Parsons, Aesthetics & Nature



1.      Aes qualities (e.g., elegant, graceful, hideous, sublime) have three elements

         a.      Sensory element (how looks/sounds)

                   i.       Elegant if array of shapes and colors and sounds certain way

         b.      Affective element (having to do with desires, feelings)

                   i.       Delight in sensory appearance for its own sake

         c.      Thought component



3.      What is a thought?

         a.      Not just anything in the mind (like warm feeling from bath or having a visual sensation of blue or having an emotion)

         b.      Must involve “propositions” (statements) that are true or false

                   i.       E.g. it rained

         c.      Different kinds of thoughts involving a proposition: To hope it will rain tomorrow, to believe it rained yesterday, to want it to rain, and to imagine it is raining

4.      What is role of thought in aes experience?

         a.      Is experience of aes qualities just sensation (looking or listening) with no role for thought? (No, says Parsons)

5.      Thoughts can be infused with experience of raw sensation

6.      Often the pleasure we get from aesthetic experiences in large part due to thought

         a.      Most of looking and listening we do involves experience of sensation in close conjunction with all sorts of thinking

         b.      And the thought is important to the pleasure we experience

7.      Hepburn leaf falling example p. 19-20

         a.      Falling leaf infused with thoughts of transience and change makes the leaf look poignant

8.      *When appreciate aes qualities in part because of thought, it is still the perceptual appearance we find pleasing, not the thought itself

         a.      We could find the thought itself pleasing (thought of transience and change pleasing)

         b.      But with aes appreciation of nature, it is the perceptual appearance in which we delight, infused with and modified by thoughts of transience and change

                   i.       Leaf looks pregnant with larger significance because of the thought component we bring to it

         c.      How thought gets infused

                   i.       By way of beliefs: E.g., every living thing dies

                   ii.      By way of imagination: E.g., imagine leaf veins as blood vessels or imagine ourselves falling into oblivion



10.    Natural science might be source of thoughts about appearances of nature

         a.      Geology, biology, natural history tell us about natural world

         b.      Examples

                   i.       Ugly vampire bat, with scientific knowledge, becomes a marvelous sonar flying machine

                   ii.      Venus fly trap, understood to be a carnivore, now looks deadly

11.    History a source of thoughts

         a.      As view a natural area imagine past events (Gettysburg battle fields) and long gone inhabitants (prairie grass under thundering herds of buffalo)

12.    Above are factual thoughts, below leave realm of facts

13.    Cultural myths and legends, and narratives of religious traditions

         a.      Assign meaning and significance to natural events

         b.      Examples:

                   i.       Lightening as wrath of Zeus

                   ii.      Mountains as result of God’s warping earth due to human sin

                   iii.     Volcanic eruption as manifestation of the native god Pele’s wrath

         c.      These stories can infuse our perceptual experience of nature, whether believe in them or only imagine the events they describe

                   i.       If believe these stories as true, resulting aes response problematic, but not if only imagine them and not believe them?

         d.      Seeing natural things as symbols of cherished cultural values

                   i.       Bald Eagle as symbols of American Freedom

14.    Fictional narratives as source of thought component

         a.      Appreciate a particular cliff as place where Butch Cassidy and Sundance kid jumped

         b.      Personal imaginative narrative

                   i.       Brady’s imagining a tree with thick ridged bark as a ‘seasoned old man”

                            (1)    In contemplating the bark of a locust tree, visually, I see the deep clefts between the thick ridges of the bark. Images of mountains and valleys come to mind, and I think of the age of the tree given the thickness of the ridges and how they are spaced apart. I walk around the tree, feeling the wide circumferences of the bark. The image of a seasoned old man comes to mind, with deep wrinkles from age. These imaginings lead to an aesthetic judgment of the tree as stalwart, and I respect it as I might a wise old sage.

                   ii.      See rock as a giant’s head (playful not serious)

                   iii.     Cloud as a basket of washing (trivializing?)

                   iv.     Hear howling wind as expression of nature’s anger





17.    What if people bring different thoughts to bear that result in different or incompatible aes evaluation of same natural phenomena?

         a.      Is this a problem?

18.    Night sky example

         a.      Penny: Imagines battles of Greek mythology, finds sky full of sadness

         b.      Sam: Views sky in terms of astronomy, delights in sublime vastness

         c.      Fred: Just sees patterns of lights (not even seen as coming from stars); sees sky as delicate (veil draped over earth)

         d.      Each has different aes response to same natural thing

19.    Normative standards for nature appreciation?

         a.      How ought we appreciate nature aesthetically? Is this a even valid question?

         b.      What place does correctness or appropriateness have in aes appreciation of nature?

         c.      Is one of the above more correct or more appropriate, or are they all equally valid?

         d.      Are there normative standards for better and worse appreciation of nature?

                   i.       So that some responses are richer, fuller, in general better and others impoverished, thinner, and worse??

20.    Post modern view: Anything goes--Bring any thought you like to aes appreciation of nature

         a.      When people disagree over aes character of natural item, often because differ in imaginative associations they bring and none is better or worse

21.    Post modernism in literary theory

         a.      Literary work does not posses an inherent meaning that reader tries to understand (e.g., perhaps the meaning assigned by author)

         b.      Meaning of work created in act of reading as reader brings various associations

         c.      Reader creates the text, so she is free to employ whatever materials she wants

         d.      For some Star Wars movies/books about father/son love; for others about good versus evil

22.    Post modern view of nature appreciation

         a.      We don’t create nature when appreciate it but we create its meaning (and aesthetic qualities?)

23.    Benefits of post modern approach

         a.      Aes appreciation nature is free and stimulating, as unlimited number of ways to aes appreciate it

         b.      Little chance get bored

         c.      Open-ended character makes it more personally rewarding as we both give meaning to the thing and develop our own attitudes, values, and beliefs

         d.      Gives us the freedom to maximize our aes enjoyment

24.    Ambiguity in characterization of PM view

         a.      Is the criterion

                   i.       Anything goes (there is no criterion)

                   ii.      Or maximize aes enjoyment



26.    PM doesn’t seem to work for aes appreciation of art, including literary works

         a.      No constraints on readings/meanings of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter books?

                   i.       “About Hermione’s sexual attraction to a gay boy named Harry Potter?”

                   ii.      “About a transsexual, whose sex change operation gave him special powers”

                   iii.     “They were written by Shakespeare himself and modernized”

                   iv.     Whether a person believes this or is only pretending to believe this

                   v.      Whether reading the text that way increases aesthetic merit for person or not

                   vi.     Seems inappropriate

         b.      Literary interpretations have a great deal of leeway, but we don’t take seriously interpretations that distort nature of the work to this extent

                   i.       Not a serious interpretation of the work

                   ii.      Doesn’t really tell us how good the novel is

27.    PM doesn’t work for art in general: There are normative standards for artworks

         a.      Not anything goes with artworks

         b.      Some ways of thinking about artwork are simply incorrect or inappropriate

                   i.       Gleaming whiteness is most important/interesting thing about Duchamp’s fountain

                   ii.      Picasso’s Guernica is gentle and calm

28.    **Note: Rejecting PM anything goes does not commit us to single true meaning only that there are limits to acceptable interpretations


29.    Perhaps art appreciation has normative standards, but nature appreciation does not? (PM for nature, but not art?)

         a.      Argument that though not anything goes for art appreciation, anything goes for nature appreciation

30.    Nature appreciation is different from art appreciation as no informal or formal criticism of nature like there is for art

         a.      We have practice of art criticism

                   i.       Informal: Individuals come together and discus merits of books and films

                   ii.      Formal: Professional critics with training and experience write formal appraisals for publication

         b.      Is there nature criticism?

                   i.       Is there debate and appraisal where different judgments about aes character of nature are evaluated?

                   ii.      People do delight in mountain peaks and revile in look of swamps but do so on own or in very informal contexts

                            (1)    “No clubs or journals where the aes merits of different peaks debated or systematically explored”

         c.      Consider:

                   i.       Sierra club slide shows

                            (1)    People talk about special places they went and describe them

                   ii.      Nature writing and photography

                   iii.     It is true that not much of a critical nature is said, but people don’t talk about bad books much either

                   iv.     Unlike with movies we don’t give one to four stars to natural places as does say Roger Ebert or local movie reviewers to movies

                   v.      We do have special places that we take people to

         d.      Because artists often dispute criticisms of their work this explains why critical disputes about aesthetic merits arise more naturally and frequently with art

                   i.       Nature can’t speak up and so disputes about aes merits of nature less frequent


31.    Analogy with art argument against PM for nature aes: If normative standards for art, why not for nature?

         a.      Arbitrary to treat art and nature differently (one anything goes and other not) unless some relevant difference can be pointed to

                   i.       “Unified aesthetic assumption”

         b.      If it is bizarre to think it okay to appreciate an artwork in terms of a fictitious story about its origins

         c.      Why isn’t it bizarre when do this with nature (e.g. conceptualizing the night sky in terms of stories of Greek myth)

32.    So instead of an exercise in imagination, or an exploration of our own beliefs and attitudes, ought to approach nature appreciation as an attempt to evaluate the object

         a.      We ought to develop a body of nature criticism


33.    Difference art and nature that might justify only art having normative standards

         a.      Art has a creator with an intention that may be thought to fix the meaning so one can get it right or wrong, where as no such intention behind natural beauty that could fix its meaning


34.    3 ethical arguments against anything goes (PM approach)

35.    One: Anything goes nature appreciation fails to respect nature

         a.      Treating nature as a blank slate on which we can project any associations manifests a lack of respect for nature

         b.      Narcissistic absorption in our own interests

         c.      A failure to recognize and understand the other’s reality

         d.      Simply using nature as a means to get our “aesthetic kicks”

         e.      Examples

                   i.       Looking at the Grand Tetons as giant breasts

                   ii.      Imagining a falling star as a message from one’s lover

         f.       A moral virtue to respect natural objects by appreciating them on their own terms instead of as props for our self indulgent fantasies

36.    Two: Anything goes nature appreciation has harmful consequences

         a.      Film Bambi led to an over sentimental attitude toward deer and this makes it hard for land managers to check deer populations that are overrunning local ecosystems

                   i.       So appreciating deer in this fictional manner has bad env consequences

37.    Three: Anything goes appreciation of nature undermines aesthetic preservationism (the idea we can use aesthetic merit of natural area as reason for preserving them)

         a.      Arctic National Wildlife refuge

                   i.       U.S. President Jimmy Carter judges it to be a place of "solitude, unmatched beauty, and grandeur"

                   ii.      Former U.S. Interior Secretary Gail Norton regards the refuge as a "Godforsaken mosquito-infested swamp shrouded in frozen darkness half the year,"

         b.      For PM: No way to resolve this debate; they each are correct

         c.      Eagle a symbol of freedom or of “predatory elitism

         d.      Can’t use aesthetic criteria for env protection if no better or worse aesthetic judgments


38.    If reject anything goes, not all thought components in aes appreciation are equally appropriate

         a.      Some lead us astray or distort what we are tying to appreciate

Questions on Parsons, Chapter 2: Imagination, Belief and the Aes of Nature


1.      Does Parsons believe that thought plays a role in aesthetic experience or is such experience simply sensory and affective? Give an example of an aes experience that involves each of these three dimensions.

2.      Identify and give examples of 4 different types of thought components that might be part of aes experience of nature.

3.      What does it mean to ask if nature appreciation has “normative standards?” Do you think it does? Why or why not?

4.      Explain the “post modern” (PM) approach to the question of what sorts of thoughts can be part of “appropriate” aesthetic appreciation of nature. In so doing, explain what post modernism is in literary theory. Now discuss a possible counter-example to post-modernism in literary interpretation.

5.      What are some examples of incorrect or inappropriate ways of interpreting or appreciating artworks?

6.      If one rejects PM approach to aes appreciation, does that mean there is only one correct or appropriate way to appreciate art or nature?

7.      Why might someone argue PM is not true of art, but it is true of nature?

8.      What is the assumption behind the “analogy with art” argument form that Parsons uses? (Hint: that unless there is a relevant difference we should assume that nature and art appreciation will be analogous).

9.      Explain the relation between PM and “aesthetic preservationism” (i.e., the view that we should preserve nature for its beauty).