Glenn Parsons, Aesthetics and Nature (Continuum, 2008)
Aesthetics and Nature is a single-author text surveying contemporary philosophical debates concerning the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Although philosophical aesthetics is widely conceived of as covering the appreciation of nature as well as art, courses in aesthetics tend to be focused primarily on the latter. The aesthetics of nature is sometimes included as a topic in such courses, and some aesthetics anthologies (Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen’s Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition, for example) and some single-author textbooks (such as Robert Stecker’s Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art) are well-suited to this approach.
However, the philosophical study of the aesthetics of nature has reached the point where it is now also possible to deliver an aesthetics course focused primarily on the appreciation of nature, rather than the appreciation of art. Moreover, such an approach is attractive in light of interest in the aesthetics of nature among students oriented toward environmental issues. As yet, however, we have lacked texts appropriate for this approach. The 2004 publication of an anthology of essays by various philosophers on the aesthetics of nature, Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant’s The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, was a major step toward filling this void. The need for a single-author survey text, however, persisted. When I wrote Aesthetics and Nature, the available single-author volumes on the subject were Arnold Berleant’s The Aesthetics of Environment (1992), Allen Carlson’s Aesthetics and the Environment (2000), Malcolm Budd’s The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature (2002), and Emily Brady’s Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (2003). Another volume, Ronald Moore’s Natural Beauty (2007), appeared while I was writing Aesthetics and Nature. These books, while excellent specimens of their kind, possess two important limitations when used in lieu of a survey text for undergraduate courses. First, some of them are essentially collections of published journal articles, and so are not structured using an overarching narrative. Second, and more importantly, each of these volumes is primarily a development and defence of one particular theoretical approach to the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Thus, these books are not ideal for the instructor attempting to introduce students to the full range of philosophical views on the subject. In short, there existed a need for a survey text for the field, and Aesthetics and Nature was meant to meet this need.
The book consists of three parts. In the introductory part, consisting of chapter one and the first part of chapter two, I introduce the basic concepts that underlie the subsequent discussions. The second and central part of the book consists of chapters two through six. In these chapters, I survey and critically assess a range of different positions on the nature of appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature. These include what I call ‘postmodernism’ (the view that any sort of aesthetic appreciation is appropriate), Formalism (the view that appropriate aesthetic appreciation focuses upon nature as a perceptual array of pure lines, shapes and colours), the view that appropriate aesthetic appreciation must be informed by a scientific understanding of nature, two kinds of pluralism, and Arnold Berleant’s ‘engaged aesthetic.’ In these chapters, I seek to succinctly catalogue and juxtapose the different arguments that had been offered and critiqued in the philosophical literature, in such a way that the reader can obtain an overall view of the field. In this, I tried to give a ‘neutral’ presentation, which identified strengths and weaknesses in each view. This approach reflects my own instinct about teaching undergraduates, which is to avoid endorsing any particular view and leave the final weighing of evidence to the student. Perhaps it is impossible to realize this ideal completely, and I’m sure my own views are discernible in the book. Nonetheless, I do hope that philosophers whose views differ from mine will find their own perspectives represented fairly and forcefully in it.
The arguments discussed in this second part of the book have constituted the main philosophical debate in the aesthetics of nature over the last thirty years. Nonetheless, in recent years philosophers have begun taking on other questions as well, in much the way that philosophers of art have increasingly broadened their focus beyond the traditional central question ‘What is Art?’ to confront questions about concepts such as expression and meaning, and about the ontology and ethics of art. In the third part of the book, chapters seven through nine, I pursue some other intriguing issues in the aesthetics of nature, including the possibility of aesthetic grounds for preserving nature, the relation of gardens to nature, and the ethical status of environmental art. With this final topic, the book connects up with more traditional philosophical discussions about the nature and value of art.
One important consideration in composing Aesthetics and Nature was the diverse audience that a course on the topic might be expected to attract. As mentioned above, in addition to students with a background in philosophy, such a course would be of obvious interest to students pursuing environmental studies. Also, a survey text on the topic could prove useful to non-students with a professional interest in the topic but without a background in philosophy. Given this, I took pains to make the text accessible to readers without previous experience in philosophy. In the first chapter, for instance, I began not with the concept of aesthetic appreciation, but rather with the more popular and familiar concept of natural beauty. I also tried to highlight some issues of particular salience from the perspective of environmental policy, such as the possibility of quantifying scenic value. Although this issue has somewhat fallen out of contemporary philosophical debates, insightful discussions of it are present in the older literature. Also, I collected a number of interesting case studies of actual attempts at environmental preservation based on aesthetic value; these examples had been proposed and discussed by different philosophers independently of one another, but together they provide a very useful ‘data set’ for testing intuitions about the philosophical issues involved. Here once again, my aim was primarily to consolidate and synthesize, for the student’s use, the excellent resources already existing in the literature.
Perhaps the ideal way to employ a text like Aesthetics and Nature is to use it as a supplement to a collection of primary readings. The chapters on Pluralism, for example, could be read along with Noël Carroll’s “On Being Moved by Nature” and Yuriko Saito’s “Appreciating Nature on its Own Terms”; the chapter on science-based approaches to nature appreciation can be read along with Carlson’s “Appreciation and the Natural Environment,” and so on. (For a full chapter-by-chapter list of suggestions for primary readings, see my “Teaching and Learning Guide for: The Aesthetics of Nature,” in Philosophy Compass 3/5 (2008): 1106 – 1112.) For this purpose, instructors can use the aforementioned anthology, Carlson and Berleant’s The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, which contains many of the relevant readings. This approach allows students to confront philosophers’ arguments directly, while turning to the text for context, exposition, and critical analysis.
The book might also be profitably employed in a graduate course on a particular topic in the aesthetics of nature. For instance, a course focusing on aesthetic arguments for nature preservation might be divided into two portions. In the first, the instructor might employ chapters one through six of Aesthetics and Nature, along with selected primary readings, as the basis for an overview of the main positions in the field. In the second and central portion of the course, the instructor might use chapter eight of Aesthetics and Nature as a general introduction to aesthetic preservation and a point of departure into detailed study of the literature on that topic. This literature is now collected in the excellent new anthology Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism (2008), edited by Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott.
In a survey text of this length and scope, one cannot give sufficient attention to each deserving issue. But I hope that the material presented in Aesthetics and Nature will facilitate further discussion of topics of particular interest to instructors or students. For instance, the provocative idea of Positive Aesthetics – the idea that nature, unlike art, is always on balance aesthetically good – arises in chapter four and can be spun out into an independent discussion there, or later when it arises again in chapter eight. The aesthetic appreciation of animals, a subject almost entirely ignored in contemporary discussions but worthy of much scrutiny, can also be investigated using the resources of chapter four. One of my regrets about Aesthetics and Nature is the absence of a chapter devoted to the concept of the sublime, as it applies to nature. Nonetheless, the sublime is discussed at various points, particularly in relation to the engaged aesthetic, and instructors so inclined might take a detour from the text here, to linger over some classic sources (Kant, Burke) or some more recent investigations (Ronald Hepburn’s neglected essay “The Concept of the Sublime” (1988), or Malcolm Budd’s recent reappraisal of the Kantian sublime (2002)).
Writing about the natural sciences, the historian Thomas Kuhn said that the emergence of textbooks signalled that a field had reached a certain level of development, given that textbooks address themselves to “an already articulated body of problems, data, and theory.” Aesthetics and Nature was written in the conviction that the aesthetics of nature had reached such a level of development, and was ripe for a systematic treatment. Since it was published, a second survey text, Allen Carlson’s Nature and Landscape (2009), has also appeared, and another such text is currently in preparation. These promise to further enrich our pedagogical resources, and also speak to the healthy state of this important sub-field of philosophical aesthetics.
© Glenn Parsons