“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…”

I just read a haunting philosophical paper.  (What, you didn’t think philosophical papers could be haunting?)



In nature, we recognize the limits of language.

In environmental philosophy, we push those limits.  And we confront and re-make them within language itself.  

Professor Cheryl Foster says:

As philosophers, we are confined to the narrative in making a case for the non-narrative.

Professor Foster distinguishes two domains of aesthetic appreciation.

First, there is the narrative domain, which involves understanding nature through concepts.

The narrative dimension tethers perceptual features of the natural environment to diverse frameworks of conceptual information.

These frameworks may include history, mythology, science, etc.  In our culture, science is the most prominent framework. Through them, we connect the appearance of things with underlying causes and processes.  They allow us to connect the dots, and so they “privilege” the relationship between the visible and the invisible.    

In this way, a myth about an animal’s creation is similar to a scientific explanation of its evolutionary origin.  Both focus our attention on processes that we cannot perceive.  So when you see the animal again in the forest, you are reminded of the underlying process, which now you do see.  Foster says:

The recognition of the natural environment as an index of processes hidden from the eye but intelligible to the mind characterizes what I have been elaborating as the narrative dimension of aesthetic value.

You might view these autumn leaves as reminders of photosynthesis and the loss of chlorophyll.

Second, there is the ambient domain of aesthetic appreciation, which is…well, harder to explain.

One of the problems with the ambient aesthetic is the difficulty in giving a succinct sense of it in words.

Foster calls the ambient domain “a sensibility.”

The textures of earth as we move over them, the wounds of the winds and the wildlife and trees, the moistness or dryness of the air, the nascent colors or seasonal stations – all can melt into a synthesized backdrop for ambient contemplation of both the backdrop itself and the sensuous way we relate to it.

Instead of seeing the autumn change of colors as a chemical process, you might become enveloped by sensations and cease, for a moment, your mind's incessant storytelling - whether that's scientific, mythological, autobiographical, etc.   Photo by Norbert Nagel.
Instead of seeing the autumn change of colors as a chemical process, you might become enveloped by sensations and cease, for a moment, your mind’s “storytelling” – whether they’re scientific, mythological or any other kind of frameworks.
Photo by Norbert Nagel.

In foregoing epistemological control, we refrain, if only for a while, from boxing everything into neat cognitive packages.

The ambient domain may be hard to describe, but one thing’s for sure.  It does not rely upon “any standards, frameworks, or narratives external to the experiencing individual.”

Foster thinks that both domains are necessary, but that philosophers have “allowed the narrative dimension of value to occlude the ambient.”  She wants us to recognize the importance of the ambient domain.  But what’s more, she wants philosophers to confront it – to “face the complexity and richness of aesthetic value head-on and adjust our methods of accounting for it accordingly.”

I see Foster’s paper as a call to action.  So why did I find this paper haunting?

It’s because of the paradox that the ambient domain presents.

The paradox ensures from the fact that one of the more powerful and enduring kinds of experiences in the formation of aesthetic appreciation of nature resists direct or clear expression in discursive prose.

Strange, isn’t it, to present a paradox and a call to action on the same pages?  But Foster seems to think it can be done.

However, when I checked out her faculty page at the University of Rhode Island website, I read:

Two years ago I decided to stop writing scholarly articles and have since that time directed my intellectual and creative energies toward writing fiction and plays. After twenty years of working as a scholar, I now feel compelled to work out my philosophical preoccupations in new arenas.

Did Foster feel that the paradox couldn’t be resolved except via fiction?  Am I reading too much into this?  (Only Foster can tell…)

I’m the third generation in a family of novelists, so I spend a lot of time thinking about language and stories.  My grandfather and uncle both wrote/write stories for a living.  Foster’s paper struck a chord with me because I often wonder about the value of fiction.  To spend so much time crafting the form, rather than grappling with the ideas, or content….it makes me doubt its value.  A scary thought: perhaps I’m trapped in the narrative domain?

Why did I find this paper haunting?  One reason is that Foster extends storytelling to our appreciation of nature.  She says:

We read the surface of the environment as a kind of story.

Yet when I explore nature, I know the ambient domain.  It’s a great pleasure, and it is valuable.  Does its value depend on wordlessness?  On resisting content and form?

If we worry – as I do sometimes – that our language is a social thing that affects the way we perceive reality, then the ambient domain offers an alluring freedom, for it does not rely upon “any standards, frameworks, or narratives external to the experiencing individual.”

But then how to communicate its value?

That’s the problem for philosophers, the paradox that Foster presents us with.

Of course, we require words, pictures, stories to make what we value about the natural environment clear to others.  But to experience that value for ourselves in an ambient fashion, we need something of humility and silence…”

Is the ambient domain of appreciation limited to natural environments?  What about the human-built environment?  Why does it seem harder to appreciate, via the ambient domain, the world that normally environs us?  i.e. a supermarket aisle rather than a gurgling creek?

Is it because narratives are somehow embedded in human-built objects?  So that we are not only applying categories and concepts to things we perceive, but are actively “picking up” frames of reference from the perceptions themselves?  If so, why would these  frames of reference make ambient appreciation harder?  Is it the sheer number of frames that must be resisted, or the particular kinds?

Does the narrative domain have a dark side when applied to non-human nature?  Is it an attempt to domesticate nature – to make it more like the human-built world?

Foster says that recognizing our narratives “reveals the surface objects as dramatic ossifications of processes we can no longer see, or are unable to see.”

Or does the narrative domain – not the ambient – offer us freedom, if only we are able to apply the right concepts and categories?

Professor Steven Vogel has written about alienation from the environment; he might say that there are “invisible or intangible events and processes” behind artifacts, behind the human-built world, and that instead of merely perceiving them in alienation, we need to see the part of ourselves and other people that exists in them, to appreciate our transformation of our environment and take responsibility for it.

How does Foster’s account of narrative vs. ambient dimensions hold up when we question the duality between nature and artifact?



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