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  • Aesthetic Implications of the New Paradigm in Ecology
  • Jason Boaz Simus (bio)

Ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye.

—Aldo Leopold

I. Introduction

Thomas Kuhn describes a scientific paradigm as a conceptual framework or set of background beliefs and values held by members of a scientific community.1 Part of a scientific education, he argues, is learning how the background beliefs and values that underlie scientific practices articulate a paradigm.2 Part of an aesthetic education, I argue, is learning how to appreciate natural beauty differently and appropriately when new discoveries trigger what Kuhn calls a paradigm shift—a shift in the beliefs and values that determine scientific theory and practice. In 1992 scientists S. T. A. Pickett, V. T Parker, and P. L. Fielder announced that ecology had undergone such a shift.3 The new paradigm in ecology emphasizes dynamic change, disturbance, and nonequilibrium in natural systems, and it presents some challenges for contemporary environmental aesthetics, one of which has to do with the thesis known as "scientific cognitivism." Scientific cognitivism holds that appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature must be informed by scientific knowledge.4 If this thesis is correct, and if the new paradigm in ecological science tells us that nature is in a state of dynamic nonequilibrium, then aesthetic appreciation must adapt to constant change in natural systems. More generally, if aesthetic appreciation of nature must be informed by scientific knowledge, and if ecological science undergoes a paradigm shift, then a cognitivist model of aesthetic appreciation must adapt to the new paradigm. Another challenge the new paradigm presents has some [End Page 63] bearing on the positive aesthetics thesis—that pristine nature has only positive aesthetic qualities such as balance, order, and harmony. The new paradigm's emphasis on random and fluctuating disturbances may require us to abandon the notion of purely "pristine" nature and replace the positive aesthetic qualities with which it is associated because under the new paradigm nature is described as imbalanced, disorderly, and disharmonious.

Here I explore the aesthetic implications of this new paradigm, the central implication being that scientific cognitivism, when combined with the new paradigm in ecology, may require updating the qualities associated with positive aesthetics. After reviewing Allen Carlson's defense of both scientific cognitivism and the positive aesthetics thesis, I show how the significantly different conceptual framework that the new paradigm in ecology provides will require equally significant adjustments to how we aesthetically appreciate nature. I make two suggestions. First, the new paradigm in ecology suggests that aesthetic appreciation should focus on natural processes, which will require a more theoretical approach to aesthetic appreciation. Second, because the new paradigm appeals to aesthetic qualities such as imbalance, disorder, and disharmony to make the natural world intelligible, these qualities are consistent with an updated positive aesthetics thesis and should therefore replace the qualities associated with the old paradigm. Collectively, these two suggestions imply that the beauty of nature is dynamic and chaotic rather than stable and orderly.

II. Scientific Cognitivism and the New Paradigm

Carlson maintains that correct or appropriate aesthetic appreciation of natural environments must be informed by scientific knowledge.5 He argues that without the requisite scientific knowledge provided by sciences like geology, biology, and ecology, we simply do not know how to appreciate nature and the aesthetic qualities it possesses.6 Drawing on Kendall Walton's "Categories of Art," Carlson claims that nature should be appreciated according to its correct categories—the categories disclosed by the natural sciences.7 Moreover, Carlson argues, appreciating nature within its correct categories yields aesthetic judgments that are objectively true.8 Thus, scientific knowledge is necessary in determining what to focus on and how to aesthetically appreciate natural environments.9 To make sense of nature's complexity—what William James has called a "blooming, buzzing, confusion"—we need science to inform our aesthetic judgments and further our appreciation for the natural world.10 Carlson defines scientific cognitivism as

that appreciation of an object that reveals what aesthetic qualities and value it has . . . scientific knowledge is essential for appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature; without it we do not know how to appreciate it appropriately and are likely to miss its aesthetic...


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pp. 63-79
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