Enthusiasm for the Sublime: about exercising aesthetic awareness and experiential learning, by Paul Roncken

The implicit reason to design an aesthetic landscape is fairly simple. It is to beautify or at least to establish an appreciate response between man and landscape. There is however a vivid series of recent contributions (Berleant, 1992; Carlson, 2010; Meyer, 2008; Saito, 2010) that articulates a distinction between ‘artistic aesthetics’ against something we can indicate as an ‘environmental aesthetics’. The design of landscapes seems at times to be limited by ‘too much wanting in art’ (Olmsted, 1902, p. 51), especially considering our contemporary awareness of pollution, over exploitation of resources, loss of local identities and a general decrease of sensuous competences. The definition of ‘environmental aesthetics’ is used to negotiate all the conflicting experiences of our (everyday) landscapes. Some of these experiences can be more of less controlled by well designed interventions (e.g. Meyer, 2008) others – I suspect – are the mere result of incoherent circumstances or even neglect and demand not improved design instead an improved capacity for the digestion of experiences. Within this debate the implicit reasons to design an aesthetic landscape seems to be expanded to become (1) more explicit and (2) less determined by beautification. The idea to expand the definition of aesthetics is not dependent on an environmental or landscape related context, yet the pragmatic circumstances that orbit the appearances of environments and (everyday) landscapes provide such overwhelming evidence of ‘negative aesthetics’ that we are inclined to include such negativeness in any serious definition of aesthetics. Arnold Berleant for example refers to the idea of the sublime as a ‘negative aesthetics’ that confronts us unprepared and we have not yet developed cognitive and social structures to deal with the inherent changes it provides (Berleant, 1997, pp. 78, 79; 2009). However more truthful a more explicit and less beautified comprehension of aesthetics might seem to critics and philosophers, the mere existence of a ‘negative aesthetics‘ is hardly appealing for designers that need to convince their clients and audience. Designers and clients would rather find an antidote against such negativeness, thereby interpreting aesthetics as the theory to provide them with the principles to do so.

To improve an inclusion of both designers, clients and philosophers in the fascinating discourse on aesthetic categories, I will create an argument that neutralizes the implicit favor for the ‘positive’ or ‘appreciative’ in aesthetics. By analyzing the accumulating idea of the sublime as an aesthetic category (Burke, 1759; Kant, 1951 (1790); Longinus, 2010 (1899); Lyotard, 1994; Weiskel, 1976) I will argue that what is perceived with great enthusiasm by painters, poets and nature explorers (e.g. Macfarlane, 2007; Muir, 1994; Newman, 1950-51) and landscape designers such as Adriaan Geuze and Michael van Valkenburgh (Horn, 2010; Louter, 2003) coincides with a philosophers argument to include both the ‘negative’ and the ‘positive’ in the concept of aesthetics. Any such inclusion questions a dominant ‘appreciative’ response of people amidst environments or landscapes and instead points at a range of ‘exercising’ responses that define (environmental) aesthetics. Such an ‘exercising’ interpretation of aesthetics provides insight in the both the failures and successes of aesthetic interaction and interpretation. My main proposal is therefore to redefine aesthetic categories in terms of exercising positions and their projected educational development. The five aesthetic categories that I propose enable to expand the field of environmental and landscape design by aligning it with the educational categories of experiential learning that have been developed by Dewey (Dewey, 1929, 1933; Miettinen, 2000) and Kolb (Kolb, 1984).

Berleant, A. (1992). The Aesthetics of Environment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Berleant, A. (1997). Living in the Landscape: Towards an Aesthetic of Environment. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Berleant, A. (2009). Art, Terrorism and the Negative Sublime. Contemporary Aesthetics, 7(2009). Retrieved from
Burke, E. (1759). On the Sublime and Beautiful (second ed.). London: Penguin Books.
Carlson, A. (2010). Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Requirements of Environmentalism. Environmental Values, 19(2010), 289-314.
Dewey, J. (1929). Experience and Nature. London: George Allen And Unwin, Limited.
Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think, a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and company.
Horn, A. T. (2010). Architects of the Outdoors, the sculptors of Harvard landscapes create sustainable outdoor havens. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.theharvardcrimson.com/article/2010/9/14/landscape-harvard/?print=1
Kant, I. (1951 (1790)). Critique of Judgement (J. H. Bernard, Trans. Vol. 5). New York: Hafner Press.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning. Experience as the source of learning and Development: Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Longinus. (2010 (1899)). Peri Hypsous. In A. Sanders Way & W. Rhys Roberts (Eds.). Cambridge: Nabu Press. (Reprinted from: 1899).
Louter, F. (2003). Adriaan Geuze wankelt in zoektocht naar evenwicht. Archined News. Retrieved from http://www.archined.nl/recensies/adriaan-geuze-wankelt-in-zoektocht-naar-evenwicht/
Lyotard, J. F. (1994). Lessons on the analytic of the sublime: Stanford University Press.
Macfarlane, R. (2007). The Wild Places: Granta.
Meyer, E. K. (2008). Sustaining beauty – the performance of appearance: Can landscape architects insert aesthetics into our discussions of sustainability? Journal of Landscape Architecture, 98(10), 6-23.
Miettinen, R. (2000). The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), 54-72. doi: 10.1080/026013700293458
Muir, J. (1994). The Wild Muir, twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures: Yosemite Association.
Newman, B. (1950-51). Vir Heroicus Sublimis.
Olmsted, F. L. (1902). Public Parks. Massachusetts: Brookline.
Saito, Y. (2010). Future Directions for Environmental Aesthetics. Environmental Values, 19(2010), 373-391.
Weiskel, T. (1976). The Romantic Sublime. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Paul A. Roncken, Wageningen University, NL


Harvard Citation Guide: Roncken, P. (2012) Enthusiasm for the Sublime: about exercising aesthetic awareness and experiential learning, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 12 June 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 15 June 2012].

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: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].