Nature, aesthetic appreciation of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M032-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2010
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

3. Positions and problems: engagement, emotion and imagination

Given the rejection of traditional, art-influenced approaches to aesthetic appreciation of nature by much contemporary work on the aesthetics of nature, alternative approaches become necessary. A number of such positions have been developed in the recent literature (Kemal and Gaskell 1993, Berleant and Carlson 1998, Carlson and Berleant 2004). The most radical of such alternatives elevates the neglect of nature appreciation by analytic aesthetics to a philosophical position, denying either implicitly or explicitly the possibility of any aesthetic appreciation of nature whatsoever. When explicitly developed, this position leaves the traditional understanding of aesthetic appreciation of art intact, but concerning nature argues as follows: aesthetic appreciation necessarily involves aesthetic judgement, 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 mainly because of the assumption that nature is the handiwork of a designing creator, but this assumption is simply false or at least inadequate for grounding aesthetic appreciation of nature (Mannison 1980, Elliot 1982). However, this nonaesthetic position is so problematic as to be implausible. It runs counter to both the orthodox view that everything is open to aesthetic appreciation and the common-sense idea that at least some natural objects, such as scenic landscapes and glowing sunsets, are paradigm objects of aesthetic appreciation.

A second approach to the aesthetic appreciation of nature rejects the traditional understanding of aesthetic appreciation not only for nature but for art as well. Although affirming that the appreciation of both nature and art is aesthetic, this position argues that the disinterestedness tradition involves a mistaken analysis of the aesthetic and that this is most evident in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. In such appreciation, a disinterested approach, with its isolating, distancing, and objectifying gaze, is out of place, for it results in both natural objects and appreciators being 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, calling for a new direction in aesthetics: an 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 (Berleant 1992). 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, not only for nature, but apparently for art as well. Second, this position seemingly embraces an unacceptable degree of subjectivity in aesthetic appreciation of both nature and art.

Two positions that are somewhat related to the aesthetics of engagement nonetheless contend that appreciative approaches other than or in addition to engagement are central to aesthetic experience of nature. One stresses that we may appreciate nature simply by opening ourselves to it and being emotionally moved or aroused by it. On this view, a visceral, emotional experience constitutes a legitimate way of aesthetically appreciating nature that does not require any particular sort of engagement or any specialized knowledge (Carroll, in Kemal and Gaskell 1993). The other position also rejects the need for specialized knowledge of nature, but endorses engagement, attempting to balance it with the traditional idea of disinterestedness. But, rather than emotional arousal, this position sees imagination as essential to aesthetic experience of nature, distinguishing several different kinds of imaginative involvement with natural environments (Brady 2003). However, each of these two positions is open to the objection that it, like the engagement account, may allow too much subjectivity in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Both endeavour to counter this charge. The emotional arousal view attempts to establish a degree of objectivity by reliance on a cognitive account of the emotions (see Emotions, nature of §2). The imagination approach responds to the concern that imagination opens the door to subjectivity by appealing to a number of different sources of objectivity: guidance by the object of appreciation, the constraining role of disinterestedness, and the ability to exercise imagination more or less skilfully or appropriately. Nonetheless, both positions seemingly remain problematic with respect to objectivity, due in part to their rejection of a necessary role for knowledge of nature in its aesthetic appreciation.

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