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Environmental Values

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Environmental Values

Editorial, Vol.19 No.3

Ronald Hepburn and the humanising of Environmental Aesthetics

Environmental Values 19 (2010): 265-271.
doi: 10.3197/096327110X519826

Access published pdf version A central problem in the case for environmental aesthetics as a field of endeavour important to environmental philosophy has been the perceived role of aesthetics as irredeemably anthropocentric. Any talk of the aesthetic appreciation of nature is viewed by some as inevitably skewed in an ethically dubious direction. On this view aesthetic appreciation is seen as just one more 'use value' related to preserved nature along with, for example, the opportunity for healthy exercise or as a cache of undiscovered medicines. Though less obvious than sustainable timber from trees or fish to eat from well managed rivers aesthetics is still seen as buying into a 'use value' mentality. If we adopt this line of critique then a possible role for aesthetics, if it is to have one at all, would be to correct the previous 'errors' of aesthetics: such as the sentimental valuing of big eyed mammals over ecologically more important but visually dull organisms, or to realign public taste with ecologically sound landscapes rather than those managed to reflect a cultural ideal. Environmental aesthetics, if we are to have any dealings with it, then becomes the handmaiden of environmental ethics, with its insights judged according to how well or ill they fit that ethical agenda. The pragmatic turn in environmental ethics, where the problems of justifying claims of nature's intrinsic value are seen as insurmountable, unhelpful or politically problematic, does not help with this problem. Here the project of environmental aesthetics could just be adjusted to become the handmaiden of a human benefit or policy savvy form of environmental ethics.1

An awareness of the danger of this kind of colonisation of a field by a related area, and the danger of playing into that perception of the task of environmental aesthetics, was evident in what has come to be regarded as its earliest statement. Many of the papers in this special issue of Environmental Values identify Ronald Hepburn as the father of a specifically environmental aesthetics, and see its current form as having been inaugurated by his 1966 paper 'Contemporary aesthetics and the neglect of natural beauty'. In that paper Hepburn makes a sophisticated contribution to the questions that have shaped the field. He establishes that models of art appreciation cannot be carried across to the natural world; that an aesthetics of nature has its own disciplines and expectations; and that it takes courage to resist stereotypical views and we even come to experience ourselves in a new way. He discusses how the lack of a frame does not mean that the aesthetic experience should be without context, and yet we have to be open so that only appropriate associations are brought along and enrich the experience; we must not write ourselves on to nature. In his discussion of the tension between staying in touch with the particulars of nature whilst also exploring the sense of unity that those particulars invoke, we see that Hepburn is dealing with the full potentialities of the realm of the aesthetic. Moreover, he deals with these potentialities with a nuanced precision that is authenticated by the examples he brings.2

At the heart of his 'Neglect' paper is an understanding of aesthetics that goes deeper than perhaps we are always able to appreciate. That depth of the aesthetic that clearly marks out environmental aesthetics as not another 'use value' of nature is, paradoxically, carried through his careful work on the role of the human being in aesthetic experiencing of nature.3 This working at what it means for the human being to experience nature runs through his publications in the area and perhaps finds its clearest expression in his 1998 paper 'Nature humanised: Nature respected'. In this paper Hepburn tackles head on the problem of anthropomorphising nature and revisits the relationship between aesthetic experience and truth. The idea that in the aesthetic experience of nature we are always subjectively writing ourselves over the landscape is rejected, but rejected by a clear examination of the potential of a properly human aesthetic experience. Rather than accepting truth claims from other fields as the only means to find appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature he delves into the real substance of the aesthetic experience. It is always by returning to the experience - as illustrated through his original and thought provoking examples, rather than just claimed - that he explores this fine line between nature as other and nature as experienced, without distorting either. To quote:

Eliminating the grosser anthropomorphisms and animisms, then, is not to eliminate delight in expressive and emotionally evocative aspects of natural objects. ... Certainly, we humanise still: as we make a more truthful attempt to grasp or realise (still through aesthetic experience) nature as it is, but without seeking to overcome the working of analogies between nature's life and our own, we open ourselves, again, to a diversifying and deepening of the range of our emotions. Then we may see storms of nature as having an affinity with our own internal storms, nature's stillness as intensifying our potentiality for inner calm; we can be both humbled and exalted by nature. In a word, we move (for truth's sake) away from familiar forms of trivialising and distorting anthropomorphisms towards a recognition of the otherness of nature in a stronger and more stable sense than before; yet that done, we still find human enrichment - in self-understanding or self-constructing - in the inward appropriation of nature's sights and sounds.4

The term 'appropriation' might ring alarm bells here, perhaps this is just 'use value' thinking after all: nature as the means to some kind of personal development. But we have to transcend that form of thinking to achieve a properly aesthetic experience at all. It is demeaning to the idea of a properly aesthetic experience to think it will come with the grasping for it. Similarly with wonder. In the 1980 essay 'Wonder', Hepburn speaks of reasons why we should foster the experience of wonder because of the 'life-enhancing character of wonder, appreciative and open, opposed to the self-protective and consolatory. ... The attitude of wonder is notably and essentially other acknowledging it is not shut up in self-concern or quasi-solipsistic withdrawal.'5 Wonder is exactly not curiosity, it is not 'knowing in order to have known' and yet it has a relationship to truth or true apprehension of the object of wonder.6

We need these kinds of serious, as opposed to trivial, experiences of nature7 in order to be properly human and yet we can't approach the world as the candy store of even these experiences; to do so would stand in the way of the experience. As with friendship and love8 a different movement in ourselves seems to be necessary.

In Hepburn's posthumous paper (published in these pages) the nature, qualities and potentialities of the human being are examined within the context of sky and space - sky and space as metaphor and reality and the essential proximity of those two. Here we see again the crucial nature of aesthetics as an opening to understanding nature and ourselves, including our freedom. Freedom with, as he says, the 'handrails gone'9 is a scary experience because it bring us face to face with our relationship to nature and our responsibility. It is through this kind of aesthetic experiencing of nature that ethical questions and responses about that relationship come into play. Thus environmental ethics does not need to be artificially attached to environmental aesthetics or direct the field from without. Ethics was there all the time in the heart of the aesthetic experience.

What characterises all the papers in this special issue is an appreciation of the seriousness of what is at issue in environmental aesthetics. Allen Carlson carefully delineates five requirements of a responsible environmental aesthetics. He does this by identifying some traditional pitfalls and sets out a morally engaged form of aesthetics.10 Arnold Berleant engages in a close examination of issues around the objectivity of taste judgements. His work in general makes an appeal for environmental aesthetics to recognise its own resources in both the wider sensory notion of experiencing and that of participatory engagement that it has forged. Here he appeals for a receptivity to work in related disciplines to provide aesthetics with a broader understanding of the experience of scenic beauty.11 An appeal to reach out to wider cultural developments also appears in Sheila Lintott's paper. Lintott speaks of the way that aesthetics can be marginalised within philosophy and environmental aesthetics can be marginalised within aesthetics. However, rather than just bemoaning ghettoisation, her paper engages with another kind of marker of the serious endeavour: some self-criticism of the field. She reveals and explains the absence of an aesthetics of natural beauty in feminist thought, but also reveals the absence of any drawing on the resources of feminist thought in environmental aesthetics. Her paper ends by beginning the conversation that will help both feminist aestheticians and environmental aestheticians to learn from each other for the benefit of both fields.12

The papers in this special issue continue this turn toward the future task of appropriately widening the scope of environmental aesthetics. Yuriko Saito takes up this theme by recognising the role of artefacts, human activities and social relationships in the full meaning of the term 'environment'. This becomes of crucial importance if we see aesthetics as part of a normative endeavour that takes seriously the aestheticians' task in 'better world-making'. We are, after all, engaged in a world of our making as well as nature's creation. She also geographically broadens the scope of environmental aesthetics, as we in the West have come to view, it by attending to diverse cultures with their own rich aesthetic traditions.13

Yrjö Sepänmaa, after reviewing the historical development of the field, also suggests the broadening of its endeavours to outside the academy through a new kind of professional aesthetic activity and through engagement with the public. He details where the latter has been successfully taking place in Finland and also draws out the full potentiality of environmental aesthetics at a theoretical level, for example, to further its role as a form of metacriticism for ecocriticism or environmental art. In Samantha Clark's paper we are introduced to environmental art through a number of works that bring together environmental concern and participatory strategies of engagement, raising the criticism that environmental aesthetics and environmental art should have been engaging in more dialogue for the benefit of both.14

An area where I could see this kind of dialogue working is through bringing Ronald Hepburn's writing, particularly on the aesthetic and ethical role of the human being, into dialogue with a burgeoning participatory artwork that is currently becoming almost a movement. This is called the University of the Trees project. Initiated by the social sculpture practitioner Shelley Sacks, University of the Trees draws on and expands notions such as 'making strange' (from Bertolt Brecht) and 'scratching on the imagination' (from Joseph Beuys). It goes beyond disruption or provocation to develop what Sacks calls 'instruments of consciousness rather than objects of attention'.15 Here we are not just shocked out of our thought habits or impelled to engage our imagination but given some impetus towards the kind of open perception that will orientate us toward the world beyond our personal concerns and provide a new way of knowing. A guiding ethos of University of the Trees is that trees, as particular exemplifications of the organic realm, can teach us if we approach them with openness. The encounter we experience can be facilitated by various strategies that provoke shifts in consciousness and allow for a new awareness of our relationship with the world to develop. Central to this approach is a recognition of the human being as able, but often disinclined, to really listen to and enter into a close communion with the world. The tendency, in the current ecological crisis, to want to 'fix the problem' is seen as standing in the way of arriving at appropriate and responsible solutions. If we just decentre the human we can still be trapped in a 'fixing the problem' mindset even if it is for the sake of the other. University of the Trees is an initiative that works to sidestep that mindset and learn from our encounters to feel what really is the appropriate action in any situation.

There are other approaches that speak to the same 'how to escape the fix-it mindset' problem and offer similar types of responses.16 However, what is striking about University of the Trees is the way it seems to have caught the imagination of a wide range of people and to be taking off in multiple manifestations. Thus it exhibits an anti-dogmatic approach, whilst still retaining a core idea that is held by attention to, and critical development of, its ethos. Its manifestations can be, for example: enhanced forest visits for groups of very young or excluded school children, where instead of worksheets that list species or detail content led learning the focus is just on listening to and really meeting nature; or impulses where groups of individual citizens or local communities can, by sensitive engagement, mark out trees in an area to form a 'field of awareness'. How and why these instruments of consciousness bring about experiences that can best be described as aesthetic/ethical remains a question for ongoing research through discussion and debate that is open, exacting, and self-critical, rather than uncritically proselytising. And this process of examination, described in Beuysian terminology as 'permanent conference', is also part of University of the Trees. Initiatives such as this bring us again to the role of the human in our relationship to nature. When they are humanising, in the proper sense of the word, they expand our aesthetic/ethical sensibilities. They do this through a meeting with nature and nature itself allows us to find or brings us into the right relationship; we recognise both our freedom and the necessity of responding appropriately. Only then should we use all our ingenuity and human cleverness to approach environmental problems. Therefore, environmental aesthetics is not the icing on the cake of environmental philosophy, the thing we can attend to for our pleasure once the right policy initiatives are in place, it is fundamental to getting this wider field of endeavour on the ground.



I would like to thank Agnes Hepburn (Ronald Hepburn's widow) for kindly allowing Environmental Values to publish his paper 'The Aesthetics of Sky and Space'. Ronald's death on 23 December 2008 was a blow to the field of aesthetics and to environmental aesthetics particularly. However, he leaves a rich resource of beautifully nuanced published writings that characterise him as a person, warrant careful study, and will certainly inspire us into the future.
I would also like to thank Emily Brady for her help and support in the process of bringing about this special issue, though any failings it may have are entirely my own.


1 A pragmatic defence of environmental aesthetics that does not slip into a purely human utility argument can be found in Brady 2006.
2 Hepburn 1966.
3 For example, see Hepburn 1996.
4 Hepburn 1998, p. 272.
5 Hepburn 1984, p. 144.
6 Ibid., p. 133.
7 Hepburn 1993.
8 McShane 2007, p. 175.
9 Hepburn 2010, p. 286.
10 Carlson 2010.
11 Berleant 2010.
12 Lintott 2010.
13 Saito 2010.
14 Clark 2010.
15 Sacks 2010.
16 See for example Mathews 2008.References

Berleant, A. 2010. 'Reconsidering scenic beauty', Environmental Values 19: 335-350.
Brady, E. 2006. 'Aesthetics in practice: valuing the natural world', Environmental Values 15: 227-291.
Carlson, A. 2010. 'Contemporary environmental aesthetics and the requirements of environmentalism', Environmental Values 19: 289-314.
Clark, S. 2010. ' The aesthetics of contemporary art and environmental aesthetics', Environmental Values 19: 351-371.
Hepburn, R. 1966. 'Contemporary aesthetics and the neglect of natural beauty', in B. Williams and A. Montefiore (eds.), British Analytic Philosophy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).
Hepburn, R. 1984 [1980]. 'Wonder', in Wonder and Other Essays (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
Hepburn, R. 1998. 'Nature humanised: Nature respected', Environmental Values 7: 267-279.
Hepburn, R. 1993. 'Trivial and serious in aesthetic appreciation of nature', in S. Kemal and I. Gaskell (eds.), Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Hepburn, R. 1996. 'Landscape and the metaphysical imagination', Environmental Values 5: 191-204.
Hepburn, R. 2010. 'The aesthetics of sky and space', Environmental Values 19: 273-288.
Lintott, S. 2010. 'Feminist aesthetics and the neglect of natural beauty', Environmental Values 19: 315-333.
McShane, K. 2007. 'Anthropocentrism vs nonanthropocentrism: should we care?', Environmental Values 16: 169-186.
Mathews, F. 2008 'Thinking from within the calyx of nature' Environmental Values 17: 41-65.
Sacks, S. 2010. http://www.universityofthetrees.org/ (accessed 27.5.10).
Saito, Y. 2010. 'Future directions for environmental aesthetics', Environmental Values 19: 373-391.

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