The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism Michael Hannis



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Character and beauty

Although I have said above that the character of a place includes typical aesthetic responses to it, it is nevertheless true that when we speak colloquially of the beauty of a place, we are often in fact speaking about its character. There is a close analogy with people- when we speak of "a beautiful person" we do not simply mean that their body has a beautiful physical form. Even in the objectifying world of the "beauty contest", where the physical aspect of beauty is, in fact, paramount, the bikini-clad contestants have to proclaim that they like giving to charity and being kind to animals. This is to enable the promoters to claim that they have not departed from the popular idea of beauty as something more than physical appearance. Whether we believe them is irrelevant here: the fact that they make the claim is simply offered as evidence of the pervasiveness of the notion that beauty is more than "skin-deep". Something like this notion also applies to our perception of non-human beauty in, for instance, a landscape.

(Confusion may arise here over the special sense in which we use the word "character" when speaking about people, to mean something like "personality"- an aggregate of specifically non-physical "characteristics" (even though we also speak of their "physical characteristics"). This is different from what I mean by the character of a place, which includes its physical attributes- although to the extent that a place has a personality its character would include that as well.)

It might be objected that beauty, in aesthetics, is supposed to be connected with physical perception, not abstract knowledge. On this view, the popular sense of "a beautiful person" would be seen as a misuse, or more generously an alternative use, of the word "beautiful". If I say "the beauty of Buddhism is its compassion" then the word "beauty" is a long way from home; it is almost a metaphor- it just means "good quality". I do not physically perceive Buddhism, therefore technically I cannot judge it to be beautiful. But the case of the "beautiful person" is not like the case of "beautiful Buddhism". I do physically perceive people, and if I consider someone to be "a beautiful person", this may well increase the likelihood of my finding them physically beautiful.

Knowledge, emotions and impressions about people have an effect on our aesthetic appreciation of them, just as knowledge about the genre and the artist have an effect on our aesthetic appreciation of a work of art. Equally our aesthetic appreciation of a place is informed by everything we feel, know and remember about it- almost inevitably, we judge its character, not only its physical appearance. And of course, my story of its character will be subtly different from yours.

This is not to say that "aesthetics doesn't exist", that there is nothing genuine about the distinction between the aesthetic value of a place and the broader value of its continued existence as a repository of memories, associations and possible future use and enjoyment. Aesthetic value may be subjective but that does not make it imaginary.

An aesthetic response is not reducible to a feeling of satisfaction at the possession of any resource, tangible or otherwise, and aesthetic value cannot therefore be considered as a type of "amenity value". Preserving a forest for its beauty is qualitatively different to preserving it for its timber, even though the effect may be the same in the short term; preserving it purely for its usefulness to dog-walkers is analogous to the latter. The aesthetic value I consider a place to have is connected to but distinct from the value I place on my being able to go there and appreciate it; aesthetic valuation, although acutely personal, is not purely a matter of self-interest.

In this specific sense of "interest", Kant's "disinterestedness" remains a useful distinguishing characteristic of aesthetic experience. I am reluctant to use the term, however, since in modern English, whatever Kant intended, it inevitably has other connotations of a lack of intensity and engagement, both of which are essential to aesthetic experience. But in keeping considerations of personal gain out, we can build at least some defence against relativism: for Kant, disinterestedness grounds a claim to universality (cf Kemal 1992, ch. 3). My judgement of a painting or a landscape as beautiful is subjective, but I may still make a case for its being likely to be shared by others. I can communicate it to them and they, having made their own similar (though on my model not identical) judgement, may well agree with me. This is not like the way in which my dinner looks good to me when I am hungry.

Aesthetic enjoyment of a place also contrasts with abstract contemplation of it, with any pleasure that can be gained from calling a place to mind without being there; if there is no physical perception involved, we cannot properly call an experience aesthetic.

So to sum up, I am suggesting that when I feel and declare a place to be beautiful, I am not talking about any "resource value"; I am describing an experience I have when I go there, and saying that I have that experience because of my perception of the total character of the place, including but not limited to its physical appearance. Although this experience is deeply personal, I expect something similar to be available to another person, to the extent that they have a similar perception of its character. In expecting this, I am assuming not only that we will broadly agree about the physical appearance of the place but that there is some congruence in our background concepts and sensibilities, if only by virtue of our both being human beings.

This is how, when we talk about the natural world, aesthetic terms such as beautiful come to carry so much extra baggage. They implicitly refer back not only to our knowledge, but to all our feelings, values and beliefs about nature and our relationship to it; feelings which in our culture we often do not or cannot express in other ways. In this sense, aesthetics has become the last refuge of the unquantifiable.

Aesthetic Appreciation of Landscape: Ideas of Natural Beauty

If we ask what sort of landscapes people find most aesthetically valuable, it is a fair bet that among a wide range of responses we will find recurring criteria of "wildness", "unspoiltness", "naturalness", all expressing a notion of a landscape exhibiting minimal signs of human "interference". Of course, particularly in a country such as modern Britain there is little if any landscape that is genuinely "untouched by human hand"; but this in no way invalidates this strongly expressed preference. Discovering that a breathtaking panorama of high moorland scenery has in fact been "created" from a previously forested mountainside by generations of sheep-farmers will certainly add another layer to my experience of the place, but it is unlikely to make me feel that I was wrong in finding it beautiful, to make me switch off my aesthetic appreciation of it and trek straight back down the hill to look elsewhere for some "real natural beauty".

Diffey suggests that while for him not everything natural is necessarily beautiful, the South Downs are "undoubtedly" beautiful, and their beauty is rightly seen as natural, despite extensive human influence:

"For a scene to be naturally beautiful is not so much for it to be in an unmanaged state as for it to look as if it were."( Diffey 1992, in Kemal & Gaskell 1992, p.48)

While the exclusive emphasis on the visual seems unnecessarily to exclude the song of larks and the smell of wild flowers (we might want to substitute seem for look), there is a useful insight here. This focus on appearance leaves open the possibility of a scene which is obviously managed (like a garden, a farm, or a landscape art installation) being beautiful in a different way, while making the point that perception of "unmanagedness" is an important component of perception of natural beauty. It also gives an idea of varying degrees of natural beauty accompanying varying degrees of evidence of human intervention.

There are many ways in which we find nature beautiful, and all, as I have already suggested, are shaped by our pre-existing individual knowledge, feelings and beliefs about our relationship to nature, both personally and as a species. An experience of nature which resonates with these beliefs will be more likely to lead to positive aesthetic appreciation. Differences of taste, preference or priority are at least in part explicable by reference to differences in these underlying conditions of perception. Within this continuum I wish to distinguish two broad streams of aesthetic preference. Without claiming that they are necessarily mutually incompatible, I suggest that they can be loosely associated with two contrasting views of the human / nature relationship.

Essentially, those who broadly identify with the socially prevalent version of this relationship will be more inclined to find its manifestations aesthetically pleasing; surveying Diffey's South Downs, they will agree with him that neither the knowledge nor the evidence of benign human "management" detract from their natural beauty. The traces of thousands of years of habitation and cultivation do not make the place "unnatural", they argue; they have added to its character. Such people may denounce another visitor who complains that the landscape is no longer naturally beautiful, because humans have long since cut down the forest which "ought" to be there, as a misanthropic extremist. They may be committed, sensitive environmentalists, but they also consider themselves realists; they do not seek to return nature to a pre-human state but to progressively fine-tune the human presence through efficient and sustainable practices. Thus a bucolic English rural landscape formed and maintained by traditional agriculture is, to them, an example of unspoilt natural beauty. This is not to say that they do not find wilder places worth preserving, or beautiful; but they may well not find them more beautiful. They probably will not exhibit a compulsive passion for "untouched" nature.

On the other hand, many "radical" environmentalists do exhibit just such a passion. For those who question everything about the presently dominant paradigm of human relationship to nature, the experience of truly wild places, no matter how hard to find, is often a deeply felt need, essential to the formation of a personal relationship with the non-human world untainted by the rejected anthropocentrism of the prevailing modern culture. Places where this is possible therefore come to be seen as the defining examples of natural beauty; Diffey's "looking unmanaged" will certainly not be sufficient. The ideal of personal unmediated experience of wild nature as a source of meaning and truth, not least about how to live as a human being, exerts a powerful influence in the realm of aesthetic valuing.

This ideal, of course, is no modern invention but a clearly discernible strand in the history of European attitudes to the natural world. It was strongly evident in the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (cf Taylor 1989, ch. 21) and aesthetic experience connected with it was often then described in terms of the "sublime" qualities of nature. In using this term and associating it with one of two types of aesthetic perception I do not mean to oppose it, in a Kantian sense, to "beautiful"; it is precisely the fact that we find the sublime beautiful that I am pointing out here. A tamed pastoral landscape may be beautiful, but cannot be sublime: a dramatic mountain peak is sublime, and yet also beautiful to many, I am arguing, partly because of its sublimity. (Perhaps the fact that the two terms are no longer opposable in modern English reflects a loss of precision in the definition of "beauty"- but it is now probably our most common expression of positive aesthetic appreciation, and I shall continue to use it in this sense.)

Sublimity, otherness and wonder

Consider a single tree which has grown from a fallen seed in an English woodland. Encountering this tree, my experience of it as beautiful has many components. The colour of the leaves, the texture of the bark, the graceful form of the branches, the rhythmic rustling and creaking it makes in the wind, the sight and sound of birds and squirrels feeding and sheltering in it, the sheer enormity of its great trunk, the dappled sunlight beneath its canopy all contribute to my aesthetic experience of the tree. But underlying and unifying all these is my awareness of its life, its being, its otherness, its having spontaneously come into existence and developed independently of any human agency. It can reveal something of the world beyond human culture. It can have a sort of meaning for me that no human artifact ever could. Any account of my experience of the tree or of why I find it beautiful which leaves out this quality will be incomplete.

If I now focus in on a single leaf of the tree, this "otherness" will still be present, as it will if I transfer my attention to the caterpillar eating the leaf, or to the bird swooping in to eat the caterpillar. In all four cases the object of my attention is entirely "natural", in the paradoxical popular sense of the word which excludes all things human. No evidence of human "interference", no mediating culture, interrupts my timeless encounter with the "other" world.

But if I lift my gaze to encompass the whole woodland, and the surrounding landscape, that particular spell, unless I am very lucky, will be broken. I may see roads, cars, pylons, houses and other paraphernalia; or perhaps just hedgerows and ploughed fields. Perhaps I simply see something which reminds me that the woodland has at some point been planted. The view may very well still be beautiful, even strikingly so, but that magical feeling of "just me and nature" will have been lost, or at least diminished.

This goes some way towards explaining why the "wilderness experience" is a holy grail for some; to be alone and completely surrounded by "untouched nature" is as close as we can come to a world where this spell is never broken. Immersed in otherness, the accumulated personal identity of culture can be forgotten and the buried "I" of pure "body-subject" can encounter the world unmediated.

Neil Evernden (1993, p.138) quotes Merleau-Ponty's comment:

"The best formulation of the (phenomenological) reduction is probably that of Eugen Fink, Husserl's assistant, when he spoke of 'wonder' in the face of the world"

and goes on to elaborate (ibid., p.139):

"Relieved of the cultural context which declares this is important and that is not- a 'structure of meaningful distinctions', to recall Douglas's comment about any environment we know- one is simply aware of what is. Wonder is the absence of interpretation."

I do not mean to claim that "wonder in the face of the world" can only happen in an environment free of human influence, nor that being in a wilderness will necessarily induce such a state. I simply suggest that the more free of human influence a landscape is, the more conducive it is to wonder, by virtue of better allowing the perceiving subject to be "relieved of cultural context". Of course as has often been pointed out, we can find wild nature in a weed poking up through the cracks of a city pavement (cf Cronon1995, p.89) and I would not wish for a moment to deny that, in finding it there, we may be overcome with wonder. But it will probably require more "effort" than in the wilderness case, more "bracketing" of preconceptions and distractions, to allow the focussing of attention on the "otherness" which is no longer all around us but concentrated in one small area of our perceptual world. It is, however, still there to be encountered, wherever there is anything that we have not made.

It may be objected here that all this talk of otherness is missing the point. Surely "deep" experiences of nature are characterised by a feeling of oneness, a heightened awareness of connectedness, not of difference? I want to claim, with Merleau-Ponty's help, that it is possible, indeed essential, to have it both ways; that is to say that only by genuinely encountering nature's otherness can we come to feel a sense of connection with it. The key to this apparent paradox is the concept of incarnate subjectivity.

The self and the body are not merely contingently related; in rejecting Descartes' mind/body problem I am set free to say that "I am what it feels like to be my body". Husserl realised that having pushed res extensa (matter) into the black hole of doubt, one could quite legitimately push res cogitans (mind) in there after it, whereupon they would come out the other side reunited. Despite the problematic status of the "transcendental ego" doing the pushing, this elegant move seemed to hoist Descartes on his own petard. Adding to this, Merleau-Ponty asserts that the very nature of perception links perceiver and percept so closely as to make it untenable any longer to describe them as subject and object in the Cartesian sense. A vital part of this link is the intentionality of our perception- and this intentionality is convincingly shown to be a bodily intentionality. Thus subjectivity is incarnate- "I" am not a disembodied mind but a situated body-subject. When I perceive the world it is a process of relation, of communication. As Monika Langer puts it:

"..Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological description of perception stresses the phenomenal body's primordial anchorage in and bond with, the pre-objective world. This means that the perceiver is simultaneously part of the perceived world and sufficiently apart from it for dialogue between them to arise." (Langer 1989, p.158)

For this dialogue to be genuinely meaningful it is essential to be open to apprehending the perceived world as itself, not simply as "that which is not human". To establish a relationship with something which is defined only as "not-me" is a two-dimensional process with only one possible outcome; the only variable is the distance between us. The third dimension, the axis of radical otherness, allows an infinitely greater and richer variety of relative positions and interactions. Once I identify my consciousness with my body I am no longer looking out at the physical world from a sealed glass box, but able to feel truly part of it and thus to engage with other beings and objects in this fuller three-dimensional way.

When I look into the eyes of a wild animal, my humanness shows me the difference between us; and simultaneously, my physicality shows me how close we are to being the same. Oneness and otherness are both powerfully present. Similarly, in a wild place I can feel its mysterious untamed otherness and yet also feel so intimately connected to it that I feel fully part of it. Any apparent paradox in such an account of encountering nature is a feature of the experience, not a fault of the description. This is, perhaps, part of the phenomenology of the sublime; apprehension of paradox may very well be an overwhelming experience.

This is not, however, an all-or-nothing experience; it can be present in greater or lesser degrees of depth or intensity, and may also be resisted. Those who seek out the wild places are often those most willing to be so affected by them; and we can easily imagine, for instance, urbanite survivors of an air crash in a remote mountain region seeing their sublime surroundings only as wretched and desolate.

The religious (literally "reconnecting") quality of the experience of "sublime nature" is perhaps epitomised in the wilderness experience- we are able to encounter the world into which we have been born in a different way, somehow more direct, as if our socially agreed decisions about how to live were yet to be made. Our conceptual framework of accepted ideas about our ways of being in the world is "overwhelmed", and the perceptual filter of culture is rendered less opaque by the absence of reinforcing cues and reminders. This makes it easier to perceive "things as themselves", to attend to our perceptual experience rather than to our preconceptions, and to encounter nature rather than "Nature". Such experiences can facilitate profound meditation about our relationship to the rest of nature, and hence about ourselves.

But this does not, of course, automatically produce a sense of mystical oneness with all creation. Some people appear at times to be resolutely "unmoved" by even the most spectacular places; and while individual temperament must play some part here, I believe an important factor is a willingness to "co-operate" in this backgrounding of culture.

Perhaps something akin to the "suspension of disbelief" needed to fully appreciate a work of fiction is required in order to approach nature in this way- although in this context it is more a case of "suspension of belief"- belief in existing social and cultural values, especially those defining the human relationship to nature. An openness to the idea that there might be something to be gained by a more direct experience of nature, that there might be something more than is captured in the standard stories of human-in-the-world, may incline a person to seek out these sublime experiences in the search for meaning, value or spiritual sustenance in nature. This questioning or seeking state of mind is not only found in those of an unusually artistic or mystical disposition, but can simply arise out of non-identification with prevailing social beliefs about nature and our relation to it. Whatever the motivation, if we approach nature in such a way, we are more likely to be "rewarded" with an experience of the sublime; I hope I have at least partially explained how this is true in a deeper sense than simply projection.

Conversely a person who identifies more strongly with the institutional environmental values of their own culture may tend to view nature in terms of this framework, rather than as a potential source of an alternative perspective. The picturesque movement, for instance, favoured landscapes which evoked and confirmed the "classical" values expressed in certain schools of painting, to the point of literally remodelling parts of the real world in order to resemble the artists' vision. The Puritan pioneers in America were so confident of their religious and moral framework that the wild new world they found was seen not as a sublime source of mysterious truths but as a desolate wasteland, raw material awaiting transformation by honest Christian toil into a tamed and useful resource (Porteous 1996, pp75-7). Such certainty is hard to find today; perhaps for this reason, many widely-held aesthetic preferences reflect not conviction about present-day values but nostalgia for past cultures, real or imagined. The middle-England chocolate-box appetite for pastoral landscapes with misty fields, oak trees and village churchyards is inseparable from the desire to preserve or recapture the peaceful stable society which such scenery is, rightly or wrongly, associated with. The vast hedgeless monocultures of modern East Anglia may seem beautiful to the farmers whose livelihoods depend on ever-increasing productivity, but they are inevitably ugly to those concerned by the social upheaval and ecological damage they have wrought.

Jay Appleton's "prospect-refuge" theory (Appleton 1975) suggested that our aesthetic landscape preferences are conditioned by a biologically determined survival instinct which favours inhabitable landscapes in which a hunter-gatherer might be able both to find cover and to survey a wide territory for food or potential danger. If true, this adds another deeper level to our aesthetic valuing of nature; but again, the central point is that we tend to prefer landscapes which embody our preferred version of the human / nature relationship.

On the level of basic human biology we seek to eat and not to be eaten; according to Appleton, we are still subconsciously drawn to survivable places where this is possible. As modern social beings we seek to establish and maintain viable and convivial societies, rural as well as urban; we are attracted to places which speak of present or past successes in this enterprise. And as reflective individuals we seek to establish a meaningful personal relationship with the world outside those societies; our taste for the wild and the sublime draws us to those places where we can achieve this.


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