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Art History, Natural History and the Aesthetic Interpretation of Nature

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This paper examines Allen Carlson's influential view that knowledge from natural science offers the best (and perhaps only) framework for aesthetically appreciating nature for what it is in itself. Carlson argues that knowledge from the natural sciences can play a role analogous to the role of art-historical knowledge in our experience of art by supplying categories for properly 'calibrating' one's sensory experience and rendering more informed aesthetic judgments. Yet, while art history indeed functions this way, Carlson's formulation leaves out a second (and often more important) role played by art-historical knowledge over the last century - namely, providing the context needed for interpretations of meaning. This paper explores whether natural science can also inform our aesthetic experience of nature in this second sense. I argue that a robust sense of meaning from our aesthetic experience of nature is indeed made possible by coupling our aesthetic experience of animals with knowledge from the natural science of animal ethology. By extending the scope of Carlson's analogy to include interpretations of meaning, my argument shows that the cognitive, scientific model can accommodate a wider range of aesthetic engagement with nature than previously recognised.

Keywords: Allen Carlson; Arthur Danto; Patricia Matthews; aesthetic experience of nature; animal ethology; art history; intentionality; interpretation; meaning in nature; natural history

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2020

This article was made available online on May 14, 2020 as a Fast Track article with title: "Art History, Natural History and the Aesthetic Interpretation of Nature".

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  • Environmental Values is an international peer-reviewed journal that brings together contributions from philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, geography, anthropology, ecology and other disciplines, which relate to the present and future environment of human beings and other species. In doing so we aim to clarify the relationship between practical policy issues and more fundamental underlying principles or assumptions.

    Environmental Values has a Journal Impact Factor (2021) of 1.831. 5 Year Impact Factor: 2.192.
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