James M Dow

Navigating Between the Scylla of Non-Aesthetics and the Charybdis of Freedom



Do responses to natural environments not count as aesthetic judgments because nature is not made by an artist? Are aesthetic judgments of natural environments free and unconstrained because aesthetic judgments of nature are relative to perceivers?  In this post, I discuss Elliott’s non-aesthetic view and Budd’s freedom view I articulate the debates between such views and Carlson’s scientific cognitivism about nature appreciation and focus on the impasses that require more discussion of philosophy of mind and action theory.

the tree of environmental aesthetics


The key questions of environmental aesthetics are:

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?

A few words about the questions in advance of laying out the views. Q1 is asking about the common sense or manifest image conception of a natural environment as it might be aesthetically appreciated. The distinction between “wilderness” and “country” and “land” are not hard and fast, and they don’t need to be, because there is a common sense conception of what ‘natural environment’ means that highlights the concept of a biotic community or ecosystem. Q2 is asking about what mental states and psychological processes— Cognitive or Non-cognitive? Sensations? Perceptions? Beliefs? Thoughts? Actions? Emotions? Imagination? Narratives? Wonder? Awe? Respect? Reverence?— are core for the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Of course, at the dawn of a conversation, the pluralist angle— all of them— seems compelling. And, if we take Q2 independently of Q3, as a strictly descriptive question, namely what is relevant for aesthetic appreciation in the sense of what do people actually rely upon as they “ooh” and “aah” about nature, then it becomes obvious that all manner of mental states and psychological processes are relevant. However, Q3 undermines that prima facie persuasiveness, since the view that cognitive states involving scientific beliefs is core to the aesthetic appreciation of nature is the dominant view (Carlson 2000, 2007; Parsons 2007, 2008). The difficulty is making sense of how given that people rely upon so many different frames of nature appreciation, should all that pluralism to bloom or is there some or other normative standard for nature appreciation.

Meditation on these three questions brings us to the oscillation that is common to value theory between two extremes: the Scylla of the non-aesthetic model and the Charybdis of the freedom model. According to the non-aesthetic model, defended by Robert Elliott (1982), we should not aesthetically appreciate natural environments, because response and evaluations of nature do not count as aesthetic responses. According to the non-aesthetic model, in order for an evaluation to count as an aesthetic evaluation, it requires aesthetic judgments. In order for aesthetic judgments to occur about an artwork, it is necessary to explain and predict the actions of an artist in making the object. In order to explain and predict the actions of an artist, we need to appeal to intentions. Elliott writes,

“An apparently integral part of aesthetic evaluation and judgment depends on viewing the aesthetic object as an intentional object, as an artifact, as something that is shaped by the purposes and designs of its author. Evaluating works of art involves explaining them, and judging them, in terms of their author’s intentions; it involves placing them within the author’s corpus of work; it involves locating them in some tradition and in some milieu. Nature is not a work of art, though works of art (in some suitably broad sense) may look very much like natural objects” (1982, 386).

Elliott allows that we speak as if aesthetic judgments apply equally in the case of art and in the case of nature. We apply concepts of intricacy and delicacy to eucalyptus forests. We talk about solidity and grandeur of Rocky Mountain bluffs. However, that talk is merely metaphorical because when we are literal in our use of aesthetic judgements we need to talk about intentions. The concept of an aesthetic judgment requires the recognition and acknowledgment of an artist that intended to make an aesthetic object.


The non-aesthetic view suggests that only human-made works— objects made by an agent— are worthy of aesthetic appreciation. Natural environments are not made by an agent with intentions. Therefore, natural environments are not worthy of aesthetic appreciation. A few objections can be provided against Elliott’s argument. First, Elliott assumes that the core reason why we assume that natural environments are worthy of appreciation is because of emotional responses. Elliott argues that aesthetic judgments require cognition and attribution of intentions that go beyond mere responses. However, it does not follow from the fact that emotions are involved in nature appreciation, that they cannot be cognitive and play a role in aesthetic judgments. One can make an aesthetic judgment that a waterfall is grand based on one’s emotions of grandeur. The correctness or incorrectness of the judgment is based not in a mere response, but in the cognitive assessment of the relative size between the person and the waterfall that is implicit in the emotional response. (I return to this issue in discussing Noel Carroll’s (1993) emotion model of nature aesthetics, because Carroll argues that emotions are cognitive, have correctness conditions based in evolutionary psychology, and play a role in aesthetic judgments.)


Carlson (1984) provides a response to Elliott’s non-aesthetic view. Carlson’s first response is to appeal to Paul Ziff’s “anything viewed” principle. According to Ziff, anything that can be perceived, can be aesthetically appreciated. Carlson provides a few examples of aesthetic appreciation of natural environments as instances of this principle, for example colorful sunsets or delicate wildflowers. He argues that these cases are “paradigmatic instances of aesthetic appreciation— ones in terms of which we acquire and understand the concept of aesthetic” (215). His reply is “to deny that these are cases of aesthetic appreciation comes close to challenging the coherence of the concept” (215). The trouble with this response is that it is question-begging. Elliott could argue that the common sense or ordinary notion of “aesthetic” being employed by Carlson is incorrect, that instead there is a technical or strict and philosophical notion of aesthetic judgment that must be defended.

Carlson argues that aesthetic evaluations are not necessary for aesthetic responses, so that the idea of aesthetic judgments requiring evaluations of nature does not follow. It might be that our engagement with nature is purely aesthetic in the sense that our engagements do not involve aesthetic judgments or might support non-aesthetic responses. For example, I might taste the bark of a tree not to see if it’s a birch tree, but to see if someone else should taste it. I am not concerned with the category in this case, but instead, with whether or not the bark is worthy of aesthetic appreciation.


Carlson argues that aesthetic judgments— understood as positive critique or negative critique— are not necessary for aesthetic appreciation. Carlson suggests that Elliott begs the question in terms of the kinds of aesthetic judgments we make about art, because he rigidly defines “aesthetic judgment” to exclude responses to natural environments. Carlson argues against the sufficiency of a work of art belongs in a particular category of artifact for making aesthetic judgments and evaluations. He argues that a similar point applies to natural environments. Instead of relying upon the object as an intentional object, an artifact, or thinking about designs and purposes, we could merely locate the aspect of the natural environment “in its natural history and in its environmental milieu” (216).

Notice there’s an intellectual impasse between Elliott and Carlson here which turns on central issues in philosophy of mind and action theory. A few central issues: How do aesthetic concepts develop in our upbringing? Do they require engagement with art or is engagement with natural environments sufficient? How central is the attribution of intentions of an artist or the artwork as an intentional object for the application of aesthetic concepts in perception? Do aesthetic evaluations require the application of concepts that are tied to the creation of art? What is distinctive about aesthetic appreciation insofar as the content of perception is concerned?

I said we are caught between a rock and a hard place in our initial theorizing about environmental aesthetics. The Scylla is Elliott’s non-aesthetic model which rules out that natural environments CAN be aesthetically appreciated. The Charybdis side of the oscillation in environmental aesthetics is the freedom model, which admits that there is aesthetic appreciation of nature, but does not put any constraints upon that appreciation. Like the debate between Elliott and Carlson, the discussion turns on what we think ‘aesthetic appreciation’ is. Maybe the OED definition of ‘appreciation’ would help: Appreciation 2. trans. a. To recognize as valuable or excellent; to find worth or excellence in; to esteem. In Budd’s view, the concept of appreciation is split between art and nature because the appreciation of nature needs to be appreciation “On Its Own Terms”.

According to Malcolm Budd’s (2002) view, “the difference between art and nature, which must figure in any adequate aesthetics, is reflected in a feature— a kind of freedom and a correlative form of relativity— attributed to aesthetic judgments about the beauty of natural items but which is not possessed by judgments about the beauty of art. I believe that judgments of natural beauty are distinguished by a kind of freedom and a form of relativity that does not pertain to judgments of artistic value” (287). Budd argues that merely because it is possible to judge a natural object as if it were a work of art, it does not mean that it is actually necessary to appreciate nature in this way. In this sense, Budd disagrees with Elliott’s view above and endorses a mildly revisionary notion of aesthetic appreciation.

We might consider the distinction between a regulative conception of appreciation— appreciating nature as if it were art— and a constitutive conception of appreciation— appreciating nature as art. Budd argues via a horned dilemma argument that either way we cannot provide an argument for an objective mode of appreciation. In the case of the regulative conception, then we are regarding nature differently than it is, and thus we are not following the appreciation of nature as nature. To appreciate an elk refuge as if it were a Hudson valley landscape painting is to misrepresent the sensations of green grass stretching for miles that one experiences. In the case of the constitutive conception, then there are differences in analogy between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nature. Budd argues that it is obvious that nature is not art, and so to think there is an analogy is misplaced. To appreciate a ponderosa, a snowfield, or the sound of a swooping common nighthawk is not to conceive of an object in light of “an excellent solution to a problem within a set of aesthetic constraints constitutive of a style” (289). He argues that the horned dilemma argument supports the idea that the appreciation of nature is an “anything goes” endeavor.


Budd considers Carlson’s scientific cognitivism and presents an argument against that view. He argues “it is compatible with the requirement that the aesthetic appreciation of nature is aesthetic appreciation of nature as nature (as what nature actually is) that natural items should be appreciated aesthetically under no concepts at all (except that of nature itself), that is, not as instances of the kinds they exemplify, but only with respect to their sensible qualities, the way in which they compose their items’ perceptual forms, and the aesthetic properties they possess in virtue of these qualities and forms” (Budd 2002, 290). Budd is arguing that there’s a distinction between sensation and perception that supports the idea that appreciation does not require concepts or categories. Instead, Budd’s view is that nature appreciation involves the appreciation of sensible qualities or formal qualities. Carlson would reply that perception is always already structured by concepts. (Cf. Sellars’ (1956) and McDowell (1994) on conceptualism about perception. I will return to the conceptualist/non-conceptualist debate later in the project as it relates to the questions about nature aesthetics…) Carlson argues that we ought to utilize the true or the correct categories instead of solely relying upon manifest image categories. Budd admits that “we perceive only under highly general concepts (flower), not as instances of the specific kinds they exemplify (orchid), or under one concept (flower), but not another coextensive concept that expresses a deeper understanding of the nature or function of the kind (sexual organ of plant)” (290).


Budd contrasts two theses involved in the scientific cognitivist view of the aesthetic experience of nature. The psychological thesis is a claim about our awareness of our perception: “what aesthetic properties a natural item appears to possess— what aesthetic properties the item is perceived or experienced as possessing— is a function of the category or categories of nature under which it is experienced” (289). For example, what aesthetic qualities a flower appears to possess is a matter of the category through which it is experienced, for instance the conical shape of the coneflower. The philosophical thesis is a claim about whether our perception correctly represents the external world: “what aesthetic properties the time really possesses is determined by the right categories of nature to experience the item as falling under— it really possesses those aesthetic properties it appears to possess when perceived in its correct categories of nature” (290). For example, what aesthetic qualities a flower actually possesses is a matter of the natural scientific categories under which the flower falls, for instance the cone flower Echinacea category. According to Budd’s view of the structure of perception, aesthetic appreciation provides us with direct access to formal qualities of sensations. According to Carlson’s view, aesthetic appreciation is always already structured by categories that enable perceptions of natural environments. For Carlson, the structure of aesthetic appreciation is always a framing that distinguishes between the nature appreciator and the appreciated natural object.

Budd in a footnote correctly suggests that Carlson thinks that aesthetic formal qualities can only be assessed through a “framed view of the natural environment, not the environment itself, that possesses formal qualities” (299n6). According to Budd, however, appropriate appreciation is of nature itself not of natural environments in general. For Budd, “nature as nature” means we have access through sensation to the noumenal properties of the nature world. Notice here there’s an impasse between Budd and Carlson that involves a conflict between understandings of how mind and action is involved in perception. Budd argues from the assumption that there needs to be an independent way to determine whether aspects of natural environments actually are under those categories in order for us to determine whether the philosophical thesis is true. A key question, however, that is central to resolving this debate between Budd and Carlson is the question of the myth of the given in perception. To what extent can we appeal to an independent standard of sensation of nature that enables us to think about our experiences independent of multiple sets of concepts? Budd thinks this is necessary. Carlson denies this is possible. Impasse?

A central impasse between Budd’s view and Carlson’s view has to do with whether scientific cognitivism demands that a particular category has to structure perception. For instance, suppose we are looking at and listening to a northern mockingbird.


We could categorize the northern mockingbird in the order, genus, or species or be more specific to a region. Since mockingbirds imitate different animals, not only birds but also insects and frogs, we could be more specific to the region as well. We could articulate the different songs that might be differentiated. Budd’s argument is that there’s a difference between categorizing a mockingbird as nature versus not categorizing it as nature, namely insofar as we could listen to a call of a synthetic mockingbird blasting from an iPhone. But, Carlson wants to argue that there’s a difference between getting the category wrong and getting the scientific category wrong in the listening to a mockingbird. What makes the category THE correct or THE true category?

This question creates a dilemma for Carlson. One the one hand Carlson argues that we should defer to natural scientists for the proper category. However, either that presupposes a natural kind assumption that natural scientists do not operate with or the proper category of a mockingbird is so specific and fine-grained as to become observation-independent. That means that the category itself is typed in a way that is independent of aesthetic appreciation. On the other hand, Carlson argues that the proper category is that category that maximizes aesthetic goodness (229): “A more correct categorization in science is one that over time makes the natural world seem more intelligible, more comprehensible to those whose science it is. Our science appeals to certain kinds of qualities to accomplish this. These qualities are ones such as order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, resolution… When we experience them in the natural world or experience the natural world in terms of them, we find it aesthetically good” (229). The phrase “or experience the natural world in terms of [the qualities]” points to the problem with Carlson’s view, because the qualities listed are aesthetic, but 1) they are aesthetic qualities that apply to our understanding, or knowledge, or thinking about nature not about nature itself and 2) they are not themselves scientific categories in the sense in which Carlson has committed to or if they are, then we are back to the first horn of the dilemma. Resolving this impasse will require being clear and precise about the boundaries of aesthetic appreciation and in particular digging deeper into the philosophy of perception.

Once we distinguish between views that do not engage in theorizing about the three questions and those that do, we need to think about the distinction that is often drawn between cognitive versus non-cognitive models of environmental aesthetics. One way to distinguish between dotted line views and solid line views is to suggest that the latter attribute an intellectual content to aesthetic perception that is relevant to determining the norms of appreciation. Dotted line views reject the idea that the activity of aesthetic appreciation of nature involves intellectual structures. Elliott: because the intellectual structures only apply to art. Budd: because the aesthetic appreciation of nature requires only the deflationary intellectual structure of “nature as nature.” Solid line views are not quietistic in either of these senses, but instead posit that there are intellectual structures involved in theorizing about appreciation of nature.

My goal will be to spell out the alternative views to scientific cognitivism in a later post, while at the same time articulating what I take to be intellectual impasses that are created by not thinking about mind and action in the conversations about nature aesthetics. I have already suggested that there are intellectual impasses between scientific cognitivism, on the one hand, and the Scylla of the non-aesthetic model and the Charybdis of the freedom model, on the other. It seems like we can achieve objectivity through scientific cognitivism, we cannot appreciate nature through the non-aesthetic model, or we can appreciate in an “anything goes” type way through the freedom model.


While I think scientific cognitivism steers us through the conversation like Odysseus steered the ship correctly, I nevertheless think that there’s more to be said about alternative views. Next, I turn to the debate between Berleant’s engagement non-cognitivism and Carlson’s scientific cognitivism.




Budd, Malcolm (2000). “The Aesthetics of Nature” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 286–301.

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

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

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

Carroll, Noel (1993). “On Being Moved by Nature: Between Religion and Natural History” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 169–187.

Elliott, Robert (1982) “Faking Nature” Inquiry 25: 81-93. In in Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 381–389.

McDowell, John (1994). Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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

Parsons, Glenn (2008). Aesthetics and Nature. New York, NY: Continuum Publishing

Sellars, W. (1956).  Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind  Ed. Robert Brandom.  (1997). Cambridge, UK:  Harvard University Press.

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