scientific information is necessary for any aesthetic appreciation of nature whatsoever, but only that, as with aesthetic appreciation of art, serious, appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature requires relevant knowledge.

Citing this article:
Carlson, Allen. Positions and problems: appreciating nature as nature. Nature, aesthetic appreciation of, 2010, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M032-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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