Saturday, June 03, 2006

My Presentation at the ISEE/IAEP

This was written Thursday, but I'm just posting it now.

This morning I gave my talk to the ISEE/IAEP conference, and received some excellent comments from John Fisher. John opened with a strong reading of my paper: My thesis boils down to saying that one cannot appreciate nature properly unless one has achieved Buddhist enlightenment. He implies that for this to be true, Buddhism would have to be “The true metaphysical account of ourselves and the world.” (I’m reading an “if” as really an “only if.”)

To review: In the paper I outline several different ideas about how one should appreciate nature that have been put forward in the analytic aesthetics literature. I then claim that a better account can be found in traditional Buddhist texts like the Theregāthā including this poem. The core of my argument simply comes from the first three of the Buddha’s noble truths. Nature is full of suffering. We suffer because we desire. The way to see the world as it is without suffering is to eliminate desire. I first blogged on this topic here

So am I saying that only a Bodhisattva appreciates nature? Well, John actually suggests and answer for me, that the model is only a regulative idea. And this is certainly right. To the extent that we approach enlightenment, we also approach the ability to properly appreciate nature. But there is more to be said here. I’m somewhat ambiguous in the paper about the role of pluralism in my aesthetics, and I need to clean that up, to explain the role of this model as a regulative idea.

In the paper my attitude boils down to this: this model, the Theragāthā model, is only one model among many. The other models have their uses for different times and different people. Children’s experience of nature should be engaged--in fact, there is probably no way for them to disengage. When Caroline is outside, in the backyard or down by the river, she runs from site to site and from experience to experience. “Look, an ant!” “Look a pretty rock!” “Look, a wish!” (“Wish” = a dandelion when it is white and ready to loose its seeds.) Each of these sites, these parts of the yard, call on her to act. A wish should be blown. A rock must be handed to an adult. Ants should be coaxed to crawl on a leaf or into a jar. This engaged mode of dealing with nature is right and good for her.

But for most adults, with the capacity to see a lot of nature, the disinterested model is needed. It is needed to see the world as it is without suffering. Really, what I am offering here is not pluralism, but a sort of contextualism. Whether or not a mode of nature appreciation is appropriate depends on time, place, the background of the person experiencing nature, whether or not she is three years old, etc.

Another major objection raised was that the mode of appreciation I am discussing is either not about nature, or it is not aesthetic, or both. I attempted to deal with this by referring to a Hepburn essay, but John rightly points out that this is inadequate. Here’s the real problem: the mode of experience I am discussing can be had almost anywhere. It is at best an empirical generalization that natural environments are likely to yield this experience. As one commenter put it to me, you can engage in this kind of contemplation in Times Square. The attitude toward nature is at best instrumental. I also totally didn’t justify my claim that the appreciation I am discussing is aesthetic.

I am labeling the experience I am talking about the aesthetic appreciation of nature, because I believe there is a cluster of phenomena that all of the thinkers I have discussed are trying to describe. Shaftsbury, Dewey, Carlson, Berleant, and the ancient monks and nuns all have related experiences in nature. By emphasizing different aspects of the experience, they create models that are to degrees both normative and descriptive. The Theragāthā model clearly belongs in this cluster. Buddhist non engagement belongs in a family with classical aesthetic disinterestedness. They both involve a suspension of means-ends rationality and some sort of bracketing of personal desire. The Theragāthā model is also at least as much about nature as the other models in this cluster. It is true that this mode of contemplation can take place in Times Square. It could also take place in art galleries. But this is at worst simply a similarity between the aesthetic experience of nature and the aesthetic experience of art and everyday life, a connection which is made by many of the writers I am drawing on.

Of course, there are some ways in which the state described in the Theregāthā model differs from the state described by the other thinkers. But this is just to say that it is a model which makes different normative suggestions. It isn’t fair to say that the Theragāthā model is less aesthetic or less about nature because it stresses different aspects of the experience, and pushes the experience in different ways.

The final big objection was that the Theregāthā model does not link the aesthetic appreciation of nature to a duty to preserve nature. The disconnect was expressed in two ways. First, if disinterested, noncognitive experience is possible in a variety of environments, why bother to preserve this particular environment. Fisher made a stronger point. If one is truly nonattached to the landscape, then one will be impassive in the face of its destruction.

The stronger version of this objection is false, and the weaker version is true but not really a problem for the model. As for the stronger version, Buddhist nonattachment is meant to allow for action, and indeed there are Buddhist environmental activists in SE Asia. As for the weaker criticism, I think it is simply true. To the extent that similar aesthetic experience is possible in other environments, aesthetics isn’t that strong a motivator for preservationism. But I have argued elsewhere [add link] that there are plenty of other reasons for doubting the moral force of aesthetic values.

Changes to make in the paper before sending it off:

  • Explicitly describe the model as a regulative idea early on. You owe this to Fisher.
  • Clarify ideas of pluralism of pages 17 and 18.
  • give response to the “Is this about nature? Is this aesthetic?” question its own section.
  • Ralston as another example of an engaged cognitivist. You owe this to Fisher.
  • explain that you are grouping together nonattachment, disinterestedness, and quiet contemplation as a simplifying device.
  • add section on non attachment, action, and aesthetic motivations for preservationism--or perhaps this can just go into the “how this model solves problems” section.
  • fix section on Mahayanist attitudes and formal appreciation of nature to deal with Simon’s objections.
  • Add note saying that Berleant may well be bizarrely off base about Kant and imperialism, but that this doesn’t matter for my argument. (credit simon here.)

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