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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

02/02/22 - Environmental Aesthetics




Human driven or non-human driven, surely human driven right? Environmental aesthetics is a form of philosophy that has emerged in the latter stages of the 20th century, but as a theoretical form of study one would confirm it is man-made, but would it be ok to state that environmental aesthetics is non-human? We as a human race accept and examine within this theory the appreciation of the natural environment, it is a natural occurrence that nature is what it is, and we have the privilege to be apart and co-inside with it... unfortunately we like to think that we are the dominant specie, and we can take such a privilege and manipulate and destroy it as we please. It is what it is, but we are waking up to the damage we are causing to our planet. What we are reducing we are trying to replace (or we like to think so), and if that fails or as we have done within many a country, the places of beauty we have worked around/took apart/destroyed we have erected mass walls and fences etc and made these places of natural beauty a national park for humans to admire. Quite depressing when you think that we have this world with my forms and types of natural beauty and we come along, wreck half of it but decide to keep a small part and charge people to experience and admire it. These "new" beauty spots become our cathedrals of nature, our closest point to be present with what God created (because God did not create man-made products). The aesthetics of the nature we ‘frame’ is up for debate and that is because we cannot simply state where environmental aesthetics lie within, is it appreciation, judgement, knowledge, experience, perception? How does one confirm a clear view on what environmental aesthetics is exactly? Many theorists have dealt with this dilemma through philosophical approaches, and one only needs to read Kant, Burke, and Schopenhauer to get a sense of where aesthetics in nature began and how it has evolved towards the likes of Carlson and Hepburn. For this text I want to stay within the contemporary and examine Sandra Shapshay’s 2013 British Journal of Aesthetics entry, ‘Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Neglect of the Sublime’.


I was recommended Shapshay’s journal entry from one of my supervisors. I am currently in the process of trying to figure out whether my work exists within the sublime realm. A rather scary and somewhat unexpected suggestion presented to me, but with such a heavy form of research, always expect the unexpected, even when that ‘unexpected’, questions all you have been reading for the past seven years. The starting point for my investigation as to where my work sits within grandiose artistic philosophical framework begins with understanding of ‘Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Neglect of the Sublime’.


What is a great start to the environment journal is Shapshay’s honest and direct approach stating that in the paper she seeks ‘to rehabilitate a conception of sublime response that is secular, metaphysically modest and compatible… due to the fact that the sublime seems inextricably linked to extravagant metaphysical ideas’ (P.181). From this offset Shapshay is wanting to strip back our historical ideas on the grand and terrifying sublime and acknowledge that these elements can be recalibrated into a form that is not so over endorsed. I think that is important to establish, especially from a subjective point of view, because after all, the sublime is subjective. It could almost be that step back moment, the one where you are in a discussion with friends or colleagues and someone gets a little carried away and you take that initiative to say ‘woah, come of folks, let’s just not go overboard here’. This is formulated into two categories, ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ sublime, which I will discuss later but it is prevalent to understand how Shapshay will manage the sublime as it is dissected into the field of environmental aesthetics. For myself, I will move through this journal, and I will highlight and take a part key sections I have found interesting and form my own thoughts around what Shapshay is suggesting helping aid my own knowledge on whether I am working inside or outside the environmental sublime.


‘… landscape model and the object model. The landscape model treats natural environments as scenery, along the lines of the picturesque, with an eye to whether the natural scenes are fitted to be landscape paintings. In contrast, the object model recommends that nature be appreciated along the lines of non-representational art objects, to be plucked from their environments and contemplated for their formal characteristics. Carlson faults both models for failing to treat nature ‘as what it truly is’, namely, as natural and as an environment.’ (P.182)


- Two models which both sit within a historical and subjective framework and both faulty (By Carlson). Seeing nature or treating nature as a natural environment is quite a difficult task to do. Although this should be a purely natural ability to naturalise nature, this action is quite a challenge in such a contemporary age. Humanity is programmed to engage in perspective models and within the engagement, formulate thought that can either be subjective or objective. To remove such a model(s) would initiate a strategy that would allow the human to then re-engage and re-perceive environments as a whole new entity, away from the human centric idea of what environment ‘should’ be within our being.


‘…that the predominant accounts of the sublime from this era focus on discrete natural objects, whereas one of the key injunctions of Carlson’s theory is to appreciate nature as an environment, that is, as objects connected ecologically. - For key properties of sublimity, namely, ‘greatness’ and ‘obscurity’, make it difficult to construe that which provokes the idea of the sublime as a discrete object.’ (P.183)


- Discrete in the sense of the sublime is somewhat contradictory when considering ‘a pleasing astonishment’ (Addison), a ‘delightful horror’ (Burke), or a ‘negative pleasure’. These are all obtained from vast mountain ranges, lonesome deserts etc but maybe the theory from Carlson is that the many make up the whole. Without the tiny trickle of a quaint mountain stream would we receive the vast ocean, the connection is the journey of water moving towards its end point… the point being the vast sum of sublime nature. The ecology is the network or interobjectivity of natural elements working in a system to produce and form a natural happening that is then formulated into a phenomenon of the whole.


‘…in Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, while the experience of the beautiful consists in becoming absorbed ‘in a steady contemplation of the object presented, aside from its inter-connections with any other object’, the experience of the sublime is not focused on discrete objects in nature, but rather, on an environment as a whole.’ (P.183)

- There is a complex discussion occurring between Schopenhauer and Shapshay within this statement. We have the human absorbing the contemplation of the object from the environment without the interconnectedness but then we have Shapshay stating that the sublime can only be measured as a whole. My argument would be to state that we once again consider and review Carlson’s models. Shapshay seems to be discrediting the effects objects play within the grand sum of all within the environment. As stated in the paragraph before, the stream becomes the ocean and without the stream the ocean does not occur (in a philosophical sense). What I do need to consider and acknowledge is that (although early within the text I am) I can understand Shapshay’s sublime being the whole. The whole is the grand and awe inspiring collective (without being a collective) of one whole natural landscape.



‘… A second possible reason for neglect of the aesthetic category of the sublime is the thought that there has been a shift in the dynamics of taste in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, such that the category of ‘sublime’ response no longer picks out a common, distinctive type of aesthetic appreciation of nature… But by the eighteenth-century mountains were regarded as ‘“temples of Nature built by the Almighty” and “natural cathedrals’ (P.184)


- This shift within the aesthetic category refers to my earlier statement about the difficulties of ‘finding’ the sublime within a contemporary age. The contemporary human needs and craves more now with the evolution of technology. Although we do see the younger human (from personal experience) still applying an interest in nature with walks and journeys to natural beauty spots (with everyone taking their own 21st century version of Caspar David Friedrichs 1818 Wanderer Above the Sea Fog) most of humanity need that little more than just a mountain range. There is clearly a reason for this, and we must consider time. The sublime within landscape in the age of the 18th century was God-like, religion played a heavy role within human society, and that influenced humans’ inability to understand such beautiful forms of environmental phenomena. In a contemporary age, humanities religious reasoning has now shifted dramatically as science has evolved and become the dominant form of reason. Science discredits the awe, wonder and horror of the unknown by formulating factual statements.



‘…Although Nicolson’s study does not treat recorded attitudes to other paradigmatically sublime phenomena, the shift in attitudes toward mountains provides some evidence to suggest that the ‘natural sublime’ may not be a perennial human response to vast or powerful nature, but rather, a category of human aesthetic experience that evolved when beliefs and attitudes about nature helped to enable a response of ‘delightful horror’ rather than simply horror or repulsion. But if aesthetic responses come into being in time, so might they disappear in time—could this be a valid reason for leaving this aesthetic category out of contemporary environmental aesthetics?’ (P.184)


- Again, this response from ‘horror’ to ‘delightful horror’ is that shift as stated by Shapshay that evolution plays a clear role in the development of human thought. We are at a position where there is a different ‘horror’ from the one a hundred years ago, and in another hundred years, there will appear a new ‘horror’.


‘…There is always something deeply exciting, not only in the sounds of winds in the woods, which exert more or less influence over every mind, but in their varied water-like flow as manifested by the movements of the trees, especially those of the conifers ... The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime ... Most people like to look at mountain rivers and bear them in mind; but few care to look at the winds, though far more beautiful and sublime, and though they become at times about as visible as flowing water.’ (P.185)


- There is an agreement here for me as with such a beautiful movement, whether that be a gentle wind or a raging storm (if viewed from the safety of one’s home) the swaying of trees can be hypnotic. The hypnotic notion is then a form of absorbing contemplation. We as the viewer watch the movements over time, and cognitively sway with nature. The hyperobject of climate is seen with that movement of the tree’s but we never see the wind. Including Timothy Morton’s interobjectivity theory about wind, wind is never seen, it is only transmitted through the objects it falls upon.



‘…one might wonder whether people came to appreciate mountain environments as sublime by viewing them through the lens of art, as ‘temples of Nature’ or as ‘natural cathedrals. If so, the aesthetic category of the sublime might depend upon art, specifically, architecture as a model, and this would make the category of the sublime analogous to that of the picturesque. Accordingly, the sublime would thus be ruled as similarly inappropriate from the scientific-cognitivist point of view, as it fails to appreciate nature as nature rather than as or analogous to art.’ (P.186)


- Here we find an idea that art holds the moment of nature within a frame. It captures a time or again moment and transmits the content of the lived experience into an over emphasized and exaggerated form of representation. We cognitively recognise such objects within the frame and can transgress their objective actions within their natural state… from the scientific point of view, therefor we do fail in our ability to once again, take a step back and relax within our experience of nature and transmit that experience as what it is and not overextended.


‘…Sublimity crucially involves a reflection on or revelation of God or the ‘infinite’ more broadly; and second, that the feeling of the sublime involves a sense of ‘elevation’ or ‘exaltation’ of the spectator.’ (P.187)


- I will remove God from revelation, as I wish to stay away from the ‘God-like’ idea that suggests ‘religious infestation’ as the influence on the human within the context of the sublime. Sublime is an elevation of the sensorial experience. We are exalted beyond our current state whether that be emotionally or transcendental, we must ask if it is the sublime or environmental aesthetics… that is where the argument lies.


‘…Advocating the experience of ‘being emotionally moved’ by nature as a supplement to Carlson’s view, Carroll holds that one may have genuine, aesthetic appreciation of nature by ‘opening ourselves to its stimulus, and to being put in a certain emotional state by attending to its aspects’ even in the absence of bringing scientific categories and knowledge of nature to bear on the experience.’ (P.187)


- (Continuing from the latter paragraph) …this is that absorbing moment of nature. We take that scary leap as a human to make ourselves vulnerable to attack. Not attack in the sense of we expect harm, but we allow nature to enter the being and we do not know what to expect. There is an uncertainty to doing such an action but that can transpire aesthetic appreciation.


‘…That is, we may be aroused emotionally by nature, and our arousal may be a function of our human nature in response to a natural expanse.’ (P.188)


- A natural sensation caused by nature. An almost (how it was meant to be) humanistic relationship to the world we are a part of. We have relationships between genders, but the ultimate relationship is the one we have on our lived planet.


‘…Carlson maintains nonetheless that some ways of appreciating nature aesthetically are simply better than others because they are ‘truer to nature’ and less superficial, and he holds that such arousal experiences are more superficial given that they revolve around the subject’s more instinctual affect and attend less to what nature truly is.’ (P.190)


- Again, this version of superficial appreciation or experience can be connected to the artistic representation of form. Remove the art ‘object’ and place the human within a natural or live setting (installation, video, sound recording) we gain an authentic experiential discovery of aesthetic appreciation.


‘…Since the question of whether scientific background knowledge is in tension with the perception of aesthetic qualities like ‘beauty’, ‘grace’, or ‘sublimity’ will depend on the particularities of the spectator and the experience.’ (P.190)


- Subjective experience… as always the answer to the sublime and aesthetic environment.


‘…in attending to a natural environment it seems perfectly legitimate, even in some cases required, to appreciate the fact both that the subject is part of that environment physically and provides the frame for her experience of the environment. Ultimately, the key question for environmental aesthetics then becomes what sort of subjective reflection is appropriate, not whether any subjective reflection at all is appropriate.’ (P.194)


- ‘Which sort of subjective reflection?’ Do categories of subjective reflection exist? Maybe the categories are each individual experience that cannot be registered but instead exist as its own personal lived reflection. If the human’s existence and physical requirement is to be a part of the environment which then produces their own environmental framework, we then gain no same lived experience of that environment. We navigate it in our own way and in our own cognitive realities.


‘…Just the opposite seems to me more likely for the case of the sublime (both thin and thick), for no matter how much one knows about the geology and ecology of Niagara, the cascade will always present a physical power much greater than the individual and will likely make a spectator feel overwhelmed by comparison. Second, understanding more about the ecology and natural history of Niagara—for instance, that 3,160 tons of water flows over the falls every second; that the water hits the base of the falls with 280 tons of force; that four of the five Great Lakes drain into the Niagara River; and that the falls formed at the end of the last Ice Age when glaciers two miles thick melted—is likely to deepen a sense of awe and wonder at this phenomenon. Similarly, the experience of finitude and reflection on the place of humanity in the environment will likely persist no matter how much scientific background one brings to the sight of the starry night sky. Given the vastness of the phenomenon, the long duration of the stars, and the mind-boggling scale of the universe, it seems likely for a subject’s experience of the thick sublime to be deepened by scientific understanding’ (P.195)


- We have a natural overwhelming magnitude of sublime power via nature without complete explanation or reason but we also have a scientific sublime. Two sublimes each with some sort of reasoning to help gauge a grasp at the awe but there is an element of delightful horror still available to experience. Science can (for now) can only answer for so much of the phenomena however, what science explains through fact is also sublime. Understanding the key ingredients to Niagara or the starry night resonates an overwhelming feeling in oneself. A feeling that can and cannot process the mathematical sublime. The natural sublime is the sublime of it is what is. That understanding of ecology presents a phenomenon on a similar equation to the scientific (mathematic) but it instead formulates a natural ability of existence with essence of being.


‘…Further, it should be noted that in the above reconstruction of a thick sublime experience with the starry night sky, the appreciation does not treat the environment as a work of art or as even a potential work of art, such as a landscape painting, as would be the case in the picturesque tradition.’ (P.197)


- Taking onboard a new perspective to see nature for what it is without the grandiose artistic tradition encourages and promotes a contemporary method of engaging with the sublime.


‘…In sum, feelings of awe and wonder, reflection on cognitive and existential limitations, as well as reflection on human powers and our humble yet also strangely exceptional status within nature, have been and can be for many people, awakened through aesthetic experience with vast or threatening natural environments, and it seems perfectly appropriate by the lights of our best science and by the lights of scientific cognitivism that at least for some natural environments, this should be the case.’ (P.197)


- That humble appreciation is what makes this conversation applicable to forms of lived experience and inquiry into the ‘sublime’ and/or ‘environmental aesthetics’? Awakening oneself to this discussion is the right direction to aim towards as we construct thorough transitions between object, subject and the whole experience.






Brady, E - Prior, J. (2020). Environmental aesthetics: A synthetic review. People and Nature. 2 (2), 254 - 266.

Carlson, Allen, "Environmental Aesthetics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/environmental-aesthetics/>.

Geng, Hong & Cai, Xiatong & Liu, Wei-Ran & Dong, Yan-Ping & Li, Shi-Dong & Shi, Xu-Rong & Zhao, Yun-Peng. (2020). ECO-08 Application of Environmental Aesthetics Theory to Constructing a "Beautiful Shanxi Province".

Haskell, D.G. (2017). Notes on Ecological Aesthetics and Ethics. Available: https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/blog/notes-on-ecological-aesthetics-and-ethics/. Last accessed 20th Jan 2022.

Sandra Shapshay. (2013). Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Neglect of the Sublime. British Journal of Aesthetics . 53 (2), 181-198.







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