Positive Aesthetics and Nature

In this discussion we will begin by exploring positive aesthetics in nature and attempt to understand why many thinkers about aesthetics posit that nature, properly understand has no negative aesthetic properties. Meaning that in a certain sense, It is inappropriate to view nature as ugly, deformed or disgusting. That all things in nature have are important for the functional operation of ecosystems and as such ought to induce as sense of appreciation in an aesthetic observer, if not of the scene directly then certainly of the natural processes involved. Of course, scepticism of this view is widespread and perfectly understandable – after all watching a baby dear starve because there is simply not enough food available or because its mother was killed by predators is not an easy thing to watch, even if we do understand perfectly well that this is all part of nature within the wilderness setting.

Nevertheless, they may still have a point given the nature of aesthetic experience – often for example when such scenes are present on our television screens we become so transfixed and caught up in the story of the deer that we simply cannot walk away. This too is a description of aesthetic experience like that found in the great tragedies of Shakespeare. This sense of the sublime found in such stories may still be considered a positive aesthetic experience, in that they hold our attention and engage us in a way that other aesthetic experiences simply do not. They give us a richness of context and truth in nature and it is at this point that we begin to discover in nature the humbling experience that it truly is.

But this is rightly a contentious idea, many people will argue that there is a clear distinction in positive aesthetics to be drawn between organic nature and inorganic nature. This distinction is not useless however, even if some of the conclusions drawn from this distinction such as the ideas presented by Zangwell (1998) that inorganic nature simply cannot be appreciated aesthetically for anything other then its formal properties. His claim is that the distinction here is functional, meaning that organic nature plays an actively functional role in ecosystems, which inorganic nature is essentially inanimate, and acted upon by organic nature and as such there is no further meaning to be found in inorganic nature except for its formal properties. In a technical sense he is correct, but aesthetics is not just a reading of factual information like science it is rather an interpretation. Just because something is inanimate does not mean there is no functional component of inorganic nature with respect to ecology.

This idea seems strange, but it is worth considering. However, I would first raise the serious contention to the idea that inorganic nature is simply acted upon and has no meaning aesthetically – it is simply not true that we can’t find meaning in inorganic nature – rivers, mountains, valleys and even deserts themselves play a central role in the kind of ecosystems present in an area, and the ever changing conditions of inorganic nature affect greatly the kind or organic nature that is found there. As such there is a sense in which organic and inorganic nature is tangled together and is not at all easy to separate both aesthetically and in ecological terms.

Even if the idea of functionality and formal properties being the principle source of aesthetic appreciation seems incredibly restrictive and highly unlikely, the concept of positive aesthetics may be worth looking at in this context potentially making it less contentious. With respect to inorganic nature it seems plausible that it is not possible to find a landscape whose inorganic properties produce a negative aesthetic response. The grandeur and mystery certain landscapes may induce an sense of uneasiness but it seems plausible on the face of it that this might be the case at least for inorganic nature as Parsons (2004) suggests. This is because inorganic nature does not seem to be able tap into negative emotions when we are aesthetically engaged in the same way that organic nature might.

What does this say about organic nature? Does a hypothesis that posits that posits only positive aesthetic value have merit? Maybe it does, but the provision is that one is able and willing to perceive nature in that way. Aesthetic judgements are rational and cognitive for sure but that does not mean everything has all the relevant information about a particular natural experience and it does not mean that everyone is able or willing to engage with nature in this way. While I remain quite open to the concept of positive aesthetics as a component of appropriate appreciation, even in organic nature in situations like that described earlier. I can understand the scepticism that may arise in seeing positive aesthetics as a universal in nature, but perhaps mostly is enough to allow us to extend value to those areas that may be questionable in this way.

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