Nature, aesthetic appreciation of

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

5. Ramifications

These different approaches to the aesthetics of nature have a number of ramifications (Parsons 2008). Some concern the relationships between the aesthetic appreciation of nature and environmentalism (Carlson and Lintott 2008). As noted, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, appreciation of and concern for the natural environment in both Europe and North American were fostered by picturesque-influenced tourism that was grounded in eighteenth-century aesthetics of nature. Moreover, early environmental movements, especially in North America, were largely fuelled by a mode of aesthetic appreciation shaped not only by the notion of the picturesque but also by the ideas developed by thinkers such as Muir. However, more recently the relationships between the aesthetics of nature and environmentalism have been less congenial. Individuals interested in the conservation and preservation of natural environments have not found in traditional aesthetics of nature the resources that they believe necessary in order fully to carry out an environmentalist agenda. The problem is especially acute concerning environments, such as wetlands, that do not fit conventional conceptions of scenic beauty. Consequently, various themes in traditional aesthetics of nature, such as appreciation grounded in the idea of the picturesque, have been criticized in a number of ways: as anthropocentric, scenery-obsessed, trivial, subjective and/or morally vacuous.

The contemporary approaches to the aesthetics of nature provide a variety of responses to these kinds of criticisms. Some positions, such as the aesthetics of engagement, are taken to counter the criticisms that, due to the influence of ideas such as the picturesque, aesthetic experience of nature must be both anthropocentric and scenery-obsessed. Engaged immersion in a natural environment seemingly undercuts a purely human-centred point of view, and moreover it gives no special status to scenery. On the other hand, some of the other positions and the science-based approach in particular, given its focus on scientific knowledge, are claimed to help meet the worry that aesthetic appreciation of nature is of little significance in environmental conservation and preservation since it is trivial and subjective. It is argued that appreciation that is firmly grounded in scientific knowledge is both serious and objective. Moreover, the science-based view is sometimes interpreted as an ‘ecological aesthetic’ in the tradition of Aldo Leopold, who linked the beauty of nature to ecological integrity and stability (Leopold, in Carlson and Lintott 2008). Thus, it is endorsed by some environmental philosophers who are concerned to bring our aesthetic appreciation of natural environments in line with our environmental and moral responsibilities to maintain ecological health. In this sense it also speaks to the charge that aesthetic appreciation of nature is morally vacuous.

However, in light of the diversity in the contemporary positions concerning the aesthetic appreciation of nature, perhaps, at least from the point of view of environmentalism, the proposals most useful for supporting conservation and preservation of all kinds of environments are those that depend not simply on any one particular model of aesthetic appreciation, but rather attempt constructively to bring together the resources of several different positions (Sepänmaa 1993, Moore 2008, Carlson 2009). For example, there are efforts to combine elements of different points of view, such as the imagination account, the aesthetics of engagement, and the science-based model. Such research points the way toward innovative, eclectic approaches to the aesthetics of nature that may be the most successful in furthering a wide range of environmentalist goals and practices. Moreover, if such approaches endow aesthetic appreciation of nature with a degree of objectivity, they can have effective practical relevance in a world increasingly engaged in environmental assessment. Individuals making such assessments are often reluctant to acknowledge the importance of aesthetic considerations, regarding them at worst as totally subjective or at best as based on culturally relative artistic models of appreciation. The recent work in the aesthetics of nature suggests the need to reevaluate such opinions.

Related to the rejection of more traditional approaches to aesthetic appreciation of nature is the fact that, concerning popular appreciation of nature, at least some of the contemporary positions not only reject appreciation governed by the idea of the picturesque, but also seemingly support a mode of appreciation more in line with positive aesthetics, which finds aesthetic value in a wide range of natural objects and environments. The science-based point of view in particular accords well with the positive aesthetic approach to appreciation of nature. It is argued that when nature is aesthetically appreciated in virtue of natural science, positive aesthetic appreciation seems singularly appropriate, for, on the one hand, some of humanity’s marks on the landscape appear especially out of place, while, on the other hand, pristine nature constitutes an aesthetic ideal. Moreover, as the natural sciences increasingly find, or at least appear to find, unity, order and harmony in nature, nature itself, when appreciated in the light of such knowledge, increasingly appears more profoundly beautiful (Carlson 1984). Science replaces the once despised wreckage of God’s deluge with inspiring manifestations of orderly geological forces, and the harmony lost in humanity’s fall is superseded by a harmony of science’s own making.

Some other ramifications of the recent work in the aesthetics of nature concern aesthetics and philosophy more generally. First, many of the contemporary positions, in rejecting artistic models for appreciation of nature and in replacing them with a recognition of the importance of what the object of appreciation really is and of the qualities that it has, provide a blueprint for aesthetic appreciation in other nonart cases. It becomes evident that in aesthetic appreciation of, for example, toys, furniture, people, cornfields, pets, neighbourhoods, shoes and shopping malls, what is appropriate is not an imposition of various artistic models, but rather a dependence on knowledge that is pertinent to the nature of the object of appreciation. This suggests a more general and universal approach in aesthetics, which is known as environmental aesthetics, that is distinct from more traditional aesthetics, which has been too easily equated with philosophy of art (see Environmental aesthetics). Second, there is an alignment of this more universal aesthetics with other areas of philosophy in which there is an analogous rejection of archaic, inappropriate models and a new-found dependence on knowledge relevant to the particular objects in question. For example, environmental aesthetics parallels some positions in environmental ethics in their rejection of anthropocentric models for the moral assessment of the natural world, replacing them with models based on science, most notably biology and ecology (see Environmental ethics).

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