James M Dow

Observation or Participation? Disinterestedness or Engagement?








J E H McDonald “Autumn Algoma” 1918 Oil on Canvas

You’re sitting on a fallen ponderosa tree that lays across a mountain creek. You look into the contrast of the reflectivity of the water against the coarseness of the bark of the tree. The rippling of the water over the rocks is shadowed by the tree below but also allows a resonance to bounce with the flowing sound. You smell the sap being extruded under the press of the late day sunlight. There is a difference between observing the orange-red bark covering grottoes of black through the category or concept of Pinus Ponderosa and participating in picking and peeling or debarking the trees harsh covering. Is there a difference between a disinterested appreciation of the textures of the bark and an engaged appreciation of the niches and recesses of the ponderosa covering? 

A cognitive view of nature aesthetics defended by Carlson (2000) supports the idea that perception needs to be structured by a cognitive component— knowledge, beliefs, concepts, or categories— in order for it to count as aesthetic appreciation. A non-cognitive view of nature aesthetics described by Berleant supports the idea that perception does not need to be structured and in fact ought not to be structured by a cognitive component in order to count as aesthetic appreciation. Instead that optimal or expert nature appreciation is the recovery through destructuring of non-cognitive perception. The ideal of appreciation is participatory engagement rather an observing from a standpoint. Berleant denies that cognition is necessary in a variety of ways. There are also various psychologically relevant mental states through which the non-cognitive core is articulated: engagement, emotion, wonder, imagination, empathy.

Arnold Berleant’s engagement model of nature appreciation has been the leading non-cognitivist view. Throughout the project I will rearticulate a full-blooded engagement theory by making Berleant’s account more clear and precise. Carlson (1993) has argued against Berleant’s view mostly by pointing out how unclear and imprecise his descriptive phenomenology is. Three key quotes are relevant to interpreting Berleant’s account:

“The boundlessness of the natural world does not just surround us; it assimilates us. Not only are we unable to sense absolute limits in nature; we cannot distance the natural world from ourselves in order to measure and judge it with complete objectivity. Nature exceeds the human mind…The ultimate limitlessness of nature comes from the recognition that the cognitive relation with things is not the exclusive relation or even the highest one we can achieve” (Berleant 1992, 169).

“Perceiving environments from within, as it were, looking not at nature, but being in it, nature is transformed into a realm in which we live as participants, not merely as observers” (Berleant 1992, 170).

“Canoeing a serpentine river when the quiet evening water reflects the trees and rocks along the banks so vividly as to allure the paddler into the center of a six-dimensional world; camping beneath pines black against the night sky; walking through the tall grass of a hidden meadow whose tree-defined edges become the boundaries of the earth. The aesthetic mark of all such times is not disinterested contemplation but total engagement, a sensory immersion in the natural world that reaches the still-uncommon experience of unity” (Berleant 1992, 170).

Berleant thinks that the aesthetic appreciation of nature should involve an immersion in the natural world. Appreciation is about participation rather than observation; about being with nature rather thinking about nature. For instance, rather than looking and listening to the flowing river, we should be in the flow or in the zone as we’re rowing through it or running around it on a trail.


The action of intervening in the natural world is what is core to appreciation: picking at the bark to disclose the dark underbark; hearing the snap and flake of the red-orange covering; smelling the remainder of last year’s pollen dust hidden in the crevices. Berleant’s view of aesthetic appreciation is situated, contextual, and immersed. Engagement focuses appreciators on multisensory perception and takes aesthetics to be a matter of knowing-how rather than knowing-that.

For engagement theorists, aesthetic appreciation is a skill or ability that needs to be cultivated rather than a body of propositional knowledge that needs to be acquired. Nature appreciation is more like meditation and contemplation than like examination and circumspection. Nature appreciation is therefore always a regulative ideal of a practice instead of a psychological ideal of whether or not one possesses a theory or a set of concepts that structure one’s perception.

Scientific cognitivism seems to privilege seeing and hearing, at least insofar as observation in the natural sciences privileges looking and listening. Instead, Berleant suggests that aesthetic appreciation should involve multisensory experiences of nature that include touching, tasting, and smelling. Engagement aims at deprivileging vision and audition as the primary modes of aesthetic access. Berleant’s engagement theory is deconstructive in this sense and is more revisionary than scientific cognitivism. While scientific cognitivism takes observation and perception at face value, Berleant suggests that we need to change our concepts of “aesthetics,” “natural,” and “environment” because they harbor baggage that impedes authentic appreciation. Berleant argues there are no special aesthetic objects, no special aesthetic status, and no special aesthetic attitudes. As such the engagement view is an experientialist view that focuses on immersion as the regulative goal of aesthetic appreciation.

Carlson’s view revises what enters into our observation (scientific concepts rather than ordinary concepts or unsophisticated emotions), but Berleant’s view requires revision of the place of observation in our appreciation at all. In particular, Berleant’s model suggests that appropriate appreciation of nature focuses on the phenomenology of the natural world, in particular the qualitative feels involved in flow experiences. For Berleant, that such natural experiences exist shows that we need to overcome the psychological dualism between internal and external, appreciator and appreciated, passive and active. As I will discuss in Ch. 3, the enactive and embodied account of the mental content of perception can be used to elucidate Berleant’s account.


Melissa Chandon “Pool with Diving Board Lavender” 2016 48″ x 48″ Acrylic on Board

As the quotes suggest above, Berleant conceives of the appreciation of nature on analogy with the goals of expert bodily action or skilled participation in the natural world. Berleant thinks of the goal of appreciation as a unity between subject and object. In appreciation, the self becomes the world and the world becomes the self. “There is no outside world. There is no outside. Nor is there an inner sanctum in which I can take refuge from inimical external forces. The perceiver (mind) is an aspect of the perceived (body) and conversely; person and environment are continuous” (1992, 4). The goal of nature appreciation is to make the subject disappear into the natural world, to shut down consciousness, judgment, and cognition in a way that allows nature to simply be perceived as a bare Given. The objection against Carlson’s view of scientific cognitivism is best understood as challenging the idea that applying concepts to nature interrupts or interferes with engagement. In this sense, Berleant’s view of nature appreciation contrasts the role of action in perception with the role of thought in perception and argues that the action— what he calls “engagement”— should be privileged. “To the extent that every thing, every place, every event is experienced by an aware body with sensory directness and immediate significance, it has an aesthetic element. For the fully engaged participant, an aesthetic factor is always present” (10).

A key idea that is not present in the above quotes is Berleant’s arguments for a universal aesthetics. Carlson suggests that Berleant’s view is best described as a “Unified aesthetics requirement” (2009, 42). According to Berleant’s view it is not the case that aesthetics “harbors two dissimilar types of phenomena, one concerning art and another nature” (161) but instead that the appreciation of art and nature requires an universal aesthetic which captures a “single all-embracing kind of experience” (161). According to Berleant’s view, once we recognize that nature aesthetics has privileged a static, detached, and observational stance— the classical notion of “disinterestedness”— engaging with predominantly sight and sound, then we can recognize that a revision of nature aesthetics is required.

Carlson does critique the scenic, the picturesque, and the sublime as frameworks that inform nature aesthetics that have been historically taken up with a distancing standpoint, but he maintains that aesthetic appreciation is fundamentally detached. However, Berleant encourages a revisionary view that undoes the traditional idea that disinterestedness is core to aesthetic appreciation. Beyond that revision, the universal aesthetics that Berleant endorses requires not only undermining the art-nature analogies that Carlson employs focusing on concepts of art history/natural history, but instead, rethinking the position of particular artworks in the canon of aesthetics. Once we rethink the role that engagement and bodily movement plays in aesthetics then painting, drawing, and film are not the core artworks around which art aesthetics must circle; but instead sculpture, installation, performance, and dance have at least as important roles in the engagement with the aesthetic.


Sarah Sze Triple Point (Gleaner) 2013 Rock printed on Tyvek, trees, moss, rocks, aluminum, wood, steel, bricks, stone, sandbags, outdoor pump, outdoor lights, mixed media Dimensions variable

The central disagreements between Berleant and Carlson center around a few issues: the subject/object distinction, the differential role that bodily action and mental action play in perception of natural environments, the denial of the myth of the given, the role that disinterestedness plays in aesthetic appreciation. For Carlson, aesthetic appreciation requires an object that is opposed to a subject, meaning the subject’s mental states need to change in response to the static object. Objects in natural environments are presupposed to be present in sensation and structured by categories in perception. For Berleant, the goal is the merging of the subject and object, meaning that the goal of aesthetic appreciation is an experience of merging, immersion, emergence that aims to reach flow experience. Aesthetic appreciation is like “absorbed bodily coping” in Dreyfus’s recent debate with McDowell on expert bodily action.

For Carlson, perception as it plays a role in nature aesthetics is informed by mental actions, namely the categorization of sensations that structure perception in order for sensory qualities to change or vary. Categorization is a mental act that occurs from a disinterested point of view. For Berleant, perception in nature aesthetics is informed not only by mental actions, but by bodily actions, in particular by bodily movements through an environment. As such disinterested detachment is not the goal of aesthetic appreciation, but instead, engagement forces us into interestedness, meaning the experience of attachment to the world, revealing in our needs and wants and feels. Nature appreciation is as a matter of fact embodied and embedded which is an ineliminable aspect of human nature, as Muir, and Thoreau, and Leopold all recognized.

For Carlson, his view of perception presupposes that concepts and categories structure perception. In this sense, he doesn’t think that sensation is a given that then thought and concepts are added to. For Berleant, however, there is at least phenomenologically an experience of looking and listening that is world-directed, embodied and embedded, and engages with the raw feels of the world. I don’t however think that Berleant is susceptible to the myth of the given, because for Berleant, aesthetic appreciation is a skill or ability rather than a basic capacity. Another way to differentiate between Carlson and Berleant is in terms of how the art-nature analogy functions. Carlson keeps the category theory view of Walton in place as is and applies it to natural environments. For Carlson, knowledge, belief, and cognition are functioning identically in art and nature. Berleant, on the other hand, attempts to eliminate most remnants of art aesthetics based on the idea that that object orientation removes or detaches appreciation from its proper engagement.


Lucien Jonas “Petit Breton” 1904 Oil on Canvas

There are a variety of impasses that emerge between Carlson and Berleant in the discussion of nature aesthetics. The crux of the disagreement seems to be between Carlson privileging disinterestedness and Berleant privileging engagement. The central goal of the project is to show that these impasses arise BECAUSE we have not thought deeply enough about nature aesthetics through the lens of questions of mind and action. Apart from Carlson’s commitments about rejecting art aesthetics based models of the scenic and the picturesque in nature appreciation, Carlson still maintains that appreciation necessarily involves a free distanced orientation that is implicit in the concept of disinterestedness. Berleant however thinks that there is a massive disanalogy between art appreciation and nature appreciation such that no amount of subject/object detachment can remain as a norm of appreciation. For Berleant, the experience of the collapse of the subject/object dichotomy is to be privileged. In order to resolve these impasses, we need to reflect upon pivotal questions concerning mind and action in perception.

Does self-awareness interrupt or interfere with nature appreciation? This is partly a normative question and partly a natural question. Does categorizing via conceptual representations create a distancing or a detachment from the natural world that limits the possibility of multisensory engagement that we might experience? We can dig into these questions by contrasting the enactivist approach to perception and the representationalist approach to perception. Are sensation and perception structured by cognitive and conceptual representations such that the content of perception inevitably possesses an aboutness concerning the natural environment? Carlson presupposes that perception is conceptual and Berleant presupposes that we can be immersed in the givenness of the sensuous and the sensual. Does this presupposition inform the idea that we ought to privilege disinterestedness over engagement? Are emotions and sentiments central to the possibility of appreciation of the natural environment?

Is there a tension between the normative constraints on aesthetic appreciation which some have argued need to involve practical interests such as affection, love, or care for what is being experienced and the objective constraints on aesthetic appreciation that urge that there’s a correct and incorrect way to appreciate? How important are the skills and capacities of embodied and embedded perception for the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments? How we do understand the impasse between Carlson’s focus on mental actions of aspection, attention, and categorization versus Berleant’s focus on bodily actions such as touching, feeling, and movement? Is there a possible resolution between these two views that can come from thinking about a common thread that connects embodied and embedded views that focus on skills and capacities on some occasions and on other occasions on representational content? These questions will be taken up in later chapters on the development of an enactive nature aesthetics.

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

Carlson, Allen (1993). “Aesthetics and Engagement” British Journal of Aesthetics 33.3: 220–227

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

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


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