The Aesthetics and Ethics of Representing the Natural World, by Nola Semczyszyn

Environmental aesthetics has generally been concerned with appreciation and evaluation of the natural world based on multi‐sensory acquaintance with the perceptible qualities we experience when immersed in an environment. This emphasis on immersive (face to face) experience is in tension with the fact that many of our encounters with and aesthetic evaluations of environments are through representations, particularly visual media like photographs, documentary film, and habitat displays. Because representation is necessarily selective, and because we do not know which perceptible qualities underlie the best aesthetic evaluations, the omission of some through representational selectivity threatens to be aesthetically inadequate.

Aesthetic conservation holds that the reduction or mediation of perceptible qualities renders experience aesthetically inadequate for appreciation or evaluation. We cannot fully appreciate an alpine meadow from inside the chalet any more than we can appreciate a Rodin sculpture through a postcard. However, since there is open debate about what perceptible qualities are actually relevant to adequate aesthetic appreciation, then whichever qualities we actually do attend to seem to have an equal probability of being aesthetically good. Call this aesthetic agnosticism.

I present a pragmatic reason to resist aesthetic agnosticism. Some ways of experiencing the natural world express environmental values such as integrity, biodiversity, and harmony, while other do not. Other things being equal, the promotion of such values should be considered aesthetically good. Representations that draw our attention to qualities of an environment expressive of environmental values should also be considered aesthetically meritorious. We should challenge aesthetic conservation and instead examine what makes a representation environmentally good.

Drawing from the literature on moral/ aesthetic interaction in philosophy of art, I argue that environmental values in representations function similar to artistic values when assessing whether moral demerits count as aesthetic demerits. I develop a framework for assessing environmental representations in terms of how they represent their subjects. Traditionally, discussion of perceptual access to the subject of a representation is framed around the handmade/ mechanically produced distinction. The belief independent counterfactual dependence of mechanically produced picture is thought to warrant their epistemic reliability of particulars, while belief dependent handmade pictures can show types.

I supplant this distinction, dividing environmental representations by their mode of selectivity into those that are exemplar based, passively selective, or intentionally exclusive. Each of these systems has different conditions for representational success, failure, and misrepresentation, that affect how the environmental values or vices they express can count as moral/ aesthetic merits or demerits. Assessing whether a representation is environmentally good will require balancing representational, moral, and aesthetic merits and demerits. However excellent as a film, a passively selective documentary could be aesthetically demeritorious insofar as it draws our attention to visual features of a scene that promote environmental vices such as anthropomorphisation; while an exemplar based aquarium display could be aesthetically meritorious in expressing ecological integrity. If environmental aesthetics embraces representations it includes more of our actual experiences of environments, and also allows us to explore how representations do and should impact our environmental appreciation and action.

Nola Semczyszyn, Franklin and Marshall College, CA

Harvard Citation Guide: Semczyszyn, N. (2012) The Aesthetics and Ethics of Representing the Natural World, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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