James M Dow

Scientific Cognitivism about the Aesthetics of Nature



Suppose you’re walking down a nature trail. You happen upon an animal on the center of the trail. It’s about one foot tall. Has a white tail. Gray coloring on most of its body. It’s standing upright with its back to you. Looking over its right shoulder like it’s about to flee. It seems to be a squirrel. It bounds away as you walk along the trail. You appreciate its deftness in movement, imagining your body bounding in similar ways. It springs away behind an oak trunk. You pick up your pace and move a little more nimbly. You attend to other aspects of the trail. The sound of a rippling creek bed to your left. Sun rays splash prisms through the tree branches. Suddenly you are struck with the Aha that what seemed like a squirrel was NOT actually a squirrel. It was a cottontail rabbit. You had been wrong about the category of animal you were seeing. As you walk down the trail, you realize that the looking and the listening to the animal had been mistaken in particular ways. You didn’t see the distinctive white tail. You didn’t see the movement as an undulating bounce. But instead as a frantic scurry. You perceived a usually sized rabbit as a chubbier-than-usual squirrel. Have you aesthetically appreciated the rabbit in the proper way?

Those that respond positively that you have appropriately aesthetically appreciated the rabbit do not require the proper category be used in aesthetic appreciation of nature. Those that respond negatively that you have not appropriately engaged in an aesthetic appreciation of the rabbit think that it is necessary to apply the proper category to the natural phenomena. In conversations about environmental aesthetics since the mid-1990s, the latter view that proper categories are necessary— Carlson’s scientific cognitivism (1998, 2000, 2009, 2014)— has been the dominant view. Nature aesthetics has been discussed cross-culturally and cross-linguistically at least as far back as early creation myths and probably further (Torrance 1998). The aesthetics of nature was central to discussions of the romantic experience of nature in the 19th century (Brennan 2003). Specific and detailed descriptions of the natural world was part and parcel of nature writing in America in the late 19th century, for instance, Thoreau, Muir, and Burroughs. Hepburn’s (1966) discussion in “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty” in the latter half of the 20th century reanimated nature aesthetics in the analytic tradition. However, a full-blooded reawakening of the discussion did not begin until Carlson’s scientific cognitivism was developed in the 1990s. Since then much of the discussion about environmental aesthetics has involved rigorous engagement with Carlson’s scientific cognitivism.

Carlson describes scientific cognitivism in this quote:

“To appropriately appreciate objects or landscapes in question [natural environments] aesthetically— to appreciate their grace, majesty, elegance, charm, cuteness, delicacy, or “disturbing weirdness” [of a tidal basin]— it is necessary to perceive them in their correct categories. This requires knowing what they are and knowing something about them— in the cases in question [perceiving a rorqual whale, a moose, a tidal basin], something of biology and geology. In general, it requires the knowledge given by the natural sciences.” (Carlson 2000, 90).


Carlson’s cognitivism involves the requirement that perceptions of natural environments be structured by knowledge, beliefs, or categories. For Carlson, cognitivism suggests that changes in concepts and categories produce changes in perceptions. If I see a fuzzy mammal in the woods, the difference between categorizing it as a cottontail rabbit and categorizing it as a squirrel matters to how that animal looks or sounds. For Carlson, scientific implies that scientific knowledge of natural environments— concepts, principles, and frameworks— is required for appropriate appreciation. Folk, everyday, or common sense categories are insufficient (although Carlson does suggest that both commonsense and scientific knowledge are  necessary (1998). I will return in Ch. 3 to this distinction through assessing Sellars’ (1963) distinction between manifest image and scientific image.). Particular knowledge from the natural sciences— physics, chemistry, geology, evolution, ecology, biology in general— are required. Carlson’s scientific cognitivism suggests that aesthetically appreciating a cottontail rabbit requires appreciating it under the correct scientific category of being a cottontail rabbit. To look and listen to what is actually a cotton tail rabbit under the category of a squirrel is not only to make a mistake in knowledge and in category, but in addition to err in one’s aesthetic appreciation of the natural world.

As Parsons (2007) points out, focus on this particular error enables us to see that Carlson’s scientific cognitivism is a normative view about appropriate aesthetic appreciation. Children can and do aesthetically appreciate bugs and flies without knowledge. Nonhuman animals might aesthetically appreciate flowing rivers or patterns made by snakes in desert sand. People that lack any scientific knowledge can and do aesthetically appreciate sunsets and moonrises. The uneducated find flowers, fawns, and fjords to be beautiful even if they mistakenly categorize such natural things. However, Carlson’s view is that aesthetic appreciation that is uninformed, or even less informed, by scientific knowledge is not appropriate appreciation.

According to Carlson, you do not engage in appropriate appreciation without applying the proper categories in perception. What are the arguments for scientific cognitivism? What are the alternative accounts to Carlson’s scientific cognitivism? In this post, I will outline the arguments for and against scientific cognitivism. In particular, I will discuss what I take to be impasses in the discussions concerning the merits of scientific cognitivism. After roughly 25 years of discussion about environmental aesthetics, philosophers are talking about where environmental aesthetics is going (Carlson 2014; Saito 2014). I suggest that environmental aesthetics ought to focus on philosophical questions about mind and action.

I will argue that pivotal questions in philosophy of mind and philosophy of action need to be discussed in conversations about the aesthetics of nature. In particular, more needs to be said about central issues like the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive, the distinction between passive and active, the human-environment distinction, the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, and questions about consciousness and self-consciousness of perceptions.

Later in the project I will outline a distinctive view of enactive aesthetics of nature (EAN) that aims not to be a unique and distinctive view from others in the conceptual landscape, but emerges out of the resolution of the impasses by thinking through issues of mind and action. The account takes the phenomenology of active engagement with the environment as the core of nature appreciation, but avoids Carlson’s objections to engagement theory. The account discusses the importance of non-conscious, non-conceptual flow states as a mode of appreciation of nature, but avoids Carlson’s worries about the appreciator of nature disappearing.

The enactivist account focuses on reconceiving aesthetic appreciation— reconceiving the nature of human perception— through focusing on human evolution and human ecology. As a completion of the motivation of scientific cognitivism, EAN presents a unique and distinctive account in the environmental aesthetics literature. A key question will be how EAN meets five desiderata for an account of the aesthetics of nature (Carlson 2009):

D1. Ziff’s (1979) “Anything Viewed” Desideratum

D2. Budd’s (2002) “As Nature” Desideratum

D3. Berleant’s (1992) “Unified Aesthetics” Desideratum

D4. Hepburn’s (1966) “Serious Beauty” Desideratum

D5. Thompson’s (1995) “Objectivity”  Desideratum

scientific cognitivism

What are Allen Carlson’s arguments for scientific cognitivism about the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments? The first argument proposes that scientific cognitivism gets the disanalogies between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nature correct. The second argument proposes that scientific cognitivism gets the analogies between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nature correct. The third argument proposes that scientific cognitivism enables us to make sense of the objectivity of the aesthetic appreciation of nature in a unique and distinctive way by responding to the “anything goes” attitude and making sense of how aesthetic judgments about nature can be true. The fourth argument proposes that scientific cognitivism best enables us to argue for positive aesthetics that all of nature is beautiful. The fifth argument proposes that scientific cognitivism is best suited for connecting the aesthetics of nature to our ethical obligations to protect the natural world.

the disanalogy argument

The disanalogy argument (Carlson 1998) begins by suggesting that since Hegel’s baleful influence on aesthetics, our focus in aesthetics has been mostly on art objects created by human beings rather than natural environments. One feature of being embedded in a post-Hegelian 20th century framework of aesthetic appreciation is that our thinking in the ivory tower and our looking and listening in the tidal moat around the castle, we inevitably appreciate the natural world through the frames governed by an all-too-human art aesthetics. Despite the fact that we know that natural environments are not works of art, we nevertheless perceive whales and waterfalls through “acts of aspection” (Ziff 1966, 71) that frame what is relevant and what is not to our appreciation. Sometimes we abstract objects out of concrete situations. Other times we take postcard snapshots of environments without frames. One approach is the object approach. Another approach is the landscape approach. Within the object approach, we engage with objects within natural environments on analogy with how we engage with sculptures in museums.


For example, we see Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” and we “actually or imaginatively remove the object from its surroundings and concentrate on its sensuous and possible expressive qualities” (Carlson 1998, 121). We often do the same with shells we collect, or with leaves we place in our field guides, or with petrified bull frogs, or taxidermy mutant cyclops calves. But, Carlson argues that we have not appropriately appreciated natural objects like a rock, if we have removed them from the environments in which such objects exist naturally. The question of decontextualizing things in nature creates the object model dilemma. “Either we remove the object from its environment or we leave it where it is. If we remove the object, the model can answer the questions of what and how to appreciate the rock, but this will result in the appreciation of a limited set of aesthetic qualities. But if we do not remove the object, the Object Model will not be suitable for much of the appreciation that is possible.” (Carlson 1998, 122).

Within the landscape approach, we engage with places within natural environments on analogy with how we appreciate landscape paintings in a gallery, for instance the works of Frederic Church or J. M. W. Turner (For research on the influence of landscape painting on American environmental attitudes, see Hargrove 1979). The landscape model “encourages perceiving and appreciating nature as if it were a landscape painting, an imposing prospect to be viewed from a specific position and distance” (Carlson 1998, 122). To operate with the landscape model is to be guided by the picturesque and the scenic as frameworks for nature appreciation. The natural environment in a walk through an oak hickory forest becomes a series of two dimensional picturesque landscapes or scenic viewpoints. It makes a nature postcard out of a natural environment. It attempts to frame aesthetically that which cannot in principle be framed perceptually. Carlson argues “the natural environment is not a scene, not a representation, not static, and not two dimensional. In short, the model requires appreciating the environment not as what it is and for the qualities it has, but as something it is not and for qualities it does not have” (Carlson 1998, 123).

Carlson offers what he calls the “natural environmental” model in the place of the object model and the landscape model. He argues that the model focuses on what is natural rather than on objects— natural things are not art objects— and the model focuses on what is environmental rather than on landscapes— environments are not scenery. The discussion of the natural environmental model provides a framework for thinking through the pivotal questions of nature aesthetics:

(Q1) What is a natural environment?

(Q2) What is relevant, psychologically speaking, to the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments?

(Q3) How should we appropriately aesthetically appreciate natural environments?

Carlson argues that answering these questions requires structuring our acts of aspection in our perceptual experience of natural environments. Think of acts of aspection as discovered through the Gestalt shift between duck and rabbit in the duck-rabbit drawing that Wittgenstein discussed.

duck-rabbit (72dpi)

So what best enables a person to structure acts of aspection in attentively looking at a cottontail rabbit rest on a trail or carefully listening to a mountain creek flow. Without knowledge, beliefs, and cognitions, Carlson argues we cannot enable such acts of aspection. Scientific categories best structure our acts of aspection because they represent what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell in ways that enable us to undo our biases and prejudices towards operating with the object model and the landscape model.

The disanalogy argument is a process of elimination argument. We can appreciate with the object model, the landscape model, or the natural environmental model. The object model and the landscape model use models of aesthetic appreciation that are two closely tied to appreciation of art. However, the natural environmental model enables us to capture the disanalogies between art appreciation and nature appreciation. Therefore, the natural environmental model is to be preferred to the object model and the landscape model. It needs to be objected that merely because the natural environmental model is preferable to the object model and the landscape model, it does not follow that scientific cognitivism is therefore true. It may only be correct relative to the incorrectness of the object model or the landscape model. As Hume (1757, 109) pointed out in the standard of taste, a goal of proper aesthetic judgment involves “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

Following Hume, one question is whether the natural environmental model is necessary to undermine the influence of the biases involved in the aesthetics of art. Carlson seems to assume that because the acquisition of knowledge undermines biases or prejudices that finding out more about common sense and scientific categories is necessary to shift perceptions. However, it may be that appeals to wonder or emotional sensitivity would be sufficient to change aesthetic biases. (Sheila Lintott (2006, 392) argues that the bias of science is a better bias than any other so that whatever one’s aesthetic prejudices “the bias of science is a useful tool in the aesthetic appreciation of nature, especially when forging the way toward an ecofriendly aesthetic”.) For instance, suppose that awe and wonder about the cottontail rabbit’s movement were to sustain perception enough to recognize the shift of attention towards the white tail. It would be curiosity or interest not the proper scientific category that enabled the Gestalt shift.

Another question is whether the NE model is sufficient to undermine the influence of the biases involved in the aesthetics of art. Carlson seems to assume that natural sciences like evolution, ecology, and geology enable a change in perspective away from focus on the object and toward focus on nature, a change in perspective away from focus on the picture and toward focus on the environment. Suppose we are looking and listening to a humpback whale emerge from the ocean near Antarctica. Rather than abstracting away temporally and spatially, we can use scientific knowledge to situate our perceptions appropriately. We might use knowledge of evolution to locate the whale in a different line of descent, which will enable us to experience mammal like movement rather than fish like movement. We might use knowledge of ecology to situate the humpback whale in its proper community, which will enable us to experience the complex role it plays in eating krill, the relations between krill and phytoplankton.

My logical objection is that merely because the natural environmental model performs better than the object model or the landscape model at capturing aesthetic appreciation of nature, it does not follow that that is the best model at capturing the disanalogies in general between art appreciation and nature appreciation. That’s only so if the process of elimination argument has included an exhaustive and exclusive list of views. It may have been in the 90s that only a handful of views were available. Among the views on offer most continued to rely upon art aesthetics. But, I would argue we need to make the process of elimination argument broader to include contemporary work. Carlson’s view is not only dependent upon capturing the disanalogy between art appreciation and nature appreciation, but also upon capturing the proper analogies between art appreciation and nature appreciation.

the analogy argument

Glenn Parsons (2007) provides an analysis of Carlson’s “analogy with art argument” (this argument is comparable to Berleant’s (1992) “Unified Aesthetics” constraint below, namely that we should utilize a unified account of aesthetic appreciation for all possible objects of appreciation)

(Parsons 2007, 361):

“(1) Aesthetic judgements concerning artworks are subject to normative standards.

(2) If accepting a particular view of aesthetic appreciation allows us to offer similar accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of both art and nature, then we have reason to accept that view.

(3) Scientific cognitivism holds that aesthetic judgements concerning nature are subject to normative standards.

(4)  Therefore, we have a reason to accept scientific cognitivism.” (361)

This provides a good general summary of Carlson’s argument for scientific cognitivism. However, the argument could be more particular to the arguments in Carlson’s essays. In particular, the argument above does not capture how pivotal Carlson’s use of Walton’s categories of art is for the analogy argument. Carlson (1994, 225–227) provides an outline of how significant Walton’s view is to scientific cognitivism.

Walton (1970, 534) argues “if we are confronted by a work about whose origins we know absolutely nothing (for example, one lifted from the dust at an as yet unexcavated archaeological site on Mars), we would simply not be in a position to judge it aesthetically. We could not possibly tell by staring at it, no matter how intently and intelligently, whether it is coherent, or serene, or dynamic, for by staring we cannot tell whether it is to be seen as sculpture, a Guernica, or some other exotic or mundane kind of work of art.” Walton argues that only by perceiving works of art in the correct categories are we capable of engaging in appropriate aesthetic appreciation of those works of art.

Carlson argues that something analogous applies to the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Premise 2 of Parson’s summary of Carlson’s argument above is actually more specific, because “offer similar accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of both art and nature” actually means that Carlson endorses the idea that knowledge of categories of nature are necessary for appropriate appreciation. Carlson relies upon Walton’s idea that aesthetic judgments have a two-tiered structure involving the non-aesthetic perceptual properties a work and the aesthetic properties of a work. The aesthetic properties of a work are those that are perceived in the correct categories of art taken from art history, the art world, and art criticism.


Perceiving Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythym #30 requires understanding prior forms of abstract expressionism and action painting, the situation in the art world that led to Pollock’s inclusion in galleries, and the engagement with the painting at the MET since it’s being collected. Carlson summarizes Walton’s argument as being committed to two claims: the psychological claim and the philosophical claim. The psychological claim is that “the aesthetic judgments which seem true or false of a work are a function of the perceived status of its perceptual properties given any category in which that work is perceived” (1981, 56). The philosophical claim is that “the aesthetic judgments that are true or false of a work are a function of the perceived status of its perceptual properties, given that the work is perceived in its correct category or categories” (1981, 56).

Walton’s view about categories of art is thus that in order to properly appreciate a work of art, one must possess knowledge of art history, have an understanding of the artworld context, and a recognition of the basic material properties perceived in the artwork. Walton distinguishes between standard properties, variable properties, and contra-standard properties in order to make the point that when one perceives a work through different kinds of categories, one perceives the work of art differently. A feature of a work of art is a standard property with respect to a category if it is property in virtue of which the work of art belongs to that category, that without that property it would not be included in the category. For example, a standard property of land art is that it involves land as a material. A feature of a work of art is a variable property with respect to a category if the property has nothing to do with a work belonging to that category.


For example, a work of land art may incorporate diverse or varied colors, shapes, and sizes in a way that is irrelevant to inclusion in the category. That the leaves of a Goldsworthy installation are red, orange, or yellow does not matter to its being included as land art, although of course the colors affect the aesthetic properties beyond categorization. A feature of a work of art is a contra-standard property with respect to a category if the absence of the property tends to disqualify it as a member of that category. For example, a steel axle from a Corvette is a contra-standard property for land art.

On analogy with Walton’s view, Carlson view about the categories of nature is that in order to properly appreciate a feature of the natural world, one must possess knowledge of natural history (evolution), knowledge of ecological context (ecology), and be able to categorize basic features of the environment in terms of natural categories (geology). The explanation of why appreciators of nature perceive things inappropriately is that they fail to recognize that there are standard, variable, and contra-standard properties that exist in the natural world. Walton himself thought that the category view only applied to works of art (1970, 530), but that the appreciation of nature was category relative, meaning there was no way to articulate “the normative standards” as Parsons suggests above. Carlson argues that if we come upon a stretch of rippled sand along a beach, we might categorize the expanse as variously as a beach or a sea-bed. The stretch of sand possesses non-aesthetic perceptual properties, namely brown mud with ripples can be seen in different ways depending upon the different categories of beach or sea-bed, which generate different aesthetic judgments. In the latter case of categorizing the stretch of sand as a sea-bed, we have an experience “disturbing weirdness” (1981, 62) because it is contra-standard for us to walk along a sea-bed.

The central question about the analogy argument that Carlson presents is whether aesthetics ought to be governed by Walton’s category theory. Carlson’s analogy argument only succeeds if we presuppose that Walton’s theory of aesthetic judgment is the proper way to achieve the normative standards we’re looking for in assessing aesthetic judgments in general. Suppose a non-cognitive account of aesthetic judgments provides us with normative standards for artwork. For instance, consider an account of art appreciation informed by embodied and embedded forms of empathetic resonance (e.g, Gregory Currie (2011)).


As I look and listen to the scene in Les Miserables when the revolutionaries are singing “Red and Black” being performed, it may be that there are normative standards that attach to how I empathize and sympathize with the emotional expressions in the performance. Those criteria may have little or nothing to do with the category in which the song fits. And, compare and contrast the experience of empathy of endurance or stamina for the pack of wolves in the Arctic finally taking down a caribou for the last time. If this is possible, then the category view is not the only view that can enable Carlson to achieve an analogy between art appreciation and nature appreciation. Apart from disanalogies and analogies, what Carlson’s scientific cognitivism is best known for is its achievement of the objectivity of aesthetic judgments about nature.

the objectivity argument

The third argument that Carlson uses to defend scientific cognitivism is the objectivity argument. Janna Thompson (1995, 255) argues that if we are going to defend the idea that either art or nature possesses intrinsic, i.e., non-instrumental, value, and if those value claims are going to be based on aesthetic values, then the aesthetic value in question must be considered to be objective (cf. Callicott 1994 for a rejection of the idea that objectivity is necessary for nature aesthetics). The link between aesthetic judgment and intrinsic value “fails unless there are objective grounds— grounds that rational, sensitive people can accept— for thinking that something has value. If beauty in nature or in art is merely in the eyes of the beholder, then no general moral obligation arises out of aesthetic judgements, expect the weaker obligation to preserve, if possible, what some individuals happen to value. A judgment of value that is merely personal and subjective gives us no way of arguing that everyone ought to learn to appreciate something, or at least to regard it as worthy of preservation” (Thompson 1995, 255).

We can rephrase Carlson’s argument as well in terms of either an argument against relativism or subjectivism or an argument that captures the seeming objectivity of our aesthetic judgments about nature. It does seem or appear that when we make the judgment that “The symbiotic relationship between the bat and the Saguaro is beautiful” we are making an aesthetic judgment that appears to be something that is universal and necessary, to use Kant’s terminology. We assume in making the claim that all humans will at least be responsive to the aesthetic beauty of symbiosis and that any human that engages with the bat and the Saguaro not only will but must accept that it is beautiful not only that it seems so. Carlson asks what’s the best explanation of the seeming or appearing that our aesthetic judgments are objective?



Carlson argues that the best explanation of our aesthetic judgments seeming or appearing to be objective is that such judgments are based in scientific categories that structure our perceptions. We might ask however whether it is possible for someone to have the perceptual experience of the bat and the Saguaro, but nevertheless have a category relative aesthetic judgment, meaning perceive the bat’s folds and the Saguaro’s folds as being a mere correlation, the Saguaro’s beauty being something worth appreciating while the bat’s being repulsive. Or one might perceive the bat’s folds and the Saguaro’s folds as being the product of human interventions in breeding. Carlson (1981, 65) distinguishes between two categories for the perceptual experiences of the bat/Saguaro relationship, for instance one might categorize the same non-aesthetic perceptual properties as under natural selection or under artificial selection. The aesthetic properties of the relationship will vary dependent upon how one categories the non-aesthetic perceptual properties.

The beauty of the symbiosis between bats and Saguaro is not a product of artificial selection, so given that we can vary the category and differentiate between two distinct sets of aesthetic properties that develop, we might say that the aesthetic experience is correct in the case in which we categorize under natural selection but incorrect in the case in which we categorize under artificial selection. According to Carlson this shows both that we can reject the idea that aesthetic judgments are category relative. It is not the case that anything goes, because there are categories of the natural sciences that structure the observations we make about things we are perceiving. It is not only that the relativist view is incorrect, however. In addition, scientific cognitivism provides a way to make sense of how aesthetic judgments can be objective, because what category bat-Saguaro symbiosis belongs to is correct based upon genuine discoveries of facts in the natural sciences.

An objection to the objectivity argument is presented against scientific cognitivism by Emily Brady (1998, 160–164). Brady argues that the problem is that scientific cognitivism depends upon the idea of scientific categories. On the one hand, scientific categories are concepts of unobservable posits, mechanisms that explain and predict, and worldviews that are cognitive structures. As such, scientific cognitivism—  while it may achieve objectivity— has ceased to be a view about aesthetic appreciation. There is no way to make our way back from the concept of natural selection to an alteration in the perceptual and aesthetic properties of bat-Saguaro symbiosis. On the other hand, if we accept that scientific categories are limited to those that enable us to articulate aesthetic values— for instance, “order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, and resolution” (Carlson 1984, 230)— then the categories that we can rely upon are limited to those that are of scientific value. Brady argues that concepts of aesthetic value far outstrip those of scientific value, so this limitation presents a deep problem for Carlson’s view.

the positive aesthetics argument

The fourth argument in favor of scientific cognitivism suggests that the view that scientific categories are necessary for the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature best supports the idea that all of nature is beautiful. Some environmentalists argue that our care and concern for the natural world can be based in the idea that all of nature is beautiful. At least some of why we lack care for snakes, spiders, and unpicturesque aspects or unscenic features of the natural world is that our perception is structured by incorrect categories. We hear the hiss of non-venomous snakes as a dangerous warning of a harmful fang attack. We see the movement of a harmless spider as a scary warning of an venomous assault on our skin. A dismal swamp is perceived as uninhabitable, bad for breathing, drinking, and eating. Carlson offers scientific cognitivism as the best antidote to negative criticisms about the beauty of the natural world.

Suppose we come upon a piece of wild nature, namely a dismal swamp. Carlson argues that there are four possible routes to seeing how all of nature might overcome our negative criticisms about the natural world. First, we might argue indirectly that because nature appreciation is not aesthetic at all, then there are no negative aesthetic judgments. Second, we might argue that we should not judge wild nature as aesthetically negative, because nature is sublime, i.e., outside our judgment and control. Third, we might argue that because nature is created by a divine agent, who is by definition perfect, there is nothing in nature which possesses negative aesthetic properties. And, fourth, we might argue that the development of the natural sciences has always relied upon positive aesthetic appreciation, that properties of “order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, and resolution” (1984, 230) are central to the discoveries made in the natural world.

Carlson presents a process of elimination argument suggesting that options 1-3 cannot be used to defend positive aesthetics. I will not survey the arguments against 1-3, but instead outline Carlson’s positive argument. He considers the elected artist thought experiment. Imagine a world in which works of art are not created by artists but instead are discovered. Artists are reconceived to be people that create the categories in which discovered things are made to appear to be masterpieces. The criteria for works of art being correct in this world is that they make objects appear to be masterpieces. In this imagined world, “all works would be essentially aesthetically good and appropriately appreciated as such. Our imagined world would have positive aesthetics concerning art” (1984). Carlson argues that the elected artist thought experiment provides us with a way to develop a positive aesthetics about natural environments. “The idea is that natural objects and landscapes in our world are analogous to works of art in our imagined world, and scientists in our world are analogous to the artists in our imagined world” (1984, 229).

According to Carlson, scientists are the elected artists of the natural world, because aesthetic goodness plays a “criterialogical role in the scientific enterprise” (229). Carlson thinks that beyond this in virtue of categorizing our perceptions in the natural world correctly, our “acts of aspection” of our perceptions are actually made essentially aesthetically good. According to Carlson’s view, then without scientific cognitivism, we could not achieve the idea that all of nature is beautiful. The flipside of this view is that those features of the natural world that we initially judge as being aesthetically negative, for example, snakes and spiders, tornados and tsunamis, are not only actually aesthetically positive, but can be made to seem or appear aesthetically positive. Scientific cognitivism, then, can serve a reorienting role in enabling us to defend the idea that we ought to have care and concern for such creatures and become more accepting of such disasters.

A pivotal objection to Carlson’s positive aesthetics argument is presented by Yuriko Saito (1998). Saito agrees with Carlson about cognitivism— namely that linguistic or conceptual categorization is necessary to structure perception and appreciation— but Saito focuses on common sense or folk categories as being core, in particular she argues that myths, folklore, and narratives are central to nature appreciation. Saito presents a two-fold objection to the positive aesthetics argument. First, she argues that it may be psychologically implausible for humans to positively aesthetically appreciate “natural disasters of massive scale and power, such as a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, avalanche, tidal wave, volcanic eruption, flood” (1998, 246).


She argues that it’s not possible to achieve the psychological distance in order to appreciate some features of nature positively. Second, she argues that it may be morally impermissible for humans to positively aesthetically appreciate natural disasters. Because such natural disasters inevitably cause widespread pain and suffering for human beings, to aesthetically appreciate them is inappropriate: “Although all natural phenomena have their place, their potential aesthetic value is held in check or is overridden by our moral concern for the pain, suffering, and difficulties that these phenomena cause for human beings” (249). The relationship between the aesthetic value of nature and the moral value of nature needs to be taken into account.

the ethical argument

The fifth argument for scientific cognitivism is the ethical argument. Carlson suggests that the accepting scientific cognitivism enables us to reject inappropriate models of environmental ethics. “Environmental aesthetics parallels environmental ethics in the latter’s rejection of anthropocentric models for moral assessment of the natural world and the replacement of such models with paradigms drawn from the environmental and natural sciences” (129). Parsons summarizes Carlson’s ethical argument:

“(1) If accepting a particular view of aesthetic appreciation allows us to better fulfil our ethical obligations, then we have reason to accept that view.

(2) If we accept scientific cognitivism, we will be better able to protect wild nature.

(3) We have an ethical obligation to protect wild nature.

(4) Therefore, we have a reason to accept scientific cognitivism” (Parsons 2007, 362).

Yuriko Saito (1998, 156) argues that the maxim that we must appreciate nature on its own terms, a view that is argued by Tuan (1993) and Budd (2002), leads us to a moral criterion for nature appreciation: “I believe that the ultimate rationale for appreciating any object appropriately, that is, on its own terms, is the moral importance of recognizing and sympathetically lending our ears to the story, however unfamiliar to us, told by the other” (1998, 156). The similarities and differences between Carlson’s view and Saito’s view become apparent here. According to Saito, a mere cognitive criterion is insufficient to make the connection expressed in premise 2 above. According to Saito, if we want to appropriately appreciate nature in a way that will enable better protection for nature, then merely making aesthetic judgments that are true is insufficient for making ethical judgments that enable protection. Merely because we accept scientific cognitivism, we have not met the moral dimension of being compelled to sympathetically imagine ourselves into the natural world having care and concern for that world. For example, if I appreciate a snake in my garden as a copperhead, looking carefully at its unique pupils and listening concernfully to its distinctive tail shake, it may still be the case that I am not motivated to have ethical care and concern for the snake. The principle of “the only good snake is a dead snake” might destroy all care and concern.

I will return to each of the five arguments for scientific cognitivism next. A key question will be whether we have adequately articulated central questions, arguments, and assumptions in mind and action in the literature on nature aesthetics. I will argue in another post that several impasses between defenders of scientific cognitivism and alternative views of nature appreciation can be understood in terms of not focusing in more detail on issues in mind and action. Not only is Carlson responsible for the paradigm view of nature aesthetics. But, in addition, he’s responsible for writing most encyclopedia articles, most anthologies, and most introductory summaries about environmental aesthetics. I will follow Carlson’s articulation of the conversation about nature aesthetics by outlining the various positions using this diagram in another post.



Berleant, Arnold (1992). The Aesthetics of Environment. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Brady, Emily (1998) “Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 56.2: 139–147 in Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson The Aesthetics of Natural Environments. Peterborough: Broadview Press

Brennan, Matthew (2003) “Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Philosophy” in Jamieson, Dale (2003) Ed. Companion to Environmental Philosophy. New York, NY: Wiley Blackwell pgs. 146–160.

Budd, Malcolm (2002). The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Callicott, J. Baird (1989). “Leopold’s Land Aesthetic” in In Defense of the Land Ethic. Albany, NY: SUNY Press pgs. 239–248.

Carlson, Allen (1981). “Nature, Aesthetic Judgment, and Objectivity” in Carlson, Allen (2000). Aesthetics and the Environment. London, UK: Taylor and Francis pgs. 55–72

Carlson, Allen (1984). “Nature and Positive Aesthetics” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 211–237.

Carlson, Allen (1998). “Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 119–132.

Carlson, Allen (2000). Aesthetics and the Environment. London, UK: Taylor and Francis

Carlson, Allen (2009). Nature and Landscape. NY, NY: Columbia University Press

Carlson, Allen (2014). “Ten Steps in the Development of Western Environmental Aesthetics” in Environmental Aesthetics: Crossing Divides and Breaking Ground. Eds. Martin Drenthen and Jozef Keulartz New York, NY: Fordham University Press Pgs. 13–24.

Currie, Gregory (2011) “Empathy for Objects” in Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie New York, NY: Oxford University Press pgs. 82–95.

Hargrove, Eugene (1979). “The Historical Foundations of American Environmental Values” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 29–48.

Hepburn, Ronald (1966) “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty” in British Analytic Philosophy. B. Williams and A. Montefore (Ed.) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Hume, David (1757) “Of the Standard of Taste” from Four Dissertations in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Ed. Steven Cahn and Aaron Meskin Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing pgs. 103–112.

Lintott, Sheila (2006). “Toward Ecofriendly Aesthetics” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 380–386.

Parsons, Glenn (2007). “The Aesthetics of Nature” Philosophy Compass. 2/3 (2007): 358–372

Saito, Yuriko (1998). “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 238–253.

Saito, Yuriko (2014). “Future Directions in Environmental Aesthetics” in Environmental Aesthetics: Crossing Divides and Breaking Ground. Eds. Martin Drenthen and Jozef Keulartz New York, NY: Fordham University Press Pgs. 25–40.

Sellars, W. (1963). Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. In Science, Perception and Reality. New York, NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul. pp. 1–40.

Thompson, Janna (1995). “Aesthetics and the Value of Nature” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 254–267.

Torrance, Robert (1998). Ed. Encompassing Nature: a Sourcebook. Washington, DC: Counterpoint

Tuan, Yi-Fu (1993) Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture. New York, NY: Kodansha America, Inc.

Walton, Kendall (1970) “Categories of Art” Philosophical Review. 79: 334–367 in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Ed. Steven Cahn and Aaron Meskin Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing pgs. 521–537.

Ziff, Paul (1979) “Anything Viewed” in Esa Saarinen, Risto Hilpinen, Ilkka Niiniluoto, and Merrill Provence Hintikka, Eds. Essays in Honor of Jaakko Hintikka on the Occasion of His Fiftieth Birthday. Dordrecht: Reidel: 285–293.


Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.