The Aesthetics of Nature | Carlson and Berleant (2004)

Towards a non-anthropocentric view of aesthetics, we explore the legacy of work in the aesthetics of nature. The collection of essays in The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (2004), edited by Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, illuminates some of the issues and debates on this perspective.

In the Acknowledgements for the 2004 book is a trail back to work published in 1998.

We especially thank the authors for agreeing to contribute their essays.

Moreover, we thank Philip Alperson, editor of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, as well as the journal’s editorial board, for inviting us to edit a special issue of the journal (Volume 56, number 2, spring 1998) on environmental aesthetics. Several of the essays reprinted here first appeared in that special issue, the editing of which was our initial collaboration and eventually led to the publication of this volume [p. 9]

Philosophical works can develop slowly!

The Introduction chapter is a sequential exposition, working through the history, into prospects for research. The philosophy of aesthetics is not limited to works of art!

I. Introduction

The aesthetics of nature is the initiating and central focus of environmental aesthetics, one of the two or three major new fields of aesthetics to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. Environmental aesthetics considers philosophical issues concerning the aesthetic appreciation of the world at large and, moreover, the world as constituted not simply by particular objects but also by larger units, such as landscapes, environments, and ecosystems. Thus the field extends beyond the confines of the artworld and our aesthetic appreciation of works of art. Its scope covers the aesthetic appreciation of non-artistic artifacts and natural objects, as well as the appreciation of both natural environments and our various human-influenced and human-created environments.1

This collection of essays, however, focuses on only that part of environmental aesthetics that considers the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. It concerns philosophical issues about the appreciation of nature, addressing matters such as the exact nature of both the natural world and the modes of aesthetic appreciation appropriate for it. This renewed interest in the aesthetics of the natural world has developed only recently. Nonetheless, it has historical roots in earlier work on the aesthetics of nature. To fully appreciate the recent and contemporary research in this area, it is useful to briefly examine this historical background and the developments that follow from it.2 [p. 11]

There’s a companion volume on The Aesthetics Of Human Environments (2007), that “investigates philosophical and aesthetics issues that arise from our engagement with human environments ranging from rural landscapes to urban cityscapes”. For now, we’ll focus on natural, acknowledging the artifactual as separate.

This volume is oriented towards Western philosophies.

II. The Background to the Current Interest in the Aesthetics of Nature

The historical roots of the interest in the aesthetics of nature lie in the ideas concerning aesthetic appreciation developed in the eighteenth century by British and Scottish philosophers, such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Burke, and Alison, and solidified by Kant.3 Central to this approach is the concept of disinterestedness.4 The basic idea of disinterestedness is that aesthetic appreciation requires appreciators to abstract themselves and the objects of their appreciation from their own interests, such as the personal, the possessive, and the economic. Coupling the concept of disinterestedness with the eighteenth century fascination with the natural world resulted in a rich tradition of landscape appreciation. With the aid of disinterestedness, not only could domesticated, rural countrysides be seen as beautiful, but even the wildest of natural environments could be appreciated as sublime. Moreover, between the two extremes of the beautiful and the sublime, disinterestedness made space for the emergence of an even more powerful mode of landscape appreciation, the picturesque.5 The picturesque mode, although initially tied to particular sorts of landscapes, ultimately developed so as to facilitate the aesthetic appreciation of other kinds of environments by means of focusing attention on the picture-like properties of sensuous surface and formal composition. The upshot was an eighteenth century aesthetic synthesis having disinterestedness as the central theoretical concept, landscapes as the paradigm objects of aesthetic appreciation, and formalistic, picturesque appreciation as the favored mode of appreciation. [pp. 11-12]
Although lacking the natural world as their main focus, the other key elements of the eighteenth century synthesis — disinterestedness and the formalistic mode of appreciation — nonetheless survive into the twentieth century. [p. 12]


The relevance of the early twentieth century re-entrenchment of disinterestedness and formalism to the current interest in the aesthetics of nature is to be found somewhat ironically, in the fact that a major theme of mid-twentieth century philosophical aesthetics involves the rejection of both disinterestedness and formalism. The rejection begins with the development of the expressionist theory of art and reaches its climax in the institutional theory of art.8 [pp. 12-13]


This paradigm shift results in a problem that directly impacts the development of the aesthetics of nature. The problem is that the new paradigm is a paradigm for the aesthetic appreciation of art. Moreover, it is a paradigm seemingly exclusive to art appreciation, for few, if any, of the resources introduced to replace those inherent in the doctrines of disinterestedness and formalism have application to the appreciation of anything other than art. This is no surprise, for the new paradigm is developed explicitly within the context of philosophy of art, and the rejected Bulloughian and Bellian reincarnations of the old doctrines were especially tailored to accommodate works of art. The upshot is that the resources of the new paradigm — designing intellects, art historical traditions, art critical practices, the artworld itself — appear to have little relevance to the world beyond the artworld. Thus, the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world is left behind, seeming to involve at best only distanced contemplation of sensuous and formal properties. [p. 13]

Hmmm …. “Disinterestedness” and a “formalistic, picturesque appreciation” doesn’t seem very compatible with 21st century thinking!

Moving forward in time, research into aesthetics hasn’t been oriented towards nature.

III. The Rise of the Renewed Interest in the Aesthetics of Nature

In the second half of the twentieth century, this problem finds expression in two developments that constitute the immediate background to the renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature.

The first is that, in developing and defending the new par- adigm of aesthetic appreciation, analytic aesthetics apparently abandons any remaining interest in the aesthetics of anything other than art. The abandonment is institutionalized by virtually equating philosophical aesthetics with philosophy of art. [p. 13, editorial paragraphing added]


The second development constituting the immediate background to the renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature involves the real world beyond both philosophical aesthetics and the artworld. It relates to the public awareness of the aesthetic quality and value of the natural environment that begins to evolve, especially in North America, early in the second half of the twentieth century. 13 This awareness causes a difficulty, since, given the developments in philosophical aesthetics, individuals concerned about the aesthetics of the natural environment are left with few theoretical resources other than the old neo-picturesque paradigm of distanced contemplation of scenic views. [p. 14]


The renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature is in part a response to these two developments. This is evident in the title of the essay that almost single-handedly initiates the renewal: Ronald Hepburn’s groundbreaking 1966 article, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty.”17 Reacting to the treatment of the appreciation of nature within analytic aesthetics, Hepburn argues that those features that other philosophers have seen as aesthetic deficiencies in the natural world and thus as reasons for deeming its appreciation subjective, superficial, and even non-aesthetic, are actually sources for a different kind of, and potentially very rich, aesthetic experience. He emphasize the fact that, since it is not constrained by things such as designing intellects, art historical traditions, and art critical practices, the natural world facilitates an open, engaging, and creative mode of appreciation. Moreover, he argues that, as in the appreciation of art, there is in the appreciation of nature a movement from shallow and trivial to deep, serious aesthetic experience, and thus the open, engaging, creative mode of appreciation should be guided by our realizations about the real nature of the natural world. [pp. 14-15]

Recognition of the overlooking of the asthetics of nature has spurred two directions: (i) a more cognitive, science-oriented approach; and (ii) a more culture-based approach.

IV. Recent and Contemporary Research in the Aesthetics of Nature

[….] The call to fill this [theoretical] vacuum results in two kinds of responses: on the one hand, attempts to provide sociobiological underpinnings for the aesthetic appreciation of nature, such as Appleton’s own prospect-refuge theory,20 and, on the other, a wide range of theoretical models of aesthetic response grounded in, for example, developmental and environmental psychology.21 In general, this kind of research is beyond the scope of this collection, but there are a number of overview articles concerning it 22 as well as some useful anthologies.23 [p. 15]


The former of the two initial developments stresses the role of the cognitive in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. This cognitive line, as noted, is in part a response to the old appreciative paradigm’s obsession with sensuous and formal properties. [….] [Analogous] to the way in which the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of art is cognitively informed by art history and art criticism, the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature must be cognitively informed by natural history and scientific understanding. Thus Carlson finds a central place in the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world for the knowledge provided by sciences such as geology, biology, and ecology.26 [p. .16]

The second of the initial philosophical developments in the aesthetics of nature involves a reaction against the traditional concept of aesthetic appreciation as disinterested contemplation and an endorsement of the idea that the natural environment facilitates an open, engaging, and creative mode of appreciation. Consequently, it parallels some of the developments that helped to clear the ground for the new paradigm of art appreciation, primarily analytic aesthetics’ attack on both the Bulloughian and other more recent reincarnations of disinterestedness, such as the aesthetic attitude theory.29 [p. 17]

This leads to V. Directions for Future Research … which is what the rest of the book is about.


Carlson, Allen, and Arnold Berleant. 2004. “Introduction: The Aesthetics of Nature.” In The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, edited by Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, 11–42. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

#aesthetics, #nature