The Beauty of Nature II

Offering an example of standing near a waterfall, Noel Carroll argues the experience “does not require any special scientific knowledge,” that it may only require our sense of how small we are. He also says we are “able to intuit the immense force,” (172) and goes on to conclude that “the cognitive component of our emotional response does the job of fixing the aspects of nature that are relevant to appreciation… Carlson sometimes describes his preferred source of knowledge as issuing from common sense/science. So perhaps… the operative cognitions are rooted in commonsense knowledge of nature.” (175)

In other words, we may simply look at our common sense to know how to appreciate nature.

I’m reading a pair of essays from Arguing About Art, which discuss the problem of appreciating nature aesthetically. In the second essay, Carroll explains that Carlson’s environmental model (discussed in my previous post) is in line with cultural theories, which makes aesthetic judgments based on cultural practices and forms, such as artistic genres, styles and movements. When we create the work we determine what the terms are. With nature, however, there is no intent to be beautiful, so any aesthetic judgment can be neither true nor false.

If we discover categories in nature using natural history and science, as opposed to subjectively determining what they are, we can solve this problem and be objective about aesthetic judgments of nature as well.

II objectivist epistemology

Carlson’s environmental model sets a standard for other models of aesthetic appreciation to be objective.

Carroll argues that an emotional response can be objective, because we can assess whether or not it is appropriate and therefore open for judgment. He uses the example of a person being afraid of a tank because it is dangerous. If the person does not believe tanks are dangerous, then fear is not an appropriate response. If the person does believe tanks are dangerous, then it is. Going back to the waterfall, he argues “… being excited by the grandeur of something that one believes to be of a large scale is an appropriate emotional response.” If the belief in the large scale of the waterfall is true for others as well, then the emotional response of being excited by the grandeur of the waterfall is an objective one. (178)

In other words, if when using one’s eyes, you call it grand and others also call it grand, then it is objectively grand.

I think, by defining what moves us, given a specific context of time and place in nature, we can determine what is reasonable but not what is objective.

The most I can offer is my own testimony. I can say I see beauty in the sheer scale of a waterfall, of a sequoia, of the side of a mountain spanning the viewable horizon. There is beauty in the strength of its durability.

I cannot explain why this is beautiful. I cannot say whether my feelings for nature are a result of previous responses to experiences that took place before I responded to the natural environment or if my natural surroundings have intrinsic beauty.

What if a person does not see a tank as dangerous? Would one’s lack of fear be an appropriate response to standing in front of a tank? What if somebody is not moved by the comparison of a waterfall to oneself? In both cases, I would say he or she is being unreasonable vis-a-vis what is a normal response given a specific subject to respond to.  

III art as experience

Carroll helps us focus on what makes the waterfall an aesthetic experience. If somebody argues that it is not, because the galaxy by comparison is much larger, we could argue that comparison would not be appropriate. Instead, we should compare it to human scale, because that is where the aesthetic lies: we are moved by comparing one’s own size to that of the waterfall.

Carroll also offers the example of how children may be “amused by capers of Commedia dell’arte but who know nothing of its tradition or its place among other artistic genres, styles and categories.” (174) He anticipates that Carlson would argue that these children are not appreciating the capers on a deep level and offers a rebuttal: “… what makes an appreciative response to nature shallow or deep is obscure. … But if the depth of a response is figured in terms of our intensity of involvement and its ‘thorough-goingness,’ then there is no reason to suppose that being moved by nature constitutes a shallower form of appreciation than does appreciating nature scientifically. The Kantian apprehension of sublimity — and its corresponding aesthetic judgment — though it may last for a delimited duration, need not be any less deep than a protracted teleological judgment.” (180)

Yes, an emotional response can be deep and profound, but I find myself going down a line of thought I cannot resolve and which Carroll stops short of.

I think it is important for a discussion about aesthetic appreciation of nature that we be able to explain why something is beautiful.

But how do we do this without reducing it to one’s psychology. To explain this cognitively seems to miss the point of having a discussion about aesthetic appreciation. You would be looking at it not as something that is beautiful but as something that is psychological. Looking at it scientifically, you would no longer be seeing the beauty the appreciator is seeing.

If you don’t see what is beautiful, how do you judge that it is beautiful? We could be calling something beautiful when it is not.

IV

The debate over whether or not beauty is intrinsic to what is beautiful is an old one, but it’s at the base of this dialogue. By putting art into categories, we put the judgment of beauty in our own terms. If there are no terms, we are again left with the subject being judged vis-a-vis one’s response and this is subjective. One’s natural surroundings may or may not have intrinsic beauty. It may be reasonable to say that it does, but it’s up to the individual to see that beauty.

This is a problem for the field of aesthetics if we are to maintain that the judgment of what is beautiful must be objective.

I would like to say the viability of the art world relies on consensus, much like how the bell curve is based on what is statistically acknowledged, that the consensus is based on what is reasonable. But of course, this is art. There are niche categories. There is also the driving force of art as currency, either cultural or monetary. It’s driven by psychology as much as history or provenance.1 Overall, I cannot say much, but I can say we engage more honestly without prescribed notions of what is beautiful.

When we find ourselves in natural surroundings, we can enjoy what we enjoy.

I agree with Carlson, that we may be missing so much of what there is to appreciate, aesthetically, if only we were aware of all there is, and we must be objective to have some basis for holding a dialogue about what we see. But I also agree with Carroll, that it is not necessary to be aware of all there is to appreciate and be profoundly affected by one’s natural surroundings.

Why somebody finds something beautiful is elusive, but based on my personal response to my natural surroundings, I can honestly say I have seen beauty.


Carroll, Noel. “On Being Moved By Nature: Between Religion and Natural History.” Neill, Alex, and Ridley, Aaron, editors. Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2002, pp 167 -184.

1 I’m talking about the viability of the art world and not the viability of art or whether or not there is beauty to see.

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