Holmes Rolston

Does Aesthetic Appreciation of Landscapes Need to be Science-Based?


1.      Examples of aesthetic appreciation based on superstitions, myths, and folklore account of nature versus scientific, natural history account

         a.      John Wesley Powell Grand Canyon story

                   i.       Natives warned Powell not to go through the Grand Canyon; a god had built a trail there for a mourning chief to go visit his dead wife in a heaven and then flooded the trail with water and forbade anyone to go there. Powell would draw the god's wrath if he went through the Canyon

                   ii.      Powell saw the canyon geologically as formed by the erosional forces of time and the river flowing

                   iii.     Both Powell and the natives experienced awe in the presence of the canyon

                            (1)    Powell geologically, the natives religiously and in terms of myth

                            (2)    So they both had aesthetic experiences

         b.      Hawaiian Lava flow

                   i.       Rolston watched the Hawaiian volcano’s red lava pour out of the bowels of the earth into the sea, realizing the seashore on which he stood had been made only a few months before due to the pressure between tectonic plates melting rock into magma

                   ii.      Natives had put flowers and food at top of the crater to placate the goddess Pele so she would stop the flow

                   iii.     Both experienced the sublime in response to the lava flows

         c.      Early Western European view of mountains

                   i.       God originally made the earth a smooth sphere and then warped it in punishment for human sin

                   ii.      Mountains and valley’s were thus, according to John Donne (a 16th century English poet), “warts and pock-holes in the face of the earth”

                   iii.     Based on this idea, mountains were appreciated as aesthetically negative, rather than aesthetically positive as they are appreciated today

         d.      Paul Bunyan and blue ox Babe account of the origin of the 10,000 lakes in Minnesota

2.      “Science is necessary to banish these myths before we can understand in a corrected aesthetic”


3.      Scientific understanding is not necessary for an aesthetic appreciation of nature

         a.      Rolston acknowledges that natives have aesthetic responses (awe, sublime) even though not based on scientific understanding

         b.      His parents (and Daniel Boone) had an appreciation of landscapes (a keen sense of place) even though it was not science-based

4.      But knowledge of some type is required: Can't appropriately (adequately?) appreciate what one doesn't understand

         a.      Rolston is arguing for what is called a (partially) "cognitive" (=knowledge-based) approach to aesthetic appreciation

                   i.       (Anti-cognitivists think that we don’t need knowledge or understanding but that, e.g., emotion or imagination are sufficient for aesthetic appreciation)

                   ii.      E.g., can’t adequately/appropriately appreciate Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain without out understanding of its place in art history and what Duchamp was trying to do with it (importance of Fountain)

                   iii.     E.g., Can’t adequately appreciate Lemonade Creek in Yellowstone National Park if one doesn’t know whether it was formed by toxic mine runoff or natural causes

         b.      Rolston makes a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate (adequate/inadequate) aesthetic appreciation (as do all who work in environmental aesthetics–or at least a distinction between better and worse appreciation)

         c.      Art examples

                   i.       Inappropriate to think Edvard Munch’s “The Scream is cheerful (rather than frightening)

                   ii.      Inappropriate to think that a person dancing the tango is awkward because one believes she is dancing a waltz

                   iii.     Inappropriate to think that a impressionist painting is clumsy because one expects it to be realistic/photographic style

         d.      Nature examples

                   i.       Inappropriate to appreciate nature purely formalistically (as pretty shapes, colors with no concern for its origin or nature–it might as well be a landscape painting as a landscape)

                            (1)    “A drive through the country side is like a walk through a museum of landscape paintings”

                   ii.      Scenery cult: A good view--scenery that makes for a good photograph--is what nature appreciation reduced to

                   iii.     Cute woodchuck or awe inspiring rat: Which aesthetic judgment depends on the nature of this animal?

         e.      If one’s appreciation is based on a false belief, does that make it inappropriate (inadequate, worse)?

                   i.       E.g., Donne’s view of mountains above?

                   ii.      “Mistaken interpretative frameworks do blind us so that we cannot see what is there, they create illusions of what is not there, they leave us ignorant about what is really going on; and here science greatly educates us to what is really taking place”

5.      Lived participatory experience on the land can provide the required understanding necessary for appropriate aesthetic appreciation

         a.      Do not need scientific understanding to gain sensitivity to the land

         b.      People can know existentially what it is like to live on the land (something a Ph.D. in ecology/biology/geology may never know)

         c.      Those who have to cope in the world already have some understanding of it or they won’t survive

         d.      E.g., Daniel Boone, though ignorant of modern evolutionary history and ecology, knew enough through lived experience to have appropriate aesthetic appreciation

         e.      Rolston’s parents lacked scientific knowledge but lived on the landscape and had a keen sense of place

6.      Scientific understanding can be part of and heighten aesthetic appreciation

         a.      Examples

                   i.       Rolston's scientific understanding that ground on which he stood created by volcanic lava a few month's ago part of his aesthetic appreciation and heightened it

                   ii.      “When you understand the harshness of an arid or alpine climate, you will find the plants’ clinging to life aesthetically stimulating. One will appreciate life hunkered down low to the ground, or bent and twisted trees persisting in cold and windblown environments.”

                   iii.     U-shaped and V shaped valley carved by glaciers and rivers respectively

                   iv.     Wolf-kill example supports positive aesthetics (all of nature is beautiful): “Once, tracking wolves in Alberta, I came upon a wolf kill. Wolves had driven a bull elk to the edge of a cliff, cornered it there, before a great pine, itself clinging to the edge. It made a good picture; the mountains on the skyline, the trees nearer in, the fallen elk at the cliff’s edge. The colours were green and brown, white and grey, somber and deep. The process, beyond the form, was still more stimulating. I was witness to an ecology of predator and prey, to population dynamics, to heterotrophs feeding on autotrophs. The carcass, beginning to decay, was already being recycled by microorganisms. All this science is about something vital, essential, and also existential about living on the landscape. In the scene I beheld, there was time, life, death, life persisting in the midst of its perpetual perishing. My human life, too, lies in such trophic pyramids. Incarnate in ths world, I saw through my environment of the moment into the Environment quintessential, and found it aesthetically exciting.”

7.      Science is necessary (required), but not sufficient (no guarantee) for the most adequate (the best) aesthetic appreciation of nature

         a.      The appreciator must objectively know the landscape via science

         b.      But this is not enough

8.      Scientific knowledge can go along with lack of aesthetic appreciation; Science can make us callous; Science is no guarantee that one will see what is there and properly aesthetically appreciate it

         a.      “Science can engage with landscapes too objectively, academically, disinterestedly”

         b.      A PhD can make you callous to the landscape

                   i.       “The Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker at the mysteries at which he officiates” (Leopold)

         c.      “A scientist w/o love for the earth is disqualified”

9.      Science is not enough for appropriate appreciation of nature

         a.      Must go beyond science in two ways: Need participation and myth

         b.      (1) Need participatory experience

                   i.       Science-based landscape aesthetics is urgent, but also need a science-transcending aesthetic of participatory experience

         c.      (2) Find a new scientifically compatible "myth" of spectacular natural history (Need a religious interpretation?)

                   i.       Science should demythologize superstitions, but also find a new myth that encourages appropriate aesthetic responses to nature, including the sublime and the numinous (the sacred)

                   ii.      The full story of natural history is too spectacular to just be scientific about

                   iii.     It is a sacrament of something deeper

                   iv.     The unscientific, mythological encounters with nature might have encountered this (religious) dimension

10.    Richest aesthetic experience comes from combining participatory experience in natural history with natural science

         a.      Aesthetic experience must involve a participatory encounter (relating a person to a landscape)

         b.      Involve a participatory embodiment in landscapes

         c.      This is what pre-scientific peoples, Boone, Natives, his parents had

         d.      Science alone does not give you a regional identity with a landscape and such identity qualifies for aesthetic experience (and is part of the richest sort of aesthetic experience of nature)