Allen Carlson, "Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment"


1.      Appropriate nature appreciation requires knowledge of natural history, just as appropriate art appreciation requires knowledge of art history

         a.      To know what and how to appreciate art and to insure one is properly appreciating art, one must appreciate art in light of the correct categories as specified by art history

                  i.      In short, knowledge of art history is necessary for the appropriate appreciation of art

         b.      To know what and how to appreciate nature and to insure appropriate appreciation of nature, one must appreciate nature in light of the correct natural categories and these are specified by natural history (i.e., common sense and scientific knowledge of nature)

                  i.      In short, knowledge of natural history is necessary for appropriate appreciation of nature

         c.      Example of natural history description: Rudy Manke (S.C. Naturalist extra-ordinaire)



2.      With art, straightforward answers to what and how to aes appreciate

         a.      Because works of art are our creations

         b.      Artists created art for the purpose of aes appreciation

         c.      For this reason we know what is and isn't part of work, which aspects are aes significant, and how to appreciate them

3.      Examples of what to appreciate (and what not)

         a.      Know should appreciate sound of piano in concert hall and not the coughing that interrupts it

                  i.      Know should appreciate a painting's color and not that it hangs in the Louvre

4.      Examples of how to appreciate art

         a.      Different acts of “aspection” required for different types of art

         b.      Examples

                  i.      Should not drink brandy the same way one drinks beer

                  ii.     Should look at different styles of painting in different ways (focus on the light in some, colors in others, contours in still others)

         c.      Because we have created the painting, we know

                  i.      That its colors are important (and not its smell)

                  ii.     That we look at it and not try to taste or hear it

5.      In knowing the type of art we know what and how to appreciate it

         a.      Knowledge of art categories and art history allows us to focus our appreciation (know what to appreciate and how to appreciate it)


6.      Answering what/how to appreciate nature is perhaps more difficult because:

         a.      Nature was not designed by us to be appreciated

         b.      Nature is indeterminate and promiscuous and so to appreciate it, it must be composed (framed)

                  i.      Nature is so rich in its diversity that to appreciate it we must select, emphasize and group its elements

7.      How should it be composed? How to know what to appreciate and how to appreciate in nature?

         a.      On what should we focus?

8.      Carlson considers and rejects four models of nature appreciation (viz., object, landscape, human chauvinist, and aesthetics of engagement models) and then proposes his own natural environment model (to answer what/how questions)


9.      Natural objects are to be appreciated like non-representational sculpture (as isolated, independent objects)

         a.      E.g., Bird in Space, Bransusi 1919

         b.      Appreciate its sensuous qualities and abstract expressive qualities

                  i.      E.g., it glistens, has balance and grace, and expresses flight itself

         c.      It is not representational and has no relational connections to surroundings

                  i.      In contrast, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is representational (it refers to, represents--and thus is related to--something besides itself)

         d.      Can appreciate objects of nature in this way (as a non-representational sculpture)

10.    Rock example: Consider a rock or piece of driftwood and actually or contemplatively remove it from its surroundings and dwell on its sensuous and expressive qualities

         a.      Natural objects are often so appreciated: mantel pieces littered with rocks and driftwood


11.    Object model has us appreciate the rock abstracted from its environment (of creation and display) and this can lead to appreciative mistakes and impoverishment

12.    Rock example

         a.      Appreciating rock in isolation from its context: it is smooth, gracefully curved, and expresses solidity

         b.      Rock in its environment express different (incompatible) aes qualities

                  i.      Appreciating that rock on a scree slope on which it was created and it does not express solidity but appears crumbly

                  ii.     On the slope the rock expresses the forces that created it and it does not do this on the mantle

13.    Isolating natural objects (physically or in contemplation) thus leads to aesthetic mistakes and ignores a large part of what is aes appreciable about the natural object (its relation to its environment of existence)

14.    Consider a wolf and pups isolated, in context

15.    Appreciating a lion in a zoo versus appreciating a lion in the wild and in context



17.    Landscape model suggests perceive nature as if were a landscape painting; nature as simply scenery

         a.      Appreciate nature in a way suitable for picture taking

         b.      Nature appreciated in a way dictated by art (landscape painting)

                  i.      Claude glass once used to help nature appreciators see landscapes as landscape paintings



19.    Ethical criticism

         a.      Involves the “scenery cult” and ignores that unscenic nature is appreciable

20.    Scenery cult

         a.      Only dramatic natural landscapes are appreciated;

         b.      only nature that is "picturesque" (suitable for a picture or a picture postcard) is appreciated

         c.      Unscenic nature: swamps, prairies, backyards–are not worthy of appreciation

         d.      R. Rees criticizes the "scenery cult" for "it is an unfortunate lapse which allows us to abuse our local environments and venerate the Alps and the Rockies"

21.    Aesthetic criticism of landscape model

         a.      It appreciates nature as something it is not--a view or scene--rather than as what it is (a natural environment)

                  i.      The environment is not a two dimensional representation (as is a landscape painting)

         b.      This leads to inappropriate appreciation, e.g., using only the sense of sight to appreciate nature rather than all the senses


22.    Carlson’s assumption: We should appreciate things for what they are and not for what they are not

         a.      E.g., if we appreciate a woodchuck as a rat, we will think it massive and awe inspiring, rather than the cute creature it is



24.    Nature appreciation is not aesthetic

         a.      Aes appreciation involves judging an object as an achievement of a creator

         b.      Since nature is not the product of any designing intellect, it can’t be evaluated in aesthetic terms

25.    Carlson’s objections to nature is non-aesthetic

         a.      Everything can be aesthetically appreciated

         b.      Nature appreciation is a paradigm of aesthetic appreciation (fiery sunsets, soaring birds)

                  i.      If any sort of appreciation is aesthetic, nature appreciation is



         a.      Participatory aesthetics of nature

         b.      Aes appreciation of nature involves total sensory immersion in nature

         c.      Rejection of subject/object dichotomy

27.    Carlson’s Objection:

         a.      Aesthetic appreciation require some distinction subject and object

         b.      Engagement’s answer to the what and how to appreciate nature questions are unhelpful

                  i.      What: everything

                  ii.     How: total immersion

         c.      We can't appreciate everything; need to focus our attention

         d.      Must be limits and emphases in aes appreciation of nature, as in art

         e.      W/o limits get booming, buzzing confusion (like a baby experiencing the world without concepts)



29.    Stresses that nature is both natural and an environment (unlike object and landscape models)

30.    Scientific knowledge about nature can guide our appreciation

         a.      Even though nature is not an aesthetic object created by us, we do have knowledge of it

         b.      We can use that knowledge to help us focus our aesthetic appreciation (to answer the what and how questions)

         c.      Knowledge of nature comes from natural science and common sense

31.    Knowledge of natural history can play the role in the appreciation of nature that knowledge of art forms, works and traditions plays in appreciating art

         a.      “In appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature, as in art, classification is of the essence”

32.    Examples of how knowledge affects/shapes/focuses nature appreciation

         a.      We can distinguish the sound of cicadas from sound of distant traffic and exclude the later for nature appreciation

         b.      Appreciate a prairie differently than a forest (different "acts of aspection")

                  i.      Survey a prairie; Look at subtle contours of land; Feel wind blowing across open space; Smell mix of prairie grasses and flowers

                  ii.     Examine and scrutinize a dense forest environment; inspect the detail of forest floor; listen carefully for sounds of birds, smell carefully for scent of spruce and pine

33.    Analogy art critic and nature critic

         a.      Just as art critic and art historian are well equipped to aes appreciate art

         b.      So natural scientist and naturalist are well equipped to aes appreciate nature

                  i.      Are those who lack that information "poorly equipped"? (Carlson: Yes)

34.    Example: Better equipped to appreciate a valley if you know how it was formed?

         a.      V shaped valley

         b.      U shaped valley


35.    Knowledge of nature is necessary for appropriate appreciation of it

         a.      Knowledge of different environments of nature and systems and elements within those environments is necessary for (an appropriate? for any? for better?) aes app of nature, for we need some mechanism for selecting and focusing our attention

         b.      Does this mean that a person from ghetto of New York city who knew nothing about different environments and systems of nature would have no aes app when she goes to the rainforest (or perhaps only a rudimentary sensuous response)?

         c.      Weaker but perhaps more plausible view than Carlson’s about the role of scientific knowledge in the aes appreciation of nature: Scientific knowledge can enhance/improve/make our appreciation of nature better than it would have been w/o it, but not necessary



37.    NEM helps support a positive aesthetic of nature (all of pristine nature is beautiful)

         a.      For if appreciate nature under scientific categories, nature will appear orderly, harmonious, and unified and these are aesthetically positive traits

         b.      And the scientific story about any feature of nature can enhance and enliven our appreciation of it

                  i.      Consider a drab little tundra plant

38.    NEM allows for objectivity in nature appreciation and this is important for using aesthetics to protect nature

         a.      Because appropriate nature appreciation is based on natural science (which is objective), aesthetic judgments based on that knowledge will be objective

         b.      Example: Developer claims the wetland he wants to fill is an ugly, worthless, bug-infested swamp

                  i.      Swamp protector argues this is a beautiful place that serves all kinds of ecological purposes (habitat, water purification, storm water runoff) and that because water moves in a swamp it is not buggy at all

                  ii.     Developer is just mistaken

                           (1)    About the science/facts only or also the aesthetics? Are they related?

Study questions, Allen Carlson, Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment


1.         Describe Carlson's position on what is involved in the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature and compare and contrast it with his view of the appropriate appreciation of art. Do you agree with his position?

2.         In your own view, can knowledge of nature, enhance our appreciation of it? Is such knowledge required for the best sort of nature appreciation? Can such knowledge get in the way of appreciating nature? Can one aesthetically appreciate nature fully while ignorant of its characteristics?

3.         What is the issue that Carlson addresses with his talk of the “what and how question” with regard to nature appreciation? Does he think it easier to answer these questions for art or for nature? Why? Use examples. How does he propose to answer these questions for nature?

4.         Identify three of the four models of nature appreciation that Carlson considers and rejects and explain one of his reasons for rejecting (criticizing) each.

5.         Identify and explain the two “ramifications” of Carlson’s natural environmental model (NEM) for the appreciation of nature.