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Canadian Journal of Philosophy 36.2 (2006) 165-186

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Theory, Observation, and the Role of Scientific Understanding in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature

Ryerson University
Toronto, ON M5B 2K3

Much recent discussion in the aesthetics of nature has focused on Scientific cognitivism, the view that in order to engage in a deep and appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature, one must possess certain kinds of scientific knowledge.1 The most pressing difficulty faced by this view is an apparent tension between the very notion of aesthetic appreciation and the nature of scientific knowledge. In this essay, I describe this difficulty, trace some of its roots and argue that attempts to dismiss it fail. I then develop a response to the problem, drawing on the notion of the theory-ladenness of observation. I conclude by considering the relationship between this response and one common approach to the problem, the appeal to expressive qualities in nature.

I The Fusion Problem

It has long been commonplace to view scientific knowledge as antithetical to the aesthetic appreciation of nature. This view extends back at least to the Romantics, whose remarks on science manifest it memorably. Wordsworth (1798), for instance, famously bemoaned the 'meddling intellect' that 'Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things.' There were [End Page 165] exceptions: Shelley had a keen interest in the natural philosophy of his day and ideas from it permeate his poetry, especially the great Prometheus Unbound (Grabo, 1968). Nonetheless, the Romantic temperament appeared to view science mainly in light of its potential for disrupting, rather than enhancing, experiences of nature. Poe, in a somewhat over the top expression of this attitude, depicted science as an intellectual thug who had 'driv'n the Hamadryad from the wood,' and pleaded that it leave the poet 'in his wandering,/ To seek for treasure in the jewell'd skies' (Poe, 1845).

The notions of nature appreciation found in Romantic poetry and criticism, suffused with mysticism as they tend to be, have had little influence in philosophical aesthetics. Nonetheless, the idea that something about scientific understanding is corrosive of aesthetic appreciation cannot be simply dismissed, for it can be given philosophical substance. In order to describe the philosophical basis for this idea, it will be useful to focus initially on the role of understanding in aesthetic appreciation more generally.

At the root of this idea is the venerable view that aesthetic appreciation is concerned primarily with sensory experience, rather than 'higher' forms of cognition, such as belief. The depth of this association is reflected in the very word 'aesthetic,' which is derived from the Greek term for sense perception. However, this association in itself does not warrant the conclusion that all forms of higher cognition are incompatible with, or destructive of, aesthetic appreciation. Rather, only those forms of belief or understanding that distract one from the object of sensory experience (i.e., the object of aesthetic appreciation) have been so considered. For example, beliefs such as 'this object is red,' 'this object is a cube,' and so forth are, although not sensory experiences, universally held to be compatible with aesthetic appreciation because they do not distract one from such experiences. In fact, such beliefs may help to focus awareness and attention upon them, and so may be, not only compatible with, but also conducive to, appropriate aesthetic appreciation. These beliefs are instances of observational belief, in the sense that they are about, and are justified on the basis of, sensory experiences. Given this intimate association with sensory experience, it is not surprising that such beliefs are widely held to be compatible with aesthetic appreciation.

Compatibility is less obvious, however, in the case of non-observational, or as they are typically called, theoretical beliefs. Such beliefs are not justified on the basis of sensations alone, but via (often complex) inferences from sensations and some body of theory. This means that theoretical beliefs lack the very immediate association with sensory experience possessed by observational beliefs. Consequently, there is an increased potential for them to distract one's...


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