Friday, October 11, 2013

Nature Aesthetics and the Feeling of Happiness

As I walk on a path beside the Stanislaus River, passing by patches of bear clover, areas strewn with pine cones, earth of different colors, and arrangements of interestingly shaped granite rocks, a feeling of happiness rises up.  My friends and I find another path down to the river, leading to a spot that we hadn’t ever visited before.  Although the river itself has dangerous currents, this area has shallows in which one can wade.  My happiness increases as I take off my hiking boots, roll up my pants and slowly work my way through the water across stones and past miniature falls, facing the rushing river on the other side and the dramatic cliff that forms the far bank.  The happiness I describe is a response to the situation in hand, particularly the aesthetic features of the surrounding environment, but also to other aspects of the situation.  I am there with my wife and friends in harmonious friendship.  We are together and responding to nature, this specific nature, i.e. this place by a river that has rich personal meaning going back, in my case, more than fifty years.  For me, at least, any adequate theory of the aesthetics of the natural environment must be measured against this experience.  To be sure, there are many other ways that things can be experienced in nature as beautiful, or as having some other aesthetic quality (for example, grace, elegance, or magnificence), and many other kinds of things that can be experienced aesthetically, but if a theory cannot handle this experience or this type of experience then, in my view, it is a non-starter.  This is to me not only a high point in the aesthetic experience of nature but also a high point in life.  I write this essay in the hope (and expectation) that you will have a similar experience to which you can refer as you read it. 

Two leading theories of the natural environment are the engagement theory of Arnold Berleant and the scientific cognitivist theory first promoted by Allen Carlson and defended more recently by Glenn Parsons.  I will make some brief comments about both in what follows.  Begin with scientific cognitivism as presented by Parsons.  This view, which is intended to provide a basis for objectivity in aesthetic judgments of the natural environment, holds that knowledge of the natural sciences is necessary to ground appropriate appreciation.  Geology, biology and natural history can, on this view, correctly describe a natural object and show how aesthetic views inconsistent with science (for example Medieval religious views) are false.[1]  Yet scientific knowledge, although it can contribute to aesthetically positive experience, is neither necessary nor sufficient to have the appreciation of the natural environment I have experienced on the Stanislaus.  I myself have very little scientific knowledge of the river and cannot detect its presence in my appreciative experience.  (That I can name a couple plants and rocks as I did above hardly counts as scientific knowledge.)  Moreover, although my experience will of course be influenced (perhaps unconsciously) by whatever knowledge I have, this has little bearing on its value.  Also, scientific knowledge is not sufficient for aesthetic experience of nature:  one could imagine someone with a great deal of such knowledge having an experience of the river with no aesthetic component at all.

I am more sympathetic to Berleant’s view.  Berleant and I both begin with analysis of experience, i.e. with phenomenology, we both emphasize sensuous experience more than the scientific cognitivist, and we agree on the centrality of engagement (i.e. sensory immersion and “living in” as participants rather than mere observers).   The rest of this article will be devoted to noting differences between our positions.  To provide a context for my discussion I turn to a recent debate between Carlson and Berleant.  In a review of one of Berleant’s books Carlson argues that he fails to define aesthetic experience, that his theory is too subjective in that if fails to provide a basis for objective evaluation, and that it does not account for the distinction between difficult/serious and easy/superficial beauty.[2]  In a follow-up article, Berleant cogently replies that he does not accept the model of philosophy in which the goal is to provide a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (an essentialism he associates with Aristotle), that he does not accept the notion of a deep objective/subjective split (is objectivity really independent of subjectivity? …at the very least, they form a continuum), and that although scientific cognition of the natural environment can add to our appreciation, it is not necessary. [3]  Also, whereas Carlson distinguishes serious from superficial beauty on the basis of scientific knowledge, Berleant characterizes it as involving a “high degree of intensity, complexity, and perceptual engagement.”  He thinks the best we can have in terms of objectivity is a Humean good judge which renders not a universal or absolute judgment but one that is good enough.  Berleant’s reply to Carlson fits my own experience of the Stanislaus River.   So where do we differ? 

One point of disagreement is on disinterestedness.  Berleant first proposed the idea of engagement in opposition to the Kantian idea that aesthetics is characterized by disinterestedness.  Yet I cannot really tell, when looking into my river experience, whether it is a matter of engagement or a matter of disinterestedness.  Am I engaged?  I certainly am focused on the world around me.  I look at the river, I smell the forest air, I feel the cool of the water, and so forth.  Am I disinterested?  Traditionally, to be disinterested, one needs only be disconnected from practical matters.  Perhaps one component of my intense happiness is that I am “on vacation” in every sense of the word:  I am not worrying about work or (for the moment at least) about my relations with other people.  I do not intend to use this river for any other purpose than pleasure.  So it seems that I am engaged and disinterested, and even engaged because I am disinterested.

Also unlike Berleant, I do not see much room for Hume’s idea of connoisseurship here.  Hume believed that objectivity in taste could be tied to the determinations of a good judge:  the good judge is distinguished by having “delicacy of sentiment” which is the capacity to analyze the work into discrete elements and evaluate it by way of evaluating those elements.  To have delicacy of sentiment the good judge must have had practice in observing objects in the category under consideration (for example, landscape paintings) and in comparing these.  He or she must also have good sense and lack prejudice.  Hume’s idea of the good judge is an admirable, though much-debated, solution to the problem of taste in art.  Does it work as well in the appreciation of nature?  I am not so sure.  I cannot imagine my acceding to someone who came along, for example, and said that my experience on the Stanislaus was incorrect or of low value in comparison with another, even if that person has had a lot of practice in appreciating nature, and had the other virtues of a Humean good judge (although whether delicacy of sentiment is possible here is open to question when there is no traditional set of evaluative criteria).  This doesn’t mean that comparative judgments can never be made:  I might say that this spot on the river is more beautiful than another.  However, that judgment does not play a significant role in my experience.  Nor is it clear how practice and comparison or even delicacy of sentiment would improve my experience.  I am not here noticing fine distinctions in the way I would when appreciating the subtle taste of fine wine. 

It could be argued, however, that I do focus on particular aspects of the surrounding environment.  Perhaps this is a matter of discrimination.  I have a camera with me and I take pictures of features that particularly move me (they illustrate this essay).  Taking pictures is part of the experience:  a way of noticing.  Are my choices (where to point the camera) the result of practice and comparison or some fine discrimination that comes from that?  It’s hard to say.  Even if I did have increased discriminative capacity based on a long experience of aesthetically appreciating this river, the point of my experience is not in the judging or in the capacity to condemn the judgments of others.  So, it is not even clear that the idea of “objectively correct judgment” is important in this case, and I wonder how important it is to the aesthetics of nature in general.   

Also, whereas Berleant rejects the view that there is a “single, unique feature” to the aesthetic, I believe that there is such a feature, and this is a quality which I have elsewhere called “aura.” [4]  The Stanislaus River in this spot at this time (and for me) has the quality of aura, as do many of the components of that environment on which I am focused.  I have described this quality as one in which the object, event or environment under consideration has heightened significance.  It is experienced as more valuable by way of, and through, its sensuous nature.  It seems more than itself, more real, more alive.  During my experience on that day at the Stanislaus everything around me, the rocks, the river, the sky seemed more intense, the perceptual features more meaningful, and even though I am an atheist, it is an experience of the world as if it pervaded by something divine or numinous.  A note about this: like other atheists I accept science as providing the best explanation we have for natural phenomena.  However I do not think science can tell us much about values or about the nature of experience.  Religious experience should be taken seriously even by atheists.  Only religion (not science, philosophy, or even art) portrays the world as full of meaning.  For atheists like myself, aesthetic experiences of the sort I have described are somewhat like religion but without dogma, or even belief.   

A unique feature of my discussion is the presence of the concept of happiness.  When I am talking about happiness here I am not speaking of a state of general satisfaction or overall success in life, but rather the feeling of happiness.  Philosophers, for example Aristotle, have often argued that happiness is the goal of life.  How happiness is to be defined is not my concern here, but rather the connection between the happiness and aesthetic experience.   More specifically, I am interested in the connection between aesthetics and the feeling of happiness when that feeling comes specifically out of sensuous experience in, and related to, a place and time.

Happiness is not much discussed in aesthetics.  The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics does not have an entry for happiness, nor does it appear in the index.  Yet surely one of the reasons we pursue the arts and one of the main reasons we contemplate nature is that doing so makes us happy.  Aesthetic pleasure is discussed in the literature, and at great length, but although the feeling of happiness is pleasurable, there are many other sorts of pleasure.  Perhaps the close relationship between natural beauty and the feeling of happiness is not discussed because it is considered too obvious, or perhaps it seems too personal to deserve presence in the world of theory.  I do not know. 

Haig Khatchadourian is one of the very few philosophers to have discussed aesthetics, and specifically the aesthetics of nature, in terms of happiness: for him the aesthetic life is one of ways to achieve happiness.[5]  He speaks the aesthetic life as a full savoring of a variety of natural beauties.  He further observes that life in isolation from nature’s charms cannot be aesthetically complete.  Khatchadourian seems to agree with Berleant when he says that the aesthetic life requires involvement and should not be purely spectatorial.  At the same time, like me, he believes that this can be consistent with a positive view of the idea of disinterestedness as represented in his case by Edward Bullough’s metaphor of distancing.  

Another recent figure who has recognized the importance of happiness in relation to aesthetic  experience is Alexander Nehamas, although, unlike Khatchadourian, he does not connect it with the experience of nature.[6]  Yet Nehamas believes that beauty issues the promise of happiness whereas I would say, especially in the case of appreciation of natural beauty, it is the objective side of the experience of which the subjective side is the feeling of happiness.  So in a sense, rather than happiness delayed, beauty and happiness are one.  Nehamas may be right about those sorts of beauty associated with desire:  but sometimes beauty and happiness are just there together. 

I want to end with a brief discussion of the scene itself, illustrated in these photographs.  It might be thought that the images picked out show a strong interest in formalism, influenced in part by modern art’s fascination with relations of forms and colors and by postmodernism’s interest in process and change (as found for example in video art).  This is to some extent true, however there is something probably more primordial to my strongly emotional response to the sparkling flow of water over rocks, the contrast of the strength of the river’s current against the calm of the shallows, the dramatic placement of trees on the face of the cliff, the languid positioning of my friend on a rock.  Clive Bell, the classic formalist, saw formal relations in terms of a special aesthetic emotion to which they give rise, that emotion quite distinct from the emotions of everyday life.  Yet, happiness is an emotion of everyday life, the one we most seek and cherish.  Photographs that feature formal relations and textural qualities have their own value but as a record of an aesthetic experience of nature (and nature as experienced with friend) they are poor:  they capture only a memory of something infused with meaning, of a whole environment unbounded by rectangular frames and limitation to one sense, of the dynamic of the live creature interacting in a fulfilling way with its environment (as John Dewey would put it), all giving rise to a feeling of happiness that cannot ultimately be separated.  As Berleant would put it, the subjective and the objective are fused in aesthetic experience.[7]

Thomas Leddy, Department of Philosophy, San Jose State University

[1] Glenn Parsons, “Freedom and Objectivity in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics 46:1 (2006): 17-37.
[2] Allen Carlson, “Critical Notice:  Aesthetics and Environment,” British Journal of Aesthetics 46:4 (2006): 416-427.  Berleant’s book was The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadelphia:  Temple U.P., 1992).
[3] Arnold Berleant, “Aesthetics and Environment Reconsidered:  Reply to Carlson,” British Journal of Aesthetics 47:3 (2007): 315-318.  
[4] Thomas Leddy.  The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Broadview Press, 2012).
[5] Haig Katchadourian, “Natural Beauty and the Art of Living,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 16:1 (1982): 95-98. 
[6] Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness:  The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton University Press, 2007).
[7]   John Dewey. Art as Experience (New York:  Minton, Balch & Company, 1934) I took a somewhat different approach to these issues in “A Defense of Arts-Based Appreciation of Nature,” Environmental Ethics 27 (2005): 299-315. 

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