Teaching Environmental Aesthetics

Allen Carlson

I think the most useful way for me to address the topic of teaching environmental aesthetics is not to write yet another essay on the nature of the field, but rather simply to describe some of the approaches and materials I have used when teaching the subject. I teach enviromental aesthetics in two ways: either as one of a number of topics in two different junior undergraduate courses or as the sole topic in senior undergraduate and graduate courses. The two junior courses are an introduction to aesthetics and an environmental philosophy course. The upper level courses focus exclusively on environmental aesthetics, but have different themes each time a course is taught. I first discuss my treatment of the subject in each of the two kinds of junior courses, and then give an example of the upper level courses.

1.Environmental aesthetics as a topic in an introductory aesthetics course

The introductory aesthetics course in which I teach environmental aesthetics is a one semester course taken primarily by second and third year undergraduates majoring in philosophy, English, music, or one of the fine arts. The course is the second in a sequence of two introductory aesthetics courses, the first of which focuses exclusively on the philosophy of art. The second course addresses mainly topics in the philosophy of art criticism. We consider environmental aesthetics at the end of the course.

The philosophy of art criticism course focuses on standard topics relating to our responses to and talk about works of art. We cover topics such as the role of the artworld, artists, and artistic traditions, the importance of emotion and reason, the relevance of knowledge to aesthetic experience, and subjectivity vs. objectivity, all in relation to art and art criticism. In this context, I introduce environmental aesthetics as an area that considers aesthetic appreciation of things other than works of art. The class then investigates the extent to which the conclusions they have reached concerning works of art apply to our experience of non-art. Since many of the student’s positions involve the analysis of our experience and criticism of art by reference to factors, such as the artworld, artists, and artistic traditions, that are not obviously available for non-art, they find themselves with a problem. Either their positions have to be reconsidered and reworked so as to apply to non-art or else abandoned, either totally or only concerning non-art. The latter alternative creates a worrisome rift between aesthetic appreciation of art and that of other things.

Once the issues have been set up in this manner, they can be fruitfully pursued by reference to some of the standard contemporary positions in environmental aesthetics, such as Arnold Berleant’s engagement view and what is typically called the cognitive approach. Briefly put, Berleant’s view is that aesthetic appreciation requires a total engagement of the appreciator with the object of appreciation and that such engagement is the essence of aesthetic appreciation of both art and non-art. By contrast, the cognitive approach stresses the role of knowledge in aesthetic appreciation, finding appreciation of art and non-art similar in structure, but dissimilar concerning the kinds and sources of knowledge that are required for appropriate appreciation of each. For Berleant’s position I assign “The Aesthetics of Art and Nature,” versions of which are in his The Aesthetics of Environment (Temple, 1992) and in S. Kemal and I. Gaskel (eds) Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts (Cambridge, 1993). Since the main text for the course is A. Neill and A. Ridley (eds) Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, (McGraw Hill, 1995; second edition, Routledge, 2001), the cognitive view is represented by my “Appreciation and the Natural Environment,” reprinted from Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37, (1979). The Neill and Ridley text also has Noël Carroll’s “On Being Moved By Nature: Between Religion and Natural History,” reprinted from Kemal and Gaskel (op. cit.), which stresses the importance of emotional arousal in aesthetic appreciation and thus constitutes an excellent follow-up to both the engagement and the cognitive approach. Taken together, the three positions, in addition to constituting a basic introduction to the issues of environmental aesthetics, also provide the opportunity for an investigation of the nature of aesthetic experience.

2. Environmental aesthetics as a topic in an environmental philosophy course

The environmental philosophy course in which I teach environmental aesthetics is a one semester course taken mainly by third year undergraduates majoring in philosophy, environmental studies, or one of the sciences or social sciences. The course covers some of the history of environmental philosophy but focuses primarily on environmental ethics. We discuss environmental aesthetics in conjunction with environmental ethics, as two complementary approaches to the value of natural environments.

Since the course focuses on environmental ethics, we consider various theories of the moral value of natural things and environments, such as traditional anthropocentric ethics, animals rights theory, ecofeminism, and ecocentrism. Within this context and especially in light of the more radical of such theories, students frequently find traditional aesthetic appreciation of nature rather unsatisfactory. Given its emphasis on pleasing, picture-like scenery, it strikes them as both excessively anthropocentric and overly subjective. Against this background, I introduce environmental aesthetics as a means of developing a more sophisticated account of aesthetic appreciation. I do this along three different lines: first, by elaborating some of the richer features of aesthetics experience, second, by downplaying scenery appreciation in aesthetic appreciation of nature, and, third, by spelling out the nature of serious aesthetic appreciation of art. However, given that nature is not art, a somewhat different treatment of its aesthetic appreciation is required. Ideally, what is wanted is a theory that makes aesthetic appreciation of natural environments equally as serious as that of art and as non-anthropocentric and as objective as is possible, thereby giving it a degree of environmental significance somewhat comparable to that of more radical theories of environmental ethics, such as ecocentrism.

Both to introduce a more sophisticated account of aesthetic appreciation in general and to develop a serious approach to aesthetic appreciation of nature that goes beyond simple anthropocentric and subjective scenery appreciation, I utilize the readings in the “Aesthetics” section of the text for the course: R. Botzler and S. Armstrong (eds) Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence, second edition (McGraw Hill, 1998). There are seven readings in this section that I use as follows: First, a selection from Thoreau’s Natural History Essays entitled “Walking” and an except from Anne Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper, 1974) called “Seeing” nicely illustrate some of the richer features of aesthetic experience, since both essays describe a range of profound aesthetic encounters with nature. I elaborate these richer features of aesthetic experience by reference to John Muir’s “A Near View of the High Sierra” in which he contrasts his engaged and informed appreciation of nature with the scenery fixation of his artist acquaintances. I follow up Muir’s critique of scenery appreciation, and introduce a cognitive, science-based, and thus arguably more non-anthropocentric and objective, approach to aesthetic appreciation of natural environments, with my “Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment,” which was written for Botzler’s and Armstrong’s text. I then fill out the science-based approach by reference to Baird Callicott’s “The Land Aesthetic,” which elaborates Aldo Leopold’s cognitive treatment of nature appreciation. This last piece brings home the comparison with environmental ethics and especially with Leopold’s ecocentric land ethic, thereby claiming for environmental aesthetics a high degree of environmental significance. This significance is underscored by the last two essays in the section, Gary Nabhan’s “The Far Outside” and Stephanie Mills’ “The Wild and the Tame,” both reprinted from D. Burks’ Place of the Wild (Island, 1994). These two essays are rather polemic and present our appreciation of nature as a powerful foundation for positive, affirmative action on environmental issues.

3. Environmental aesthetics as the sole topic of a senior undergraduate or graduate course

The senior undergraduate and graduate courses in which I teach environmental aesthetics are taken either by fourth year philosophy majors and honors or by M.A. and Ph.D. students. The courses have environmental aesthetics as the general subject and each time a course is given we focus on a different theme within that area. Thus, although I follow a more or less standard introduction to such courses, there is no set way in which I develop the remainder of any given course. Consequently, I here describe only one example, and then make some suggestions for alternatives.

Although most students in such courses have some previous acquaintance with aesthetics, few have very much knowledge of the history of aesthetics. Thus, I introduce the courses with a short series of lectures on eighteenth century landscape aesthetics, focusing on the empiricist turn in aesthetics and the notions of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque. This proves to be a useful introduction since, first, eighteenth century landscape aesthetics backgrounds current environmental aesthetics, and, second, in light of the decline of this tradition and the dominance of philosophy of art in the twentieth century, it is easy to set up the basic problem that I use to introduce the contemporary discussion. This is the question of how, given our current understanding of art appreciation, are we to understand aesthetic appreciation of non-art? As in the introductory course outlined above in section 1, we next survey some of the contemporary positions that address this kind of problem, such as Berleant’s engagement view and the cognitive approach (both briefly described above), as well as the more radical view that, since some non-art, such as nature, is not intentionally created by an artist, its appreciation is not aesthetic at all. In light of this introduction, I then move to the special topic of the course in question. In the particular course for which I give the literature in the following two paragraphs, the topic was what is typically called positive aesthetics. This position is related to the cognitive approach to the aesthetic appreciation of nature and holds that, when appropriately appreciated, pristine nature allows of mainly, if not only, positive aesthetic judgments.

For literature for the introductory part of such courses, I do not employ any primary sources relevant to the initial historical background lectures, since I have found that students get mired down in them resulting in the introduction becoming the major focus of the whole course. Rather I assign my overview essay on environmental aesthetics from B. Gaut and D. Lopes (eds) Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (Routledge, 2001). It briefly describes eighteenth century landscape aesthetics as well as introducing some contemporary views. I then set the problem of appreciation of non-art, and especially of nature, using Ronald Hepburn’s seminal article, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty,” B. Williams and A. Montefiore (eds) British Analytical Philosophy (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966). I next canvas recent positions by using either Robert Elliot’s “Faking Nature,” Inquiry 25 (1982) or Don Mannison’s “A Prolegomenon to a Human Chauvinistic Aesthetic,” D. Mannison, M. McRobbie, and R. Routley (eds) Environmental Philosophy (Australian National University, 1980) to exemplify the view that nature appreciation is not aesthetic appreciation and, as in the introductory course described in section 1, by using Berleant’s “The Aesthetics of Art and Nature” (op. cit.) to illustrate the engagement view. To represent the cognitive position, I assign my “Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment,” S. Feagin and P. Maynard (eds) Aesthetics (Oxford, 1997) and/or Marcia Eaton’s “Fact and Fiction in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” A. Berleant and A. Carlson (eds) Environmental Aesthetics, special issue of Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998).

In the particular course that considered positive aesthetics as its special topic, I introduced that topic using my “Nature and Positive Aesthetics,” Environmental Ethics 6 (1984) and for the remainder of the course assigned sets of articles, which either developed the positive aesthetics position or called it into question. This also provided the opportunity for consideration of the overall positions of the authors. The sets were: 1. Two recent attempts to use positive aesthetics in relation to environmental ethics: Gene Hargrove, “An Ontological Argument for Environmental Ethics,” Chapter 6, Foundations of Environmental Ethics, (Prentice Hall, 1989) and Jenna Thompson, “Aesthetics and the Value of Nature,” Environmental Ethics 17 (1995). 2. Stan Godlovitch’s “Nature as Mystery” position and his ambivalence about positive aesthetics: Stan Godlovitch, “Icebreakers: Environmentalism and Natural Aesthetics,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 11 (1994), “Evaluating Nature Aesthetically,” in Berleant and Carlson (op. cit.), and “Valuing Nature and the Autonomy of Natural Aesthetics,” British Journal of Aesthetics 38 (1998). 3: Yuriko Saito’s concerns about scientific cognitivism in the appreciation of nature and the problem of unscenic nature: Yuriko Saito, “Is There a Correct Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature?,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 18 (1984), “Appreciating Nature on its Own Terms,” Environmental Ethics 20 (1998); and “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature,” in Berleant and Carlson (op. cit.). 4. Malcolm Budd on the aesthetic appreciation of nature and his critique of positive aesthetics: Malcolm Budd, “The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996) and “The Aesthetics of Nature,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2000).

In an upper level course such as that described above, after the initial part of the course that introduces environmental aesthetics, one might alternatively use the remainder of the course simply to discuss the essays in one or another of the collections recently published in the area. Here are some to consider: A. Berleant (ed.) Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics (Ashgate, 2002) (Thirteen articles by some main philosophical contributors to the field); A. Berleant and A. Carlson (eds) Environmental Aesthetics, special issue of Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998) (A theme issue with ten original articles covering the aesthetics of both natural and human environments); A. Light and J. M. Smith (eds) The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Seven Bridges, 2001) (Twelve articles emphasizing environmental aesthetics as the aesthetics of everyday life); J. I. Nassauer (ed.) Placing Nature: Culture and Landscape Ecology, Washington, D.C.: (Island, 1997) (Ten original articles by individuals representing a wide range of disciplines and focusing mainly on landscape ecology); Y. Sepanmaa (ed.) Real World Design: The Foundations and Practice of Environmental Aesthetics (University of Helsinki, 1997). (Twenty two short pieces presented at the Thirteenth International Congress of Aesthetics in 1995 by individuals representing different countries, approaches, and philosophical traditions).

Addendum

Since I understand that prospective instructors of courses in environmental aesthetics are still using my “Teaching Environmental Aesthetics” as a guide for structuring their courses, I think an addendum updating the information provided in that piece is useful. This is especially so, given the fact that since 2003, when the note was published, there have been a number of new teaching resources that have appeared in the field of environmental aesthetics.

First, there are three new anthologies, each of which bring together a number of important contributions to the field, some of which I mention above as valuable teaching resources. However, with the publication of these anthologies, these resources are available in a more convenient form. The anthologies are the following:

Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant (eds), The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004).
Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson (eds), The Aesthetics of Human Environments (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2007).
Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (eds), Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

In addition, some new introductions to the field have been published. First, there is a short overview essay on environmental aesthetics that is now available from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Second, there are two short introductory textbooks that have appeared only recently:

Glenn Parsons, Aesthetics and Nature (London: Continuum Press, 2008). Allen Carlson, Nature and Landscape: An Introduction to Environmental Aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

The former is an excellent introduction to the aesthetics of natural environments, while the latter treats the aesthetic appreciation of both natural and human environments.

For a general course in the field, one might use the following combinations of textbooks:

1.For a longer course focusing on the aesthetics of natural environments and especially on its historical roots and/or on its connections to environmental ethics: the Carlson and Lintott collection together with Parsons’ introductory volume.

2.For a longer course focusing on the aesthetics of both natural and human environments: the two collections edited by Carlson and Berleant together with Carlson’s introductory volume.

3.For a shorter course focusing primarily on the aesthetics of natural environments: Carlson’s and Berleant’s Aesthetics of Natural Environments together with Parsons’ introductory volume.

1.For a shorter course focusing primarily on the aesthetics of human environments: Berleant’s and Carlson’s Aesthetics of Human Environments together with Carlson’s introductory volume.

Moreover, there are now a number of single-authored volumes in the field, most of them published since 2003 that would be excellent books around which to build a course, especially an upper-level undergraduate course or a graduate seminar. Any one of them could be used effectively together with either of the two new introductions to the field that are mentioned above. These single-authored volumes include the following:

Arnold Berleant, Aesthetics and Environment: Variations on a Theme (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).
Emily Brady, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003).
Malcolm Budd, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature: Essays on the Aesthetics of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2000).
Ronald Moore, Natural Beauty: A Theory of Aesthetics Beyond the Arts (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2007).
Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

 

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