Sunday, 6 September 2020

Evaluate Allen Carlson’s account of the objectivity of aesthetic judgements about nature - OU Essay

In 2019 / 2020 i completed part one of my MA in Philosophy. I will upload some of my essays here on my blog to give an overview of some of the interesting points I've been studying and writing about. I'm now on my final year. 

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Evaluate Allen Carlson’s account of the objectivity of aesthetic judgements about nature.


     Philosophical interest in the aesthetic appreciation of nature has been of particular significance to those working in the field of aesthetics for more two decades. One of the most discussed theories to emerge from this ever changing area of debate is put forward by Allen Carlson a professor currently based in Canada that he puts forward in a series of articles.  Carlson presents a framework and theory of aesthetic appreciation of nature and supports this with a set of constraints. He strongly supports his views throughout his papers and has been known to write additional papers in a response to those who argue against him and his what is now considered ‘model’ that he suggests aids in making objective judgements of nature.

Allen Carlson in his paper ‘Nature, aesthetic Judgement and Objectivity’ (1981) claims that nature can and should be analysed in a similar way to that of art. His suggestion is to use a system or what is sometimes called ‘model’ similar to if not the same as that that is put forward by Kendall Walton in his paper ‘categories of art’.  Though Carlson supports Walton’s model he argues against one of Walton’s claims about the model, he argues that the model Walton designed and claims should only be used to make judgements of art should also be used to judge nature
[EM1] .

    Carlson argues against a relativist view concerning judgements of nature and puts forward his position; that he considers there is an objectivist view
[EM2] .  Objective judgements of nature in Carlson’s view can be sought using the environmental model also called the natural-environment model. A model that he believes aids in identifying what and how something should be aesthetically appreciated or ‘judged’. In essence the model creates a set of constraints that are put forward;[EM3]  for us to aesthetically appreciate nature for what it is and for the qualities it holds. It suggests that we must firstly ensure that the natural environment is natural and that the environment plays a central role in the aesthetic appreciation. Carlson further states that the use of categories to put nature into is essential in aesthetic appreciation. He goes on to back this view up with a number of examples that make his model appear to work well, at least on the surface. [EM4] He also gives an adage in that he offers how we are to put nature into the categories. Carlson states that we should use science and common sense to tell us which categories to put something natural that we intend to judge into; he suggests that by doing so before making aesthetic judgements it will aid us in making the ‘correct’ judgements that are free from aesthetic omissions and deceptions.

   Allen Carlson’s paper ‘Nature, Aesthetic Judgement and Objectivity’ quickly became of interest to theorists working in the field of aesthetics and/or nature; many wrote papers in response to his. There are some who supported his views and some who raised concerns and objections. After reviewing a number of the thought-provoking responses to Carlson’s paper by a number of well-respected philosophers I found two particular objections to his view that appeared to be shared. After further study into these points I began to observe their validity which I will attempt to put forward in this paper.

The first objection to Carlson’s account I thought to be valid and well outlined I found in a paper by Robert Stecker a Philiosophy Professor based in Michigan. Stecker raises a number of points that question Carlson’s view in his paper ‘The correct and the appropriate in the appreciation of nature’ (1997) Stecker in the introduction of his paper talks of his own ways of appreciating nature, he does this by describing his observations and feelings as he takes a walk. He then states that his ways are not necessarily “
inappropriate ways of appreciating nature” and confirms that they are also not ‘correct’ either as he goes on to say thatit is not clear that there is a standard of correctness”. Stecker further states that a view, such as Carlson’s, that seeks to rule such judgements and appreciations of nature out without “powerful argument” are implausible. Stecker in his paper seeks to argue that Carlson’s arguments are in fact not successful and so do not rule out Stecker’s or anyone else who makes similar aesthetic judgements of nature.

This objection is one along the same lines as that of Noel Carroll’s that he puts forward in his paper ‘on being moved by nature’ (1993). Carroll at the very start of his paper states that his ‘Major worry about Carlson’s stance is that it excludes certain very common appreciative responses to nature – responses of a less intellective, more visceral sort’ which Carroll then goes on to call being ‘moved by nature’. Carroll steps further than Stecker though offering a model of his own calling it the ‘arousal model’ and suggests that it should co-exist with other models used.

Malcom Budd in his paper ‘The Aesthetic Appreciation of nature’ (2003) states that (at the time of him writing his paper) “at least five models are present in the literature: (i) the object model, (ii) the landscape (or scenery) model, (iii) the natural-enviroment model, (iv) the arousal model, and (v) the aloofness (0r mystery) model.” Budd goes through each model in his paper looking at their strengths and weaknesses and in some cases also tears apart Carlson’s objections to the models. Carlson’s view is that only his model is able to offer a solid aesthetic judgement. Budd disagrees with this.

Both Carroll and Stecker in their own papers question why Carlson is so set on there being only one very structured model and why multiple models cannot work harmoniously. They suggest that Carlson should accept that there are other models that could work together with the environmental model that would not only also create solid judgements when used independently but could enhance the judgements made when used together with other models.

Carroll’s ‘arousal model’ just one of the many identified earlier is broken down by Carlson in one of his follow up papers
where he argues that Carroll is actually supporting the use of scientific knowledge, a point brought forward by the natural-environment model. He abuses a feature of one of Carroll’s examples as Budd highlights in his paper. (2003) Budd argues against Carlson’s attempt to tear apart this example giving the point that “Carroll means not the precise amount of water, but only that the amount is large” therefore Carroll is not trying to highlight a need for scientific knowledge. Budd does himself suggest that Carroll neglects to solidly support his own model and mentions that “not only does he not provide an account of what makes a response an aesthetic response, some of his examples of emotional responses to nature are definitely not aesthetic responses” but Budd goes on to say that “these defects are easily rectified” leading to the assumption that Budd too can see a positive side to the use of multiple models when making aesthetic judgements about nature.

   A further objection I found intriguing argues directly against the usefulness of Carlson’s model in its entirety by challenging his emphasis on the need of knowledge before making a judgment. This is linked to and put forward with two core questions: How much knowledge is too much and when can knowledge hinder rather than help make a ‘correct’ aesthetic judgment about nature? 

Initially the most important question though is what is nature and what is natural? Robert Elliot in his paper ‘Faking Nature’ (1982) offers a good definition. “'natural' means something like 'unmodified by human activity'. Obviously some areas will be more natural than others according to the degree to which they have been shaped by human hand.” When considering this then do we need to know before making any judgements if a natural environment has been modified in any way and if it has been, say more that 50% would Carlson argue it is no longer natural and should not be judged as such. I would assume he would.

It is important to consider also what is meant by ‘common sense’ as this would vary immensely from person to person. Age, education, up-bringing and many other factors would need to be considered. Not everyone for example would know or fully understand how clouds are formed, the science behind how cloud formation works; but does this make their judgements on clouds any less valid or correct. I assume in Carlson’s eyes yes it would, he would possibly argue that someone without the basic knowledge of how clouds are formed and what they physically are, are not able to make an objective judgement. Even if they are putting the natural item they see into the ‘correct’ category of ‘cloud’, because they don’t actually understand what a cloud is, what it is made of or its purpose. Their judgement surely in Carlson’s opinion would be of less worth than someone who better understood what a cloud was. Yet in Carroll’s and Stecker’s opinion a less educated view would not necessarily be any less valid, it would simply be one made more instantaneously using perceptual responses.

A further point that supports this objection looks into when scientific knowledge can be wrong. An example of this would be when a natural object is first thought to be one thing before further studies by scientist’s result in it being found to be another. The initial category it was then thought to be in would have been incorrect and this could then have an effect on the correctness of the judgement if we look at using Carlson’s model. Carlson I expect would argue that it was ‘correct at the time’ yet I question whether this is a good enough response and whether it strikes a blow at the environment model. It leads me to question further then; what if a person, lets say person A believes they have the correct knowledge to make a judgement but the knowledge they have has been given falsely to them or even if not falsely but different to that of many others such as person B. I’m thinking here along the lines of religion, cults or even just different educational establishment. Person A making the judgement would believe they have the knowledge to make the correct judgement yet when compared to the judgement of Person B it would be considered wrong in Person B’s opinion as the knowledge they hold would be different. I sought to find an answer to which person Carlson would argue is correct but I couldn’t, maybe he would say whichever of the two had more supporters of their knowledge? Is the knowledge more correct if more people believe it to be true? I expect Carlson would think so.

Allen Carlson puts forward a good account of the objectivity of aesthetic judgements of nature but I would argue that there are clear issues and very valid objections to it that should be considered.  I hold that as Budd states at the end of his paper “The mistaken search for a model of the correct or appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature reflects a lack of recognition of the freedom that is integral to the aesthetic appreciation of nature” (2003) Budd’s core opinion it seems is that judgements on nature have more to do with the aesthetic observer than say judgements of art have and therefore these judgements cannot be completely objective.


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