Allen Carlson, “Nature, Aesthetic Judgment, and Objectivity”

1981 Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism


1.      An argument for the objectivity of aesthetic judgments about nature

         a.      Tetons are majestic is true; Tetons are dump is false

2.      Carlson argues against those who think art is objective and nature not

         a.      Walton holds this view

         b.      Not a response to those who think aes judgments about both nature and art are subjective/relative

3.      Carlson takes Walton’s arguments for how art judgments are objectively true and false and adapts them for nature judgments


4.      Truth of art judgments – Picasso’s Guernica is awkward–

         a.      Depends on how it is perceived when interpreted in the (or a?) correct category

5.      Guernica appears awkward as an impressionist painting, but not when seen as a cubist painting

6.      Can’t just look at Guernica and see if it is awkward or not

         a.      Must perceive it in the right category

7.      To know if Guernica is awkward or not, can’t just perceive it

         a.      Must perceive it in the right category (i.e., Cubist)

         b.      Must know what makes a work Cubist and that Guernica is Cubist

         c.      Must know how to perceive a Cubist work

         d.      Knowledge of 20th century art needed

8.      If one thinks Guernica is awkward because one perceives it as an impressionist painting rather than a cubist one, one is misperceiving it and owe’s judgment is misinformed


9.      The correct category for a work of art determined by 4 criteria

         a.      (1) Standard features: Does the object have many properties standard to or typical of that category of objects

         b.      (2) Aesthetic value: Is the aes value of the object increased if seen in that category?

                   i.       Is this relevant? Only a tie breaker, as Carlson argues?

         c.      (3) Artist’s intention: Did the artist expect it to be perceived in that way?

         d.      (4) Societal recognition: Category is well established and recognized by society in which the art was produced


10.    Walton is a relativist about aes judgments of nature

11.    There are no correct categories for the aesthetic appreciation of nature

         a.      Because the 4 criteria for determining correct categories don’t (all?) apply

         b.      Although 1 and 2 would seem applicable, there are no artist’s intentions about categories or socially recognized aesthetic categories under which we can perceive natural objects

12.    Walton accepts the ‘category relative interpretation” about aesthetic judgments concerning nature

         a.      The truth value of aesthetic judgments about nature need to be relativized to the category under which we perceive a natural item

         b.      And there are no correct or incorrect categories

         c.      Elephant example: “An elephant might be both small as an elephant and large as a mini-elephant, hence it might be truly either large or small, depending on which category is implicitly referred to”


13.    Carlson thinks that Walton’s position about aes judgments of nature is counter-intuitive

         a.      Just as someone who judges Guernica as awkward because he views it as an impressionist painting is mistaken and is saying something false

         b.      So too someone who judges the Grand Tetons as dumpy rather than majestic is making a mistake

         c.      We learn to make aesthetic judgments in response to natural items like graceful deer and beautiful sunsets

         d.      Implausible that such judgments are neither right nor wrong but category relative


14.    Walton’s psychological claim applies to nature

         a.      What aesthetic properties natural objects seem to have depends on the category under which they are perceived

15.    Examples of psychological claim

         a.      Walton’s small elephant

                   i.       Cute, charming, delicate, puny under category of ordinary elephant

                   ii.      Massive strong, threatening under category of mini-elephant

         b.      Husky foal, calf, fawn

                   i.       Delicate, nimble for a horse, cattle or deer

                   ii.      Lumbering, awkward in category of foals, calves, fawns

         c.      Hepburn’s wide expanse of sand/mud

                   i.       Beach: Wild glad emptiness

                   ii.      Seabed: disturbing weirdness


16.    Carlson provides two arguments for the view that the philosophical claim is true of nature as well

         a.      What aesthetic properties natural objects have depends on how they appear when perceived under the correct categories


17.    One: Natural science specifies correct aesthetic category for nature appreciation

18.    Natural kind categories (elephant, fawn, seabed) function in the aesthetic appreciation of nature like categories of art function in the aesthetic appreciation of art

19.    As in art, in nature there are correct and incorrect categories

         a.      Seeing an elephant as a mountain or sunset is incorrect

                   i.       For example, it lacks Walton’s (1) standard features of mountains and sunsets

         b.      Seeing a whale as a fish rather than a mammal is incorrect

20.    Correct categories of nature are determined by what the natural object actually is as specified by common sense and science

21.    If perceive natural objects in incorrect categories (that is, as something that it is not), one is prone to aesthetic omissions and aesthetic deceptions

         a.      If perceive a restored beach as natural

         b.      Aesthetic omission: Fail to see it as carefully designed and the product of human ingenuity

         c.      Aesthetic deception: Think it is a product of erosion

22.    Cute woodchuck or massive awe inspiring rat?

         a.      What aes properties it has depends on what it (actually is)


23.    Two: Ethical argument for idea that correct categories for appreciation of natural objects are what they actually are and not what they simply appear to be

         a.      Will treat nature better (ethically) if aesthetically appreciate if for what is and not simply for what it appears to be

24.    Playboy example

         a.      If aesthetically appreciate women for what they appear to be (sex objects), rather that what they are (human beings)

         b.      This will lead to an ethically inappropriate attitude toward women and sexist behavior (mistreatment of women)

25.    Because we aesthetically appreciate with our whole emotional and psychological selves, aesthetic appreciation shapes our ethical thoughts and behavior

         a.      Aesthetics helps to shape our ethics

26.    For sound ethical judgment about and appropriate behavior toward nature, must aesthetically appreciate it for what it is (and not what it appears to be)

27.    Examples

         a.      If we think a coastline is natural rather than designed, we might accept the fact that it prevents salmon spawning and is dangerous to swimmers as natural challenges, instead of human impediments, that we ought to alter (via a fish ladder or lifeguards)

                   i.       Different ethical responsibilities depending on how it is perceived

         b.      Ethical views about whales alter as we perceive them as fish or mammals

                   i.       Some of the ethical arguments for preserving whales presuppose perceiving them as mammals and aesthetically appreciating them as such

28.    Conclusion of ethical argument: Appreciating natural objects under the categories of what they actually are has ethical merit


29.    Conclusion:

         a.      We can appreciate nature (and art) however we may happen to

         b.      But if we are to appreciate nature at a deeper level

         c.      If we are to make aesthetic judgments likely to be true and know they are true

         d.      We must know that certain factors make natural objects belong to certain categories and that they are correctly perceived in those categories

         e.      For significant aes appreciation of nature something like knowledge and experience of naturalist is essential

                   i.       No wonder folks like Muir, Audubon, Leopold had such acute aesthetic appreciation of nature

                   ii.      For they were also naturalists (with extensive knowledge of nature)