Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Querying Allen Carlson´s Aesthetics and the Environment

Thomas Heyd

Allen Carlson´s papers on aesthetics and the natural environment have very significantly contributed to the establishment of environmental aesthetics as an important area of philosophical enquiry that also has the credentials for true interdisciplinary status. In his work Carlson has addressed urban planners, geographers, landscape designers and architects, while drawing on art historians, japanologists, literary theorists and, of course, fellow aestheticists and other philosophers.

In Aesthetics and the Environment [1] Carlson brings together most of the essays that he has published in the last twenty years, plus several new ones. The book is divided into two parts. In the first he takes us through the various steps that lead to his mature conception of aesthetic appreciation of nature; in the second part he shows us how his reflections and analyses can be applied in the aesthetic appreciation of the broader environment, including the urban setting, large-scale agricultural areas, landscapes moulded in a joint way by human beings and non-human nature, gardens, and so on.


Although I am mostly sympathetic to Carlson´s approach to aesthetics and the environment, I would like to offer the following queries for Carlson´s readers´ consideration.

I. From the beginning Carlson seems to assume that aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment is in need of guidance, presumably from philosophical aesthetics, because experience of that environment is taken to be "unruly and chaotic." (xviii) He claims that "we are confronted by, if not intimately and totally engulfed in, something that forces itself upon all of our senses, is constantly in motion, is limited neither in time nor in space, and is constrained concerning neither its nature nor its meaning." (xviii)  Given this challenge, Carlson develops an account of ‘the natural environmental model’ of aesthetic appreciation.

It is, however, rather unclear that any one ever experiences the natural environment as "unruly and chaotic," except perhaps when first encountering the rapids in a turbulent, rain-swollen river, or the wind action on a lookout point on a stormy day. It quickly becomes evident to the attentive observer, though, that natural processes inevitably reveal patterns and, as a result of this, most people likely approach the natural environment with the expectation that it is rule-governed and orderly and not as "unruly and chaotic." If anything will likely strike us as "unruly and chaotic" it is, rather, human action and its results, such as garbage dumps and sewers, which intermingle the compostable and the highly toxic.

The claim that human experience of the environment is "unruly and chaotic" remains unconfirmed by psychology, history or anthropology, in any case. These fields instead  point toward the fact that human experience normally is highly structured and, moreover, that aesthetic appreciation is commonly present in human societies across individuals, times, spaces and cultures [2] .

II. Carlson articulates ´the natural environmental model´of aesthetic appreciation by contrasting ‘appropriate’ aesthetic appreciation with appreciation that is stunted or misguided in a variety of ways. He argues that appreciation that focusses on formal qualities misunderstands it as limited to the sensorily apparent; appreciation that supposes the need for disinterestedness assumes that the appreciator is passive. Neither supposition is correct, Carlson argues.

He also proposes that neither the appreciation of landscape paintings nor the appreciation of static art objects, such as sculptures, does justice to what goes on when the object of appreciation is the ever-open ended and -changing natural environment. He proceeds to argue that, just as there is ‘correct’ aesthetic appreciation of artworks, depending on knowledge of their design and arthistorical origins, there is also ‘correct’ appreciation of natural environments, based on knowledge of their natural origins.

Carlson’s proposal that there is such a thing as ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ aesthetic appreciation  should give us new cause to wonder, though, for we may ask, correctness and appropriateness according to which standards or to what purpose? Even in the aesthetic appreciation of artworks it remains uncertain what might make the appreciation of a particular piece ´correct´ or ´appropriate,´ for otherwise there would not be dissension among art critics and art historians.

Carlson frequently claims that what he calls ´object-oriented aesthetic appreciation´ is more ‘fruitful’ or ‘true,’ but the questions recur then: fruitful given what aims? true given what standards? Carlson owes us, it seems, an account of ´correct´ or ´appropriate´ aims and standards, which in turn would require a foundation for their ´correctness´and ´appropriateness.´. (It seems unlikely, however, that a foundationalist programme would succeed in aesthetics when it has not in epistemology.)

III. Carlson next applies his notion of a ´correct´ aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment, based on knowledge of its natural origins, to the clarification of how it may be that the natural environment appears to be wholly aesthetically good. Carlson’s explanation of this notion is that, since nature is not an human artefact, it cannot be judged by the criteria appropriate to the critique of artworks. Instead, since science is our guide regarding the nature of the natural environment, and since the categories of science aim to make the natural world more intelligible in terms of ‘order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, resolution, and so forth’ (93), science-guided aesthetic appreciation, unsurprisingly, makes nature appear in a positive aesthetic light.

Carlson justifies the appeal to natural science as the guide to ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ appreciation of the natural environment, on the basis that this discipline supposedly reveals nature for what it is, thus freeing us from subjection to mere appearance. The contrast is with appreciation guided by cultural or personal categories. I think that Carlson´s perspective here is problematic in at least three respects, though.

First, it overlooks the multiple critiques issuing from within philosophy of science that point toward the incomplete and always provisional character of the ‘truths’ of science. Second, it overlooks that our natural science itself is part of a culture and not a (visionary?) grasp of the ultimate being of the world. Finally, the question concerning the point of such proposed aesthetic discipline, requiring that we see our natural environment through the dicta of natural scientific theory, may be questioned.

That is, even if we may grant that appreciation of certain activities, such as art or sport viewing may be heightened by disciplining one’s gaze or grasp with a particular sort of knowledge, it remains unclear if this is the case in the aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment. It may well be that all sorts of other perspectives, garnered through one’s personal intercourse with nature and structured by non-scientific aspects of one’s culture, may be more ‘fruitful’ in generating aesthetic pleasure, insight or depth.


Carlson finishes Part I with his most complete statement of what differentiates the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nature by taking note of how we appreciate certain kinds of avant-garde art and anti-art. The resulting model for the aesthetic appreciation of nature is what he calls ‘order appreciation.’ In Part II Carlson takes his previous proposals for ‘appropriate’ aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment as exemplary of aesthetic appreciation in general, thus issuing in an ‘universal aesthetics.’ The basic idea that structures this project is that aesthetic appreciation is appropriate insofar as it is object- rather than only subject-oriented.

Carlson makes his case for this approach by applying it to various aesthetic problems: why the ‘eyesore argument’ is seen as correctly leading to the propriety of ‘cleaning up the environment’; why some sorts of environmental art may appear as ‘affronts to nature’; why Japanese gardens, even while artefacts, may mostly escape our critical judgement; why we may be able to aesthetically enjoy contemporary, large-scale agricultural landscapes, despite their monotony and their affront to ecological good sense; how to appreciate architecture, even if this art form can very obtrusively take its place in the middle of our living space.

Finally, while assessing the contributions of literature to appropriate appreciation of landscapes, Carlson considers the aesthetic relevance of a diversity of descriptions, including the formal, the scientific, the historical, and the functional, as well as what he calls the nominal, the mythological and the cultural, which itself includes the imaginative and the literary (237). Interestingly, Carlson is willing to grant that, given certain conditions, all of these descriptions, except for the cultural, may enhance aesthetic appreciation of landscapes, which seems a change of perspective from Part I where natural science, along with common sense descriptions, were given exclusive rights to guide aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment.

In conclusion we may note that, however much we disagree with Carlson’s analyses and conclusions, he has done us a great service in opening the door to a carefully argued, new look at aesthetic appreciation of our natural environment. Carlson has provided us with a richly textured, provocative set of texts that will undoubtedly be of great value to students of philosophical aesthetics, geography and environmental studies.

[1] Aesthetics and the Environment (Routledge, 2000). Page references are included in the text.

[2] On the ubiquity of aesthetic appreciation see, e.g., Howard Morphy, “Aesthetics in a Cross-Cultural Perspective: Some Reflections on Native American Basketry,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Vol. 23 (1992); and the excellent papers in Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton (eds.), Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

Previous article /

Article précédent

Top / Début

Table of content / Table des matières
Next article /

Article suivant