Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Emily Brady "Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature" [Free full text available]

 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 56, No. 2, Environmental Aesthetics(Spring, 1998), pp. 139-147

The essay is striking in her precise and yet imaginatively evocative account of how she develops philosophical  theories in relation to  her personal experience. In this, it is similar to the method of Susan Greenwood's The Anthropology of Magic  in which she   develops a conception of magical knowledge as a valid anthropological method. 

My favorite sections

I highlight the sections describing her  experience of the beauty of nature and the conclusions she draws from them.

She describes four kinds of imagination: 

 Exploratory imagination 

 Here, imagination explores the forms of the object as we perceptually attend to it, and imagination's discoveries can, in turn, enrich and alter our perception of the object. Whilst perception does much of the work in simply grasping the object and cordoning it off in our perceptual field, it is imagination that reaches beyond this in a free contemplation of the object. In this way exploratory imagination helps the percipient to make an initial discovery of aesthetic qualities. For example, in contemplating the bark of a locust tree, visually, I see the deep clefts between the thick ridges of the bark. Images of mountains and valleys come to mind, and I think of the age of the tree given the thickness of the ridges and how they are spaced apart. I walk around the tree, feeling the wide circumference of the bark. The image of a seasoned old man comes to mind, with deep wrinkles from age. These imaginings lead to an aesthetic judgment of the tree as stalwart, and I respect it as I might a wise old sage. My interpretation of the locust tree is tied to its nonaesthetic qualities, such as the texture of the bark, as well as the associations spawned by perceptual qualities. 

Projective imagination 

draws on imagination's projective powers. Projection involves imagining "on to" what is perceived such that what is actually there is somehow added to, re- placed with, or overlaid by a projected image. In this way projective imagination is associated with deliberate "seeing as," where we intentionally, not mistakenly, see something as another thing. We put "seeing as" to work in order to try out new perspectives on objects by projecting images onto them. In visually exploring the stars at night, imaginative activity may overlay perception in attempting to unify the various forms traced by individual stars, perhaps by naturally projecting geometrical shapes onto them. Sometimes we take the further imaginative leap of projecting ourselves into natural objects. For example, to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of an alpine flower, I might somatically imagine what it is like to live and grow under harsh conditions. Without imagining such conditions I would be unable to appreciate the remarkable strength hidden so beautifully in the delicate quality of the flower. Both of these examples show how imagination provides a more intimate aesthetic experience, and thus allows us to explore aesthetic qualities more deeply than through perception alone.

  Ampliative imagination

 involves the inventive powers of imagination, and need not make use of images. It is marked by heightened creative powers and a special curiosity in its response to natural objects. Here imagination amplifies what is given in perception and thereby reaches beyond the mere projection of images onto ob- jects. This activity may thus be described as more penetrative, resulting in a deeper imagina- tive treatment of the object. It is imagination in its most active mode in aesthetic experience. This use of imagination involves both visualizing and the leaps of imagination that enable us to approach natural objects from entirely new standpoints. In contemplating the smoothnessof a sea pebble, I visualize the relentless surging of the ocean as it has shaped the pebble into its worn form. I might also imagine how it looked before it became so smooth, this image contributing to my wonder and delight in the object. Merely thinking about the pebble is not sufficient for appreciating the silky smoothness which is emphasized by contrasting its feel with an image of its pre-worn state. Ampliative im- agination enables us to expand upon what we see by placing or contextualizing the aesthetic object with narrative images. Andrew Wyeth illustrates this with another example from the sea. A white mussel shell on a gravel bank in Maine is thrilling to me because it's all the sea-the gull that brought it there, the rain, the sun that bleached it there by a stand of spruce woods. Ampliative imagination also accounts for a nonvisualizing activity in which we try out novel ways to aesthetically appreciate some ob- ject. Calling on imagination in this way facili- tates our experience of a valley as imbued with tranquillity, or by contrast, we might imagine the cold, icy feeling of the glaciers that carved out the valley's form.

Where ampliative imagination leads to the discovery of an aesthetic truth, I call this imaginative activity 

revelatory [imagination]

In this mode, invention stretches the power of imagination to its limits, and this often gives way to a kind of truth or knowledge about the world-a kind of revelation in the nonreligious sense. When my alternative contemplation of the valley, glaciers and all, reveals the tremendous power of the earth to me, a kind of truth has emerged through a distinctively aesthetic experience. I want to distinguish an aesthetic truth from a nonaesthetic truth according to the manner in which it becomes known. We do not seek out aesthetic truths in the way we seek out the answers to philosophical or scientific problems. Rather, aesthetic truths are revealed through a heightened aesthetic experience, where perceptual and imaginative engagement with nature facilitate the kind of close attention that leads to revelation. A quick glance at a lamb reveals little except an acknowledgment of its sweetness. But the fuller participation of perception and imagination can lead to a truth about innocence. Contemplating the fresh whiteness of a lamb and its small, fragile stature evokes images of purity and naivete. It is through dwelling aesthetically and imaginatively on such natural things that we achieve new insight.

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