Aesthetic perception, nature and experience


This thesis is about the perceptual nature of aesthetic experience and the importance of nature as a paradigmatic object of aesthetic perception and aesthetic experience more broadly conceived. For this reason, it merits serious attention by philosophers working in aesthetics, as has been argued since Ronald Hepburn’s seminal essay “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty”. If aesthetic experience is anything, it is at least perceptual. It is a mode of perceptual experience that is the result of having been attentive to and having discriminated between, the aesthetic and non-aesthetic, and invites room for reflection on, and connections to be made with, cognitive and emotive processes. Rooting the aesthetic in perception allows us to recognize and understand that it has an impact on our daily activities, rather than being restricted either to a particular kind of object, to the knowledge we might have about it, or to intense, rarefied aesthetic experience. If an object is to be an aesthetic object it need not be an artwork, indeed, one might even argue that nature is more interesting an aesthetic object from the perspective that it is indeterminate, not the result of human intentionality, and from an existential point of view, one that acknowledges our dependence on it. In the course of the argument, I thus resist the idea that the aesthetic experience of art is necessarily prior to the aesthetic experience of nature. The perceptual account put forward is based on a realist account of aesthetic properties that considers aesthetic properties to be perceptual properties and that considers aesthetic experience to be perceptually rich. I link it to the idea of ‘whole formalism’, a perceptual, aesthetic account that is nestled in the wider thought that aesthetic perception relates, although not causally, to other features of experience, such as emotion, and knowledge. Perceptual, aesthetic experience is thus not reduced to an austere account of aesthetic formalism. The thesis begins by analysing historical accounts of aesthetic perception, beginning with Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. It builds on this analysis by reinterpreting crucial concepts to the discipline of aesthetics, such as disinterest and formalism that originated in the eighteenth century and are relevant to the idea of aesthetic perception. It then brings the idea of aesthetic perception up to date by addressing the current debate about cognitivism and non-cognitivism about aesthetic experience where nature is concerned. By tracing the idea of aesthetic perception historically, I will have also shown the role of nature as a paradigm of aesthetic experience through history and that nature is a repository for rich aesthetic experience and for rich experiential engagement with it.



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