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Review of The Aesthetics of the Natural Environment
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Allen Carlson, Arnold Berleant, eds, The Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Broadview Press, 2004)

Reviewed by Stephanie Ross

The Aesthetics of the Natural Environment, edited by Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, assembles 16 valuable essays on environmental aesthetics and prefaces them with a helpfully documented introduction. Five of the essays (those by Emily Brady, Marcia Eaton, John Fisher, Cheryl Foster, and Holmes Rolston) originally appeared in the Spring 1998 special issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, a ground-breaking collection also edited by the current pair. They are here supplemented by several ‘classic’ pieces (two by Ronald Hepburn, one each by Berleant, Carlson, and Stan Godlovitch) that helped to set the stage for present-day philosophical debate about environmental aesthetics. The remaining papers (by No√ɬ´l Carroll, Donald Crawford, Thomas Heyd, Ronald Moore, Yuriko Saito, and Yrjo Sepanmaa) explore new topics and offer refined takes on some of the existing debates.

Ronald Hepburn’s 1966 essay “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty” took the aesthetics community to task for overlooking the aesthetic experiences afforded by the natural world, in particular, experiences of natural beauty. But Hepburn also set out two crucial ways in which our experiences of nature differ from our experiences of art. First, the appreciator is often surrounded by, immersed in, the natural world in a special way that encourages a blending of spectator and object. Second, the natural world itself is unframed and unbounded, challenging the spectator to integrate his or her experience. One result, according to Hepburn, is that any aesthetic quality in nature “is always provisional, correctable by reference to a different, perhaps wider context, or to a narrower one realized in greater detail” (p. 47).

The challenge proffered by Hepburn’s essay was two-fold: to characterize the aesthetics of nature and to show how it differed from the aesthetics of art. Allen Carlson has met this challenge in a now very familiar way, arguing that science and common sense lore together provide the requisite background that parallels, for nature appreciation, the role played by art history and art theory, in the appreciation of art. The paper by Carlson included in this volume, “Appreciation and the Natural Environment,” criticizes two models – the object view and the scenery view – that characterize nature appreciation on analogy with art appreciation and offers the natural environmental model in their stead. Carlson’s view has generated a trail of criticisms, some of them voiced in other papers in this volume. For example, Heyd argues that scientific knowledge of etiology is neither necessary nor sufficient for the appreciation of nature, Godlovitch points out that the presumption of scientific truth is challenged by anti-realist and relativist philosophers of science, also that the history of science is littered with false steps and rejected theories, Brady claims that Carlson’s inclusion of common-sense concepts alongside scientific knowledge waters down his theory and fails to clearly specify what grounds our aesthetic appreciation.

Despite such criticisms, Carlson’s view must be addressed by all who write on the appreciation of the natural environment. And of course there are some who accept and extend Carlson’s basic insight. Yuriko Saito defends a cognitivist approach to nature appreciation in her paper “Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms.” She draws on a moral analogy to motivate the imperative described in her title (“I believe that the ultimate rationale for appreciating any object appropriately, that is, on its own terms, is the moral importance of recognizing and sympathetically lending our ears to the story, however unfamiliar to us, told by the other” (p. 146)), and she believes that scientific knowledge of the sort Carlson applauds allows us to properly appreciate the natural world. However, Saito extends Carlson’s insight by explicitly welcoming the alternatives to western science that can be found in some indigenous traditions, folklore, and myth. Holmes Rolston’s paper “The Aesthetic Experience of Forests” similarly endorses Carlson’s central insight. Roston offers an incredibly detailed account of how photosynthesis uses the energy from light to synthesize sugar (p. 194) – does such arcane knowledge really enhance aesthetic appreciation? – but he supplements this with acknowledgement of other appreciative modes: embodied participation, the sublime, and the sacred.

Arnold Berleant builds on Hepburn’s insights to create a novel theory of nature appreciation. Granting the difference between our approaches to nature and to art, he attempts to turn convention on its head and use nature appreciation as the model by which we should properly understand the appreciation of art. Hepburn’s notions of surroundedness and framelessness, in Berleant’s hands, develop into the notion of engagement. Berleant defines total engagement as “a sensory immersion in the natural world that reaches the still uncommon experience of unity. Joined with acute perceptual consciousness and enhanced by the felt understanding of assimilated knowledge, such occasions can become clear peaks” (p. 83). The crucial challenge to Berleant’s theory, in my opinion, is whether it can be fleshed out in a way that doesn’t revert to truism (acknowledgement of nature’s multi-sensory appeal) plus paradox (remarks about the merging of subject and object in our perception of nature).

Donald Crawford, in his paper “Scenery and the Aesthetics of Nature,” brings together art appreciation and nature appreciation in a different way. His goal is to rehabilitate the scenery approach as one of many acceptable modes of nature appreciation. He does so by considering and rejecting three arguments that deny natural scenery – “prospects and landscapes” – a part in the aesthetics of nature. The arguments criticize the subjectivity of scenery (its dependence on human perception), its ecological shortcoming (experiencing nature as art vs. experiencing nature as nature), and its passivity (rather than active engagement), respectively.

Those debating the aesthetics of nature highlight not only the divide between art appreciation and nature appreciation, but also that between cognitive and non-cognitive, or conceptual and non-conceptual, approaches. One set of papers clusters together because their authors all maintain that Carlson’s science-based account has omitted crucial aspects of nature appreciation. They differ, however, in whether the missing components are compatible with, or alternatives to, Carlson’s approach. No√ɬ´l Carroll takes the former tack. His paper “On Being Moved by Nature: Between Religion and Natural History” makes a case for honoring our emotional responses to nature. Examples include finding a grand waterfall exhilarating or a quiet arbor homey. Carroll takes pains to show that the inclusion of emotional responses doesn’t undercut the objectivity of environmental aesthetics. Emotions are subject to cognitive appraisal, since various criteria determine emotional responses to be appropriate or inappropriate in given contexts. Carroll proposes that this also applies to our emotional responses to the natural environment.

Emily Brady agrees with Carroll that Carlson has omitted an important aspect of nature appreciation. In the paper “Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” she offers her neo-Kantian account as an alternative, rather than a supplement, to Carlson’s view. Brady sets out a helpful taxonomy of types of imaginative response. She distinguishes exploratory, projective, ampliative, and revelatory modes of imagining. The first explores and elaborates our perceptual experience of natural scenes and objects, the second involves creative “seeing as,” the third recruits the inventive powers of imagination and need not make use of images, the fourth prompts discovery of aesthetic truth. Like Carroll, Brady tries to add a normative dimension to her theory. She does this by invoking disinterestedness plus the Aristotelian virtue of “imagining well.” In tracing Brady’s examples, it is not always clear that they fall into the category she states. And I’m not convinced her pursuit of normativity succeeds. Nonetheless, hers is an important contribution to the literature.

Ronald Moore functions as a peace-maker of sorts between the conceptualist and non-conceptualist factions. He believes that each approach considered alone is seriously flawed (p. 221), and he argues for a Syncretic Aesthetics that makes room for both science and aesthetics. Along the way, he discusses the famous glass flower collection at Harvard University, comparing them to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and sets up the “natureworld” as complement to Danto’s artworld. Moore concludes that appreciating something as natural involves situating it in an order that has its own modes of growth and development, but that appreciating items in such an order needn’t employ the categories and concepts of science, and at times needn’t involve concepts at all. Clearly the usefulness of this proposal will depend, at least in part, on the promise of recent work on non-conceptual content.

Several of the papers in the collection appeal to the notion of narrative. In the paper “The Narrative and the Ambient in Environmental Aesthetics,” Cheryl Foster does so in order to champion an alternative. She contrasts the narrative dimension, which “tethers perceptual features of the natural environment to diverse frameworks of conceptual information” (p. 199), with an ambient dimension, which captures “how we ponder the world as existentially embodied beings, as individuals in search of transmogrified fact” (p. 205) and can blossom into full-fledged knowledge by acquaintance. Like Carroll, Foster presents the mode of appreciation she discusses as compatible with more standard conceptual approaches, but she declares that we commit an indexical fallacy (the term is derived from Peirce’s semiotics) when we let the narrative dimension of appreciation entirely eclipse the ambient.

Marcia Eaton also sees the danger in applying certain narratives to the natural world. Her paper “Fact and Fiction in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature” looks at the down-side of utilizing false, sentimentalizing, or demonizing narratives. For example, she argues that the popularity of the childhood classic Bambi makes it nearly impossible to promote a much-needed means of curbing deer over-population. Thomas Heyd presents a more straightforward defense of narrative-based appreciation in his paper “Aesthetic Appreciation and the Many Stories about Nature.” After criticizing Carlson’s science-based approach, he offers examples to show that “diverse stories, verbal and non-verbal, artistic and non-artistic” can enhance our appreciation of the natural world by stimulating the play of imagination and facilitating perceptual attention.

Yrjo Sepanmaa’s paper, “Environmental Stories: Speaking and Writing Nature,” works with a more fluid, ‘postmodern’ notion of story. (Interestingly, he is the only non-philosopher among the contributors.) His paper is in sense an extended riff on the opening quote from Wittgenstein -“If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it.” Sepanmaa goes on to claim that “Nature is listened to; it is watched; it is read” (p. 283). For me the value of his paper is the wealth of fresh examples, many of them from literature and from recent performance art, that he brings into his discussion. He invites us to muse about items as disparate as videos about water by Slovenian and Finnish artists, the writings of Italo Calvino, and the “sewer adventure” in Stockholm’s Aquaria Water Museum.

A few papers in this collection are outlyers to the themes and concerns sketched above. Stan Godlovitch’s piece, “Icebreakers: Environmentalism and Natural Aesthetics,” defends an acentric aesthetics that characterizes nature as other, mysterious, and utterly indifferent to human concerns. This is a harsh but plausible view. Godlovitch criticizes various other theories of nature appreciation, among them Carlson’s cognitivist and Mark Sagoff’s affective views. I don’t see that he succeeds in offering a basis for valuing the mysterious, aloof nature he posits. But his discussion foregrounds a crucial concept that is often overlooked, that of scale. One essential trait of nature as Godlovitch conceives it is that many of its processes, objects, and events occur on a non-human scale. Thus Godlovitch’s aesthetic “calls not only for the removal from experience of all functional and personal considerations of the object, but all limiting scalar (e.g. sensuous) ones as well” (p. 123).

John Fisher’s paper “What the Hills are Alive With: A Defense of the Sounds of Nature” addresses another neglected topic, non-visual aspects of nature. He develops in interesting ways R. Murray Schafer’s notion of a soundscape and argues that we do indeed respond aesthetically to non-musical sounds in nature. His discussion illuminates important aspects of our appreciation of music, among them our distinction between music and noise and the framing and repeatability of musical works. None of these is present when we attend to sounds in nature.

In sum, this is a valuable and thought-provoking collection. The authors assembled do not march in lock-step. They defend a varied set of views, and readers will have to work hard to determine which arguments win out, which compromises, if any, succeed. The editors’ introduction provides especially rich and helpful footnotes. These will aid in finding other papers by the authors included here and by others just mentioned. They also point towards environmental issues that were not covered in this collection, in particular, to psychological research about landscape perception and landscape preference and to empirical and applied problems that concern geographers, planners, and designers. Finally, it should be noted that Carlson and Berleant have just finished preparing a companion volume for the same publisher on the aesthetics of the built environment.


2006 © Stephanie Ross

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