Jerry Greenfield

Aesthetics of Environment


I inherited a traditional Western syllabus when I began teaching aesthetics at MIC. It was the only philosophy course that many of my students would take, and lacking a shared cultural grounding in either aesthetic appreciation or philosophy, the course seemed to me to miss the mark. So I immediately proposed that to replace it with a new course that would build on the first-year environmental issues course requirement while functioning as a standalone experience in doing philosophy and as a support for popular courses in art history. It would also constitute a place in the curriculum for a philosophical consideration of environment per se, a concept that tended to be taken for granted in many courses in which it was pivotal.

The result was PHI309-Aesthetics of Environment. Below is an extract from the outline of that course, which was taught as an upper division seminar-style class, heavy on reading and discussion, meeting twice weekly around a conference table.


PHI 309 Aesthetics of Environment


Bulletin Description

Investigates aesthetic concepts and values broadly in relation to the world in which we live.  Examines affective responses to natural and built environments, including cities and towns, buildings, gardens and parks, and wilderness. Explores perception, feeling, metaphor, action, and creativity in a cross-cultural context.


Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, along with metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and several smaller branches. Philosophy questions everything. Methaphysics asks, "What is real?" Epistemology asks, "What can I know, and what does it mean to know something?" Ethics asks, "What is good, and how can I decide what I should I do?"

Aesthetics is relatively new as a special branch of philosophy--only about two hundred years old. But its original question–"What is beauty?"–has been asked since the earliest days of Western philosophy. This has become focused more narrowly in the modern question, "What is Art?" In turn, this question has opened up questions about representation, truth, feeling, form, creativity, and many other issues that have to do with understanding what art is. As a result, aesthetics recently has become largely a debate about what aesthetics is and what questions it asks.

This is typical of modern philosophy. As in all philosophy, aesthetics is a second-order activity. This means that it looks at itself looking at what it looks at. In other words, as a second-order actvity aesthetics looks at looking at things. But since things can be looked at in many different ways, We need to be more specific: aesthetics is about looking at thins as aesthetic things, or, as we will see, looking at things aesthetically. Aesthetics asks: what is special about that way of looking that is different from, for example, looking at things as tools or looking at behavior as moral action. This is the big question that we will be asking in this course.

We will ask the aesthetics question particularly in relation to environment, Environmental aesthetics is interested in environment as an object of aesthetic appreciation and in our aesthetic response to environments and environmental features. We will look at natural and man-made environments, including ones that were created to be experienced as aesthetic objects and ones that we may appreciate aesthetically in spite of non-aesthetic purposes that led to their creation. As we ask the aesthetics question of environment, we will develop a deeper understanding not only of aesthetics but also of ways of responding to environment that are different from how they are studied in other courses you have taken and will be taking at MIC, such as psychology, economics, or natural science.

We will be asking the aesthetics question in relation to everyday places that interest us. including buildings, neighborhoods, gardens, parks. We will do some field trips, and we will take some virtual trips in the World Wide Web. The particular things we question will depend on what interests us, so we need to decide that before we make up a list of topics and a schedule.

Topics and Readings

We will take a cross-cultural approach to aesthetics and environment, looking at ideas and examples from both Japanese and Western cultures. The following are the main topics and possible readings (not whole, and not necessarily in the order in which we will take them):

1. What is aesthetics? World as source and resource - the contrast of aesthetic and technological attitudes

Prologue to The Gods Must Be Crazy (film)

Weitz - "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics"

Greenfield – “Two Ways of Seeing”

Bormann – “The Device Paradigm” and “Focal Things and Practices”

Heidegger - "The Question Concerning Technology"

2. What is environment?

Bourassa – “Landscape as Aesthetic Object”

Berleant – “Environmental Criticism”

3. Aesthetic experience

de Bary - "The Vocabulary of Japanese Aesthetics"

Yasuda - "Haiku Moment" and "Aesthetic Attitude”

Sze - The Way of Chinese Painting

4. Experiencing environment

Hall – The Hidden Dimension

Arnheim – Visual Thinking

Langer – Feeling and Form

Norman – The Design of Everyday Things

5. The environment in art

Berleant – “The Aesthetics of Art and Nature”

AppletonThe Symbolism of Habitat. An Interpretation of Landscape in the Arts

6. Environment as Art: Gardens and Parks

    Ross – “Gardens, Earthworks, and Environmental Art”

    Sakuteiki-Visions of the Japanese Garden

    Clarke & Perry – English Cottage Gardens

7. Buildings –environmental enclosures

Alexander - The Timeless Way of Building

Rybczynski –Looking Around

8. Towns and cities as aesthetic environments

Berleant – “Cultivating an Urban Aesthetic”