Scientific Cognitive Environmental Aesthetics: What is the basis for appreciating aesthetic qualities?

Basilica dei Frari, Venice Italy

Scientific Cognitive Environmental Aesthetics is the first of three approaches to environmental aesthetics. It will be helpful to understand the strategies, then apply it to our subject.

Scientific Cognitive Environmental Aesthetics

Scientific cognitive environmental aesthetics claims that appreciation of a human or natural environment requires knowledge of what it is, what it is like, and why it is as it is. Therefore to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a natural environment, one must have an understanding of topics such as geology, and botany as well as other related fields. In a human environment, one would need to acquire information about history, function, and role of the particular environment to apprehend the aesthetic quality of the setting.

Elements of Scientific Cognitive Environmental Aesthetics Approach

Allen Carlson represents the best of the adherents to the cognitive approach.[1] Carlson emphasizes that, “appreciation of any object, from the noblest to the most mundane, requires information about it and, by the same token, that the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature requires knowledge of the natural world.”[2] Therefore, for the cognitive approach, “information about the object’s nature, about its genesis, type, and properties, is necessary for appropriate aesthetic consideration.”[3]

Carlson employs the word “appreciation” to illustrate the importance of cognitive information to apprehension of beauty because it avoids the “difficult, technical, and theoretically-encrusted notion of the aesthetic.”[4]  He suggests that appreciation focuses “on a concept that is much more naturally and vitally connected with one’s everyday experiences of art and nature.”[5] Using appreciation, Carlson can make his case for a cognitive approach to beauty. For him, several benefits arise from employing appreciation. First, appreciation has a cognitive component illustrated by the fact that academic courses are taught specifically on how to appreciate categories such as art and music. Second, the term “appreciate” allows for instruction on how to respond to an object. Here Carlson points out that the “point of a course in music appreciation…is not simply to provide such information as is necessary to cognitively ‘size up’ [make category judgments] the music, but also to prepare the appreciator to appropriately respond to the music.”[6] Knowledge stemming from scientific knowledge and common sense yields boundaries of appreciation, a particular perspective of aesthetic significance, and a relevant view acts from viewing the objects.[7]

Scientific knowledge is not derived just from the natural sciences. The scientific knowledge can be ideas or images originating from culture or histories of the environments. These cultural landscapes are assessed for their aesthetic value in the same way human made or natural landscapes are assessed. However the scientific data for these cultural landscapes will be extracted from form, common knowledge, history, or contemporary use.[8] All of these constitute scientific data in that they supply information about the environment in an objective manner. For example, to assess a shopping center’s aesthetic beauty, one would necessarily need to know a history of the local culture and the nature of shopping itself.[9] Similarly to assess aesthetics in an Australian Aboriginal culture, one would need to understand the role of dreams and their role in understanding landscape in that culture.[10]

In appreciating human built environments, the cognitive approach utilized concepts developed in the discipline of landscape architecture. Landscape architects suggest that for something to qualify as a landscape of man, it must be deliberately shaped and maintain a global view on the designed landscape.[11] These concepts align what Carlson calls “the designer landscape approach,” with the aesthetics of art.[12] He explains that, “since human environments are conceived of and deliberately designed, they are seen as importantly akin to works of art, and all the theories, concepts, and assumptions of aesthetics of art are brought into question of how to aesthetically appreciate such environments.”[13] The works of artists such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Frederick Law Olmsted are usually considered in discussions of the landscape approach. However the comparison of traditional art aesthetics to landscape aesthetics limits the scope of what and how objects in the latter can be considered.[14]

Nassauer’s Landscape ecology provides a functional companion to the concepts lacking in a strict landscape architecture to formal art analogy. Nassauer suggests that, “From its beginnings in Europe, landscape ecology was conceived as an approach to understanding landscapes that drew upon both cultural and ecological knowledge.”[15]  Landscape ecology draws upon both culture and ecology to appreciate human environments. However, the obstacle remains that “while nature has an inherent necessity revealed by natural sciences, and especially by ecology, culture seemingly has no cultural necessity.”[16] Nassauer suggests that, the answer is in attaching “ecological health to these lawlike aesthetic conventions” while recognizing that human existence and perceptions “will ultimately affect how every landscape is used or protected” which provides possibilities “to find ways to use the ready-made cultural necessities.”[17]

Successful appreciation and preservation of human environment will involve what Nassauer calls “intelligent” and “vivid care.”[18] Intelligent care requires one to recognize what is ecologically healthy and display environmental humility in one’s limited knowledge and what a person can know when she changes the environment.[19] The use of intelligent care will provide for careful thought about the priority of the environment and cautious investigation of how proposed changes will effect the environment as a whole. Vivid care attends to the “human presence in healthy landscapes in order to sustain ecological health over time.”[20] Vivid care suggests that the more closely humans are involved in ecological care of a particular landscape, the “stronger the social claim to its ecological quality.”[21] Intelligent and vivid care provides a cultural sustainability that provides ecologically sound landscapes and evokes enjoyment and approval that humans will enjoy and sustain over time.[22] Carlson notes the significance of this concept as he suggests, “If we are to appropriately aesthetically appreciate human environments, we cannot only look to culture, as the designer landscape and traditional aesthetics of architecture have done.”[23] The significance of this approach is that it would “stress ecological factors as a basis for appreciating human environments not as analogous works of art, but as integral human ecosystems comparable to the ecosystems that make up natural environments.”[24]

Conceptually landscape ecology uses the idea of “functional fit” which results in prospects “looking as they should.” Carlson explains that, “the concept of functional fit is meant to roughly capture the way in which natural environments are composed of many-layered, interlocking ecosystems.”[25] This suggests that each ecosystem has an important role in its own survival and in the survival of the environment as a whole. This idea is helpful in two ways and refutes the claims of object art and landscape art aesthetics. First it reminds the observer that objects cannot be fully appreciated in isolation; they must be considered in light of their proximity to other objects.[26] Second, the environment cannot be appreciated as a series of static scenes or landscape views.[27] In regard to functional fit, Carlson concludes that, “When so perceived, human environments can display the kind of organic unity[28] that we aesthetically appreciate in both nature and art.”[29]

The concept of “functional fit” facilitates the idea of things “looking as they should.” Carlson proposes that, “This notion is the means by which the ecological approach together with the idea of the functional fit help to give a kind of parallel necessity to culture and nature: the necessity we find in things looking as they should look.”[30] In typical works of art, objects are experienced through the designer’s intentions and are products of deliberate design; the viewer’s expectations about how something should look are marginalized. However when experiencing environments that are not a product of deliberate design, anticipations of how things should look focus on an aesthetic perspective for every day life. Carlson summarizes that, “this opens the door for looking at human environments and indeed the whole of everyday life in terms of functional fit, which brings to the fore and reinforces certain of our normal expectations and thereby facilitates things looking as they should.”[31]

Carlson, in considering agricultural landscapes, offered an illustration of his theory.[32] He suggests that when one views the modern changing agricultural landscape they have a choice to mourn the disappearing rural farms and towns that supported them, or appreciate the new landscape constructed by the larger, more technically advanced farms. If one takes the time to appreciate aesthetically the new farms, they will need to understand several changes through the culture history of the new farms. First, the new farm building architecture that mirrors Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie farm” style houses in place of the traditional two-story farmhouse. Second, the farm implements reflect more of an artistic flavor with their contours than the previous farm implements that were about function only. Third, many of the towns that functioned as support for the farming communities have become weekend travel locations for antiques of the previous era, which helps hold the current landscape in relief to the previous one. These three concepts illustrate that one must understand the function of houses, implements, and town in the new agricultural landscape to appreciate their form.

A summary of the scientific cognitive environmental aesthetics approach might be helpful here. The cognitive environmental aesthetics relies solely on cognitive information based on natural science or cultural traditions to make aesthetic judgments about environments. Art based aesthetics models are insufficient to address the complexities of environmental aesthetics because of the ever-changing life of the environment, which results in the absence of a designer or artist. Therefore judgments are informed by an ecological assumption as well as a conceptual order assumption. The ecological assumption that informs the aesthetic valuation should be driven by vivid and intelligent care. This care takes place through assessing scientific knowledge about the environment, which develops appreciation and positive aesthetic valuation. Judgments are also made on conceptual order comprised functional fit and things looking as they should. Recognizing the organic nature of environments, each object has a role in the aesthetic quality and the environment. The absence of a designer in the interconnected and evolving landscape provides the view and opportunity to assess the aesthetic of the environment to value things that look as they should.

The scientific cognitive environmental aesthetic approach should be commended for several reasons. First, it can accommodate both the landscape model as well as the positive aesthetics model, but in particular the positive landscape model as it provides theoretical sustenance for positive aesthetics.[33] Second, appealing to natural sciences can avoid the criticism found in most other approaches to being anthropocentric. Third, rejecting artistic and other related models, and relying on common sense scientific knowledge, provides a blueprint for aesthetic appreciation in general. Fourth, by initiating a more universal and object oriented environmental aesthetics, the natural environmental model aids in alignment of aesthetics with other areas of philosophy, such as ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind.[34]

Critique of the Cognitive Approach

As one might expect, each of the competing approaches in the non-cognitive models insist that Carlson’s scientific cognitive approach fails to accommodate their particular perspective.[35] However, Budd focuses on two macro issues with Carlson’s proposal. He suggests that, “Although focused on the appreciation of the natural environment, it [the cognitive approach] appears to be offered as the correct model, not just for the appreciation of the natural environment, but for aesthetic appreciation of nature tout court.”[36] The over-emphasis on the scientific information about the environment results in an inability for the cognitive to account for the fact that environments are always in motion with animals changing migration patterns and plants growing where they are not indigenous. The second objection against the cognitive approach is the scope of knowledge necessary to be successful. If common-sense/natural-scientific knowledge of nature is essential, Budd inquires, “How much knowledge about a natural item is relevant? If not all, what makes a piece of knowledge relevant or de rigueur for the item’s aesthetic appreciation?”[37] The cognitive approach provides no criteria for determining which information is pertinent for making environment aesthetic valuations. In the next installment we will attempt to apply this strategy to the sacred worship space in our church.

[1] Sheila Lintott proposes a model similar to Carlson’s model. However, while Carlson’s motivation to employ science as a paradigm to reveal truth for the purposes of aesthetic appreciation of the environment, Lintott sees science as a useful tool in forging an eco-friendly aesthetic for the purpose of environmental preservation. For Lintott’s view, see: Sheila Lintott, “Toward Eco-Friendly Aesthetics,” Environmental Ethics 28, no. 1 (2006).

[2] Allen Carlson, “Nature, Aesthetic Appreciation, and Knowledge,” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 53, no. 4 (1995): 393.

[3] Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art, and Architecture (London; New York: Routledge, 2000), xix.

[4] Carlson, “Nature, Aesthetic Appreciation, and Knowledge,” 396.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Carlson, “Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment,” 127.

[8] Allen Carlson, “Nature Appreciation and the Question of Aesthetic Relevance,” in Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics, ed. Arnold Berleant(Aldershot, Hants; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub., 2002), 62.

[9] Mikita Brottman, “The Last Stpo of Desire: The Aesthetics of the Shopping Center,” in The Aesthetics of Human Environments, ed. Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson(Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2007).

[10] Tuan, Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture, 125-127.

[11] Geoffrey Jellicoe and Susan Jellicoe, The Landscape of Man (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 8.

[12] Carlson utilizes Kendall Walton’s model of appropriate art appreciation to illustrate appropriate nature illustration, see,  Kendall L. Walton, “Categories of Art,” The Philosophical Review 79, no. 3 (1970). Walton offers four conditions decide which category an art work is a member. First the work has a number of standard features and reletively few contra-standard features. Second, the work comes off at its aesthetic best under said category. Third, the work’s artist intended the work to be percieved under that category. Fourth, the work fits into an established category of art. The last tow categories are not directly applicable to nature. Carlson argues that there are correct categories of nature which are supplied by the natural sciences. Science offers guidance that artists and the art world offers in the artistic context. For Carlson’s view, see: Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art, and Architecture, 54-71.

[13] Allen Carlson, “On Aesthetically Appreciating Human Environments,” Philosophy & Geography 4, no. 1 (2001): 10.

[14] Carlson points out the difficulties in placing human environments with the art arena. The discipline of architecture and its role in the arts has been long debated because of the difficulty identifying types of architecture and contrast to traditional art. Second, architecture fulfills a functional relationship with people, therefore these interrelationships complicate the assignment of a work to traditional art, “concepts analogous to the favored concept of a work of art, that of a unique, functionless, and typically portable object of aesthetic appreciation” (Allen, “On Aesthetically Appreciating Human Environments,” 11).

[15] Joan Iverson Nassauer, “Introduction: Culture and Landscape Ecology: Insights for Action,” in Placing Nature: Culture and Landscape Ecology, ed. Joan Iverson Nassauer(Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997), 4.

[16] Carlson, “On Aesthetically Appreciating Human Environments,” 12.

[17] Nassauer, “Cultural Sustainability: Aligning Aesthetics and Ecology,” 68.

[18] Ibid.,  76-77.

[19] Ibid.,  76.

[20] Ibid.,  77.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.,  69.

[23] Carlson, “On Aesthetically Appreciating Human Environments,” 12.

[24] Allen Carlson, Nature and Landscape: An Introduction to Environmental Aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 57.

[25] Carlson, “On Aesthetically Appreciating Human Environments,” 13.

[26] This is proposed in object centered art appreciation.

[27] This is proposed in the picturesque view of art appreciation.

[28] Here Carlson is employing the term “organic unity” as a fundamental concept in the aesthetic appreciation of art. For an aesthetic connection to the notion of environment, see: John Hospers, Understanding the Arts (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1982), 104.

[29] Carlson, “Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment,” 60.

[30] Carlson, “On Aesthetically Appreciating Human Environments,” 15.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Allen Carlson, “On Appreciating Argricultural Landscapes,” in Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art, and Architecture, ed. Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant(London; New York: Routledge, 2000).

[33] Positive Aesthetics asserts that beauty resides only in an human untouched natural environment.

[34] Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art, and Architecture, 11-13. Carlson might find an ally in Plato’s Meno. Socrates argues that a property of knowledge is being tied down to truth whereas opinion is more likely to run away (like statues of Daedalus).  Plato and Walter R. M. Lamb, Plato 2. Laches, Protagoras, Meno, Euthydemus (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press [u.a.], 2006), 360-361. See also Roslyn Weiss, Virtue in the Cave: Moral Inquiry in Plato’s Meno (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 152-160.

[35] Ronald Moore, “Appreciating Natural Beauty as Natural,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 33, no. 3 (1999): 149. Moore summarizes the critiques of the cognitive approach well as he concludes, “Many people, even those that admire the contributions Carlson has made to environmental aesthetics, believe the cognitive model is over-intellectualized. Noel Carroll, for example, objects that Carlson fails to give an adequate role to emotion; Stan Godlovitch objects that Carlson fails to given an adequate role to mystery. Arnold Berleant is concerned that Carlson’s view does not sufficiently provide for what he calls engagement. Cheryl Foster believes that the cognitive model leaves out the meditative response that is important in our experiences of nature.”

[36] Malcolm Budd, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature: Essays on the Aesthetics of Nature (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 2002), 135.

[37] Ibid.,  136.


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