A Cognitive Approach to Natural Aesthetic Experiences

One might consider that, left to their own devices there would be no guarantee that those experiencing nature on its own terms, nor that they would see nature as it really is from a scientific perspective. Rolston III (1998) provides some insight here where he says in reference to the aesthetics of forests, though it easily applies to all natural aesthetics, “One must be moved, but one needs to be moved in the right direction, where “right” means with appropriate appreciation of what is actually going on.” –where “right” simply means towards an appropriate appreciation of nature on its own terms. It is here where we draw a sharp distinction from many aestheticians such as Berleant (2004) who value the sensuous nature insisting that direct interaction and engagement are all one needs for natural aesthetics and play down the cognitive level that we often operate in when contemplating an object within a given experience. But it seems that in almost all aesthetic experience the capacity to contemplate the experience is a significant component in judgement as we attempt to make sense of the object. Cognitively we categorise the object (nature or a natural object) by analysing its form and features, as well as the connections and interconnections the object has with the world around it (its biological and ecological connections). It is from a metaphorical distance (ie Kant’s sense of “disinterested”) that this cognitive experience takes place, it is at this point where the lens through which we look at the object is most important.

Our senses move us, but in what direction must be guided in some sense towards the reality of nature. With this understanding with respect to nature, it is so important for many authors such as Carlson (1891) and Rolston (2002) for this experience to be positioned within a scientific lens and scientific appreciation for nature as it really is – Because not all experiences are going to be pleasant in nature, indeed at times it can induce experiences of terror, disgust and ugliness. But these experiences are themselves as valuable to nature as the sense of beauty is to us. One cannot as such appreciate nature for what it is when one only sees and appreciates only its beauty and looks past its other important features. Beauty is of course to be found everywhere in nature, and indeed we seem invited to appreciate it when it is there – but this is like looking at a painting and only observing a small piece of it, or worse, viewing that tiny part as the whole thing. As the case may be, when trees and scrub are kept clear in order to cater for our sense of visual beauty. In this case we look past the dead trees on the forest floor and the birds, reptiles and insects that are forced to relocate to accommodate us and allow us the opportunity to enjoy our “picture postcard” moment. It is, when viewed in this light, that it is easy to see the perversion of obsessing with scenic beauty at the expense of all other experiences. A problem that is alluded to in the writings of Aldo Leopold (1949) and expressed through the writings of poets such as Robinson Jeffers and T. S. Eliot:

The Wasteland – T. S. Eliot

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief

And the dry stone no sound of water…”

It is this sense of appreciating the reality of nature that makes it easy to see where Deep Ecology sought and found its “ethics” in the mid-1970s through the writings of Arne Naess and George Sessions eventually culminating in their famous eight points (Naess & Sessions 1984). The push to look beyond mere scenic beauty which has been ever present since the time of the Romantics (Lynch & Norris 2016). Such ethics maintain their presence to this day in natural aesthetics and are finally beginning to creep into the environmental ethics through concepts like “rewilding” as described by Prior & Brady (2017). Where former agricultural land has been reclaimed and attempts now being made to “rewild” these regions into the ecology of their prehuman caused devastation past and allow nature to take hold with minimal or no human interference. While in certain cases the public remain resistant to this perspective, seemingly in large part through ignorance and lack of understanding of what such projects as Carrifran Wildwoods hope to achieve, and through fear that they may lose their postcard moment (Prior & Brady 2017). It is nevertheless a good and important start in would could be a very interesting project going forward.

— One a side note, please check out the Carrifran Wildwood project and if you can support them in someway it seems like a worthwhile project, with a very different approach to environmental restoration then has been tried in many places previously.


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