Friday, February 14, 2014

The Synthesis/Cycle View of The Aesthetics of Nature

Working from my last two blogs on John Muir, I want to now argue for what I will call a synthesis/cycle view of the aesthetics of nature.  Muir's manner of appreciation of nature is taken as the ideal in this project.  Muir, as we have seen, manages to synthesize four modes of aesthetic appreciation of nature:  the religious/transcendentalist, the somaesthetic, the cognitive scientific, and the arts-based.  He cycles through all of these, enhancing each mode by way of the others.  An important element in all of this is the imaginative, which is not a separate mode as such but rather a possible (and highly important) dimension of every mode.  The synthesis/cycle model of appreciation is to be distinguished both from relativism and from pluralism.  Relativism (or at least radical relativism) would say that every mode and every theory is equally good.  This leads to obvious contradictions.  Pluralism is superior to relativism, eliminating contradiction by paring off the elements of each theory that would contradict the others (for example, that this theory is exclusively true and useful) while at the same time allowing for the same openness that is the main virtue for relativism.  But pluralism simply allows for a variety of different perspectives, some perhaps ranked higher than others, and all made consistent by leaving out contradicting elements.  The synthesis/cycle theory is an advancement over mere pluralism in that it allows for several perspectives, each one of which is useful and valuable, but also posits an ideal in which all of the perspectives are cycled through in a manner that allows for synthesis.  Muir has achieved, or comes close to achieving, this ideal.  Most aestheticians of nature unfortunately ignore or suppress the arts-based, somaesthetic, transcendentalist and imaginative elements of Muir's manner of appreciating nature.  They simply construct or (mis)understand him as an early example of a scientific cognitivist (sans imaginative element).  Previously I had favored an arts-based view within a larger context of advocating pluralism.  My view was essentially libertarian/pragmatist.  But reading Muir teaches me that an ideal is still needed.  So in the current view  pluralism is only as a step towards the synthesis/cycle view.   The synthesis/cycle view also owes something to the idea of "toggling" between interested and disinterested perception which has been advocated in art contexts by Peggy Brand and Ted Gracyk.  I discuss the value of toggling in my book and will also develop that idea in a future paper on the philosophy of Arnold Berleant.  Toggling still plays a role within the current view, although now it is part of a larger process that also involves cycling through modes of appreciation, and the mutual enrichment of these modes that can be achieved in synthesis.   

Much to my surprise I have discovered that there is one other reader of Muir who takes a very similar approach to his aesthetics of nature.  This is Jeffrey Wattles, "John Muir as a Guide to Education in Environmental Aesthetics."  Journal of Aesthetic Education  47:3 (2013) 56-71.   Wattles even notices the somaesthetic dimension in Muir.  He writes:  "In Muir, perceptual, somaesthetic, scientifc, empathetic, imaginative, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual modes of awareness fused in his  realization of beauty in nature."  Wattles, unlike any of the other commentators on Muir's aesthetics recognizes the value of the religious dimension of his aesthetic experience.  He also allows for the possibility of a secular rereading of this, writing that "[t]hose who reject the concept of God may redescribe his experience." He ends his article with a quote (as an example that the secular reader can accept as a re-description) from Muir on the way that the rays of mountain beauty glow with joy.  I am very sympathetic with that.  The subsections of Wattles' article also remarkably parallel the position that I have been putting forth:  "Wholehearted Engagement of the United Powers of Mind, Soul and Body,"  "Keen Perception," "Scientific Understanding," "Artistically Cultivated Imagination," "A Sense of the Expressiveness of Nature," and "Intellectual Discovery of Harmony," "Philosophical Aesthetic Reflection," and "A Sense of Beauty as Divine."  I will not go further into his article here, but commend it to anyone who wishes to take Muir's contribution to the aesthetics of nature seriously (and not just as a rather confused forerunner to a scientific cognitivist view.) 

So what then is my argument for the synthesis/cycle view?  It is simply that (1) it has none of the failings of any of the other prevailing views, (2) it has all of the virtues of all of the other prevailing views (since it is deliberately designed to incorporate those virtues), and (3) it is manifested wonderfully in the writings of John Muir, a true genius of aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment.  I also think that it is manifested to perhaps a lesser extent in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and even Aldo Leopold.  My next post will be on Leopold. 

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