Friday, March 09, 2007
I just had a think
And I think it is a thinky think, so I am going to think it here.
Which "nature" do we appreciate when we appreciate nature aesthetically?
"Nature" is one of the most complex nouns in the English language. The OED lists 26 definitions in 5 categories. Environmental philosophers tend to focus on two definitions, mostly "nature as a physical space unmodified by humans" and "nature as all that is," in other words, the nature that includes us and the one that doesn't. More interesting, though, are the horde of meanings of "nature" that refer to some kind of hidden order, purpose, or structure. When the hidden order is teleological, we get the sense of the word nature used to condemn various sex practices as "unnatural." When the hidden order is physical and causal, we get "nature" as in natural science.
Most of the environmental aesthetics I have read has focused on the appreciation of natural environments, meaning large physical spaces unmodified by humans. There is also some talk of appreciating natural objects, like rocks or trees. I think a more interesting kind of nature appreciation is the appreciation of natural processes, of nature as a hidden order. I know some work has been done along these lines, but mostly I think I'm just remembering seeing "natural processes" in lists of things we can appreciate, along with natural objects and environments.
Of course, appreciating natural processes was very important for nineteenth century romantics. Paintings like Cole's The Ox Bow, above, didn't just show nature, they showed parts of nature where the natural processes were visible. (I think I learned this from Allen Carlson or Gene Hargrove when I was at the Alaska NEH.)
So what happens to the aesthetic attitude when the process is the object of appreciation? Is there a way we can privilege the appreciation of processes over other things? I need to look at Carlson and Hargrove again to see if they've already covered this, along with some others. Focusing on the appreciation of processes would fit a Carlson, science based aesthetic attitude. It also fits with a modern environmentalism, a movement quite different than ancient pastoralisms. It fits with the rational for a lot of Chinese parks, which are geological rather than say wildlife preserves. It also makes sense of the Martian environmentalism of Kim Stanly Robinson's Mars books. (Not that anyone was really demanding that philosophers make sense of this obscure fictional movement.) The process aesthetic has a strange relationship to the Buddhist aesthetic I've been working on. They fit together because they are both so much about time and change. But the process aesthetic is more cognitive, more material.