Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, Ch 1-3 (1992)

“Aesthetics of Engagement”



2.       Not natural surroundings

          a.       For most people are far removed from natural but not from environment

          b.       Little natural (nature unmodified by humans) left

3.       Not surroundings in general (natural and reshaped lands, built structures)

          a.       For env. is not a container nor outside people

4.       Not just physical, cultural, and spiritual surroundings

5.       Environment is not outside or independent of people

          a.       No outside world or inner world

                    i.        Bad mind/body dualism

                    ii.       “Like values, truth and myth are equally human constructs. So there is no division natural/artificial, inner self and outer world, human/divine, nature/culture”

          b.       Ecology teaches us that everything is interrelated; none are independent

                    i.        But that person and environment are dependent and interact does not show that person is not separate from environment

6.       Person and environment are contiguous, integrated, inclusive

          a.       Food, air, clothes, our homes are all integrated with ourselves

7.       Environment is:

          a.       Imprint of human attitudes, meanings, values, and sensibility on natural habitat

          b.       Intellectual, moral, and aesthetic statement of humans

          c.       A field of human action

          d.       Physical and cultural realm in which people engage in all activities

          e.       “Environment in fullest sense = human life world”

          f.       Nature as we live it

          g.       Worries: Idealism (mind-dependence of the world) and anthropocentrism

8.       Quote from Wallace Stevens’s “Theory” at the beginning of the book

          a.       “I am what is around me”

          b.       Captures well Berleant’s idea of relation between person and environment

          c.       Inseparability of humans and nature



10.     Rejects nature as everything outside human sphere (Moriarty’s N2) that we must try to dominate

          a.       Foreign, separate entity

          b.       In conflict with human interests and ends

          c.       Our grand opponent

          d.       Forces aimed at our demise

          e.       We must control, conquer and harness it

          f.       Civilization is essentially opposed to nature

          g.       Nature as separate does not entail conflict with it

11.     Rejects nature as essentially different from humans that requires symbiotic relationship

          a.       Achieve balance with and live in harmony with nature

          b.       Not alien, but condition under which we carry on our activities and goals

          c.       Need to respect and care for it

          d.       Berleant rejects as involves co-existence rather than assimilation

12.     Accepts nature everything there is

          a.       Greatest degree of unity (humans and nature)

          b.       Includes planned communities and strip developments, slums and suburbs, vulgar and sublime

          c.       Nature a totality–everything effects everything else

          d.       One interconnected, all-inclusive realm

13.     Spinosa’s insight: no nature apart from human presence and nothing human separate from nature



15.     Aesthetics is everywhere (like Saito’s everyday aesthetics)

          a.       Aesthetic dimension to environment in this sense (and to all experience)

          b.       Everything, everyplace, every event that is experienced by an aware body that is sensing and meaning conferring has an aesthetic element

          c.       For a fully engaged participant, aesthetic factor always present

          d.       Aesthetic is a pervasive feature of all experience

16.     If nature includes everything, natural aesthetics domain extended beyond “natural beauty” (or scenic nature, or “easy beauty”)

          a.       Like art moved beyond pleasing and the pretty to include the ugly, grotesque, bizarre and even repulsive

          b.       So aesthetic of nature must admit the whole world

                    i.        Aes experience of city, country, factory, museum desert wastes and fjords


17.     Aes value implications of everyday aesthetics: Not claiming all of nature/environment is of positive or equal value

          a.       Need critical judgment, not automatic endorsement

          b.       Each has equal claim to be taken seriously (not necessarily equal value)

          c.       Given broad extent of aes appreciation, Berleant worried that we are “vulnerable to offenses to aes quality of our world by intrusion of soothing comfort of aesthetic anaesthesia”

          d.       By extending aesthetics to humanized environments, we confront and can condemn the production of ugliness (p. 174-75)

                    i.        “To include the entire sensible world as aesthetically appreciable hardly makes the world more beautiful; it confronts us with failures of taste and judgment that have marked most industrial and commercial activities in this century. But if environment can have aes value, so then can actions be condemned that ignore or deny that value”


18.     Environment challenges conventional aesthetics

          a.       Usual understanding of aesthetic experience (of art) fails to explain environmental experience

          b.       Traditional view

                    i.        Aes requires receptive contemplative (disinterested) attitude of observer

          c.       But we are continuous with environment

                    i.        No observer apart from environment so this idea of aesthetics not applicable to environment

          d.       Could say aes of environment is just different type of aesthetic enjoyment from aes of art

          e.       Berleant unified aesthetics: argues for treating nature/art appreciation the same and abandoning the tradition and replacing it with his aesthetics of engagement

          f.       Get rid of contemplative appreciation of beautiful object

          g.       Replace with continuity of engagement in natural world


19.     Aes exp of environment involves

          a.       Apprehending (i.e., perceiving) it as a precondition (but need more)

                    i.        We don’t leave perceptual realm, but intensify and enlarge it

          b.       Sensation not merely getting in touch with surface qualities of world

                    i.        Another bad mind/body dualism, inner/outer dualism

          c.       Physical senses used actively

          d.       Senses integrated (integrated sensorium)

                    i.        In experience, senses are fused; only separated on reflection

                    ii.       Environmental perception engages entire, integrated human sensorium


20.     Engagement key

          a.       Join with environment as participants

          b.       Direct engagement of conscious body as part of environmental context

          c.       We become part of environment via interpenetration of body and place

          d.       Aes environment not mere pleasant scene that lies beyond as distant view

                    i.        It is everywhere all around me

                    ii.       Sensed by my feet as much as by vision

          e.       Human participant absorbed into situation, inseparable and contiguous with environment

          f.       Carlson’s caricature: Puddleman


21.     Berleant on sense experience in aesthetic appreciation

          a.       Which sense is most important for Berleant?

          b.       Distant receptors versus contact receptors

          c.       Distant receptors: sight & hearing are traditional aesthetic sense needed for contemplation necessary for aes exp

                    i.        Berleant: can never distance ourselves from perception of environment

          d.       Contact receptors –smell, taste, touch–close involvement of the body

                    i.        Crucial for aes app of env.

          e.       Smell important (and taste too)

                    i.        To sense of place and time

          f.       Tactile sensation is not one thing, but multidimensional

                    i.        Surface pressure, contour, temperature, humidity, pain, visceral sensations

                    ii.       All bodily feelings


22.     Importance of body’s feeling in environmental appreciation

          a.       More than simply tactile sensations

          b.       Body’s movement sensed

                    i.        Muscular awareness

                    ii.       Skeletal and joint sensation

                    iii.      Feeling of sun and wind on my skin

                    iv.      Tug of branches on clothing

                    v.       Feeling of preserving position

                    vi.      Awareness of climbing/descending, turning/twisting

                    vii.     Delicate balance of body on a cliff, instability on rocks

                    viii.    Feeling of running, biking, canoeing, skiing

                              (1)     These are importantly aesthetic activities

          c.       Major dimensions of places/environments–space, mass, depth, volume–encountered primarily with bodily movement and action and not primarily with the eye

          d.       Bodily immersion/engagement is the key part of aesthetic experience and value of it


23.     Possible implications for environmental aesthetic protection

          a.       Protect

                    i.        Skiing before snowmobiling

                    ii.       Windsurfing before jet skiing

                    iii.      Hiking versus driving

                    iv.      Argument for bike/running paths instead of roads

          b.       Aesthetic experience of the former is preferable (for many reasons) and of greater value

          c.       Body is much more a part of the experience of the first of these, so the experiences have greater aesthetic value and deserve greater protection

          d.       First allow much more chance for multi-sensuous immersion


24.     Env. perception and appreciation involves psychological/social/cultural meanings

          a.       There are psychological and social factors in sense perception

                    i.        Get rid of dualism sensation/meaning

                    ii.       Sensations fuses with cultural influences

                    iii.      Cultural influences on sense of space/time

                    iv.      “Perception as cultural as mythology”

          b.       Our habits, belief systems, styles of living, traditions of behavior and judgment, previous history

                    i.        Play a large role both in sense experience and aes appreciation

          c.       Since environment is cultural, environmental aesthetics involves a cultural aesthetic (the characteristic env. experience of particular time and place)

          d.       Each culture, at each historical period, has distinctive manner of perceiving aesthetically

                    i.        To know a different culture is to understand this

          e.       “Invisible” dimensions of environment appreciation

                    i.        Place memories, recall earlier visits, feeling of deja vu, feeling of sharing landscape with earlier inhabitants

                    ii.       Scientific knowledge, poetic meaning, religious meaning

          f.       Bring personal associations

                    i.        Bantham River Paddle

                              (1)     “Many sights welcome my approach”

                              (2)     On return trip, everything overlaid with sense of memory and return

                    ii.       “In any env. situation, what there is depends on who you are; another persons description would convey a different occasion”


25.     We create our aesthetic environment

          a.       Thoreau:

                    i.        “It is something to be able to paint a picture or carve a statue and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look...To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts”

          b.       Berleant

                    i.        Aesthetic environment is everyone’s medium

                    ii.       Art of environment is art of living

                    iii.      Environment an art; a cumulative art of culture

          c.       We can and should create a better aesthetic environment

                    i.        Our obsessive purpose (and competition) gives us tunnel vision that blinds us to richness of our world

                    ii.       We should enlarge our perceptual consciousness and exercise our senses acutely

                    iii.      Unlike children who are immediately present, we are cultural animals and our perception is blended with memories, beliefs, associations and these meanings deepen experience

                              (1)     But we should keep meanings true to diversity of sensory awareness and not edit it to fit our customary meanings

                              (2)     Like Brady’s idea that imagination must take its lead from the object

                              (3)     Unlike Brady, Berleant does not try to weed out merely personal and idiosyncratic associations


26.     Miscellaneous

          a.       Theorizing about env. Aes can lead to change in our aes experience of environment

          b.       Descriptive aesthetics (his description of canoe paddle)

                    i.        Acute observation, compelling language, aimed at encouraging reader to vivid aes encounter