Ad Astraesthetics

by Nate Sheff

We all naturally take an interest in the night sky. Just last week, my fiancee and I attended an event put on by the Astronomical Society of New Haven. Without a cloud in the sky, near-freezing temperatures, and a new moon, the conditions were ideal for looking through telescopes the size of cannons. To see anything, you had to stand in line, in the cold, for your opportunity to look at something for a minute. 

A surprising number of people turned out for this opportunity. By the time we left, there had to be about a hundred people (and more likely arrived later), making up a good cross section of society. And they all enjoyed themselves. The most memorable attendee was a woman in front of us in line to see Jupiter. The astronomer at the telescope told her to look at the dark bands that are the eternal storms in the planet’s atmosphere.

“Wow,” she said, stepping away.

The astronomer asked, “Did you see the moons?”

“The moons?” She looked again. We could see them through the binoculars we brought: four points almost in a line near the planet, glittering in the dark.

“Those are moons?

That one piece of information transformed the appearance of the planet from a lonely island to a tidy neighborhood.

Immanuel Kant’s tombstone has a line from the Critique of Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Whether or not you agree with him on the moral law, you can’t fault him for his view of the stars.

In contemporary analytic philosophy, aesthetics typically takes a backseat to other subfields, and that goes also for environmental aesthetics, philosophical reflection on our appreciation of the natural world. And this seems odd. Even among those who aren’t Outside People (you know who you are), who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? Who doesn’t know the voice of Sir David Attenborough? Who doesn’t realize all of a sudden that the stars look especially beautiful on a particular night, only returning to the sublunar mundane once they’ve found the Big Dipper or Orion? 

All I’m saying is, it’s worth thinking about.

Why does it matter that the little lights near Jupiter are moons? Some philosophers think that properly appreciating something depends partly on what we know about it. Artworks are meant to be engaged with. Movies are made for watching; music is for listening. Watching a film means knowing where to put your attention. To tell the difference between what’s part of a movie and what isn’t, you have to know what movies are, and so, how they are made to be watched. Appreciation like this can come in degrees: we can appreciate something more deeply with practice and knowledge. Our viewing experiences help us learn things like genre conventions and the idiosyncrasies of different directors, and this tells us what to expect from a new movie and how to get a read on it. How you engage with something depends on what kind of work it is. If you watch Oppenheimer expecting a madcap comedy, you won’t get it.

So far, so good, but as Allen Carlson has pointed out, this leaves us with a puzzle when it comes to appreciating the natural environment. Nobody designed the glacial erratic boulders all over Connecticut, but it seems possible to appreciate them aesthetically. But if someone does want to appreciate them and the places where we can encounter them, what can they rely on? Nature has no genre conventions.

But it does have joints, Plato’s metaphor for the divisions between natural kinds like species, biomes, types of minerals and soils, and so on. Science uncovers and delimits these kinds, and when we look at the world through its lenses, we see more, and appreciate more deeply, than we could without it. It’s one thing to stroll past big mossy rocks in the woods, but something else entirely to see them as the leavings of a long-gone glacier.

What is it that we appreciate once we learn to see this way? Environments themselves aren’t objects. Consider the difference between appreciating a rose and appreciating the garden that it’s in. A rose is a particular individual; you can look at it, smell it, and touch it. But the garden is something that you and the rose are in. You have to move through the garden to appreciate how its paths guide your feet and your eyes, and how the design unites different aspects of the landscape. Environments envelope us, so we have to appreciate them on those terms. For Carlson, appreciating a natural environment is appreciating it as an environment shaped by natural forces, an appreciation that deepens the more we know. 

Carlson’s view can explain how the aesthetic appreciation of the night sky works, and why it matters to know that those little guys near Jupiter are the same moons Galileo saw through his telescope. The sky affords a view on the largest environments we move through: our solar system, our galaxy, our observable universe. When I first considered this, it seemed like a stretch. Is the Moon really a part of my environment? Is the Milky Way?

Well, yes. All sorts of things down here depend on what happens out there. No moon, no tides; no sun, no life. Dung beetles rely on the Milky Way to navigate. If regarding something as an environment just means recognizing it as a space that one moves through, then outer space fits the definition. The movement itself is subtle, but it’s there. While looking at the moons of Jupiter myself, I had to ask the astronomer to adjust the telescope, since the planet was drifting out of view, thanks to the Earth’s rotation.

When the Geminids come around this year, we will break out our camp chairs and head for the backyard. Our planet will drift once more through the dusty trail of 3200 Phaethon, and we will look up and watch the passage as it leaves fires in the sky.

(Many thanks to Professor Alexis Elder and her philosophy students at University of Minnesota Duluth for listening to inchoate versions of these ideas. Their questions, criticisms, and insights helped greatly.)