Navigazione – Mappa del sito

HomeNumeri75variaThe Ontology of Landscapes


The Ontology of Landscapes

Adam Andrzejewski e Mateusz Salwa
p. 164-182


The paper aims at an analysis of the concept of landscape, offering an ontological approach. Our claim is that such a perspective is hardly ever assumed in philosophical aesthetics, even if theories of landscape appreciation are in fact based on tacit ontological assumptions. We argue that having an explicit ontology of landscapes is important, for aesthetic theories of their appreciation are often attacked in terms of the problems caused by their tacit ontologies. Therefore, we sketch an “Experience Ontology” that serves as an alternative to the ontologies implied in the two best known aesthetic approaches to landscapes. We contend that a landscape should not be conceived of as an object or view but as a way of experiencing one’s surroundings, and we argue that our theory is not only free from the shortcomings of the two dominant theories but that it also corresponds better to everyday intuitions.

Torna su

Testo integrale

1. Introduction

1Imagine a group of persons taking a walk through a street in the city of Jerusalem on their much-deserved holiday trip: they are clearly tourists enjoying the Mediterranean weather and historic views. But imagine for a moment that they are visiting the same city for different reasons: it is Good Friday, and they are praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As Christian pilgrims, they are seeking atonement for their sins. Try to imagine yet another option – those people aren’t tourists, but actually have lived in Jerusalem all their lives. Not only is the city the place where they dwell, but also one of the symbols of the ancient and very painful conflict that they are perforce deeply involved in as Israelis or Palestinians. 

2The imaginary individuals referred to in the previous paragraph clearly differ from each other in many ways since they possess incompatible sets of values, emotions and beliefs, and they engage in and conceptualize the world in divergent manners. It seems then that the only thing that is common to all of them is the city itself to which they relate in one way or another and where they may come across each other. Imagine now that they accidentally meet on one of the street corners. Could we say that they have met in the same cityscape? Would they think that they are in the same cityscape or would they rather think that their cityscapes are somehow different?

  • 1 Bachelard 2014, Porteous 1990.

3If we ignore for a moment the supposedly unusual character of these questions, we may claim that it is more than obvious that these people are situated in the same cityscape. How could anyone even think that it is otherwise? The people mentioned in the scenario may see, interpret or appreciate Jerusalem differently, but the city as an object of their experiences, thoughts and appreciations remains the same. In other words, the cityscape is independent from them and thus objective. Such a view is suggested not only by commonsense, but also by many approaches within landscape studies, including aesthetics. At the same time, however, landscapes are quite often treated as personal in so far as they “consist” not only of places or surroundings where one is or once was but also of projections of one’s inner life and as a result they appear to be very intimate and subjective (e.g. childhood landscapes).1 From this perspective we may in fact claim that the individuals in the above thought experiment cannot meet in the same cityscape, even if we may contend, e.g., that as tourists they may in fact meet in the tourists’ Jerusalem, while as city dwellers – in their “local” Jerusalem. Yet, the two Jerusalems are different and overlap only partially if at all.

  • 2 The cityscape is a particular sort of landscape defined by the fact that it is urban. See e.g. Unte (...)
  • 3 Carlson and Berleant 2004, Parsons 2008, Brady 2003, Moore 2004.

4For the sake of the argument we chose a cityscape as the setting of our thought experiment, but it is also valid with reference to other kinds of landscape or to landscapes in general.2 Consequently, the issue we are referring to here is typical for all landscapes. The same holds true for the analyses of natural landscapes – very often identified with landscape as such – that we are going to discuss in the paragraphs below, following the current debates on aesthetic appreciation of landscapes which usually focus on natural ones.3

  • 4 See, e.g., Carlson 2009. Carlson is known for his critique of the aesthetic concept of landscape (s (...)

5Whenever we think of, appreciate, or talk about landscapes we implicitly make assumptions as to what a landscape is. Yet, in spite of the growing importance of landscape studies few explicitly reflect on the ontology of landscapes, discussing how landscapes exist, what kind of entities they are and how they are individuated. Various approaches seem to be united by the belief that landscapes are object-like, e.g. cultural landscapes are defined as «combined works of nature and humankind» (Unesco 2019). Strangely enough, this is the case in philosophy too, though it can be justified by the fact that in the philosophical context the idea of landscape usually appears as a key category used to describe the aesthetic experience of nature – be it humanized or not. The manner in which philosophers conceive of the idea of landscape is particularly interesting because even if their theories concern nothing other than the aesthetic appreciation of landscapes, they are in fact based on different ontologies that determine them but are hardly ever exposed expressis verbis. It is also noteworthy that in philosophy as well as in everyday language the term “landscape” is taken to mean two different things, which sometimes leads to a confusion: on the one hand, it is used as a category associated with aesthetic appreciation and hence it refers to surroundings that are aesthetically experienced in a “painterly” way; on the other hand it functions as a synonym of “place,” “environment,” or “surroundings” that may be but do not have to be aesthetically experienced.4

  • 5 See e.g. Kühne 2019, Olwig 2019.

6The aim of our paper is to investigate what ontologies of landscape lie behind certain philosophical approaches to the aesthetic appreciation of landscapes and to suggest a distinct view on the metaphysical nature of landscapes, a view that may be useful not only in philosophy, but in other fields too. We would like to offer an ontology of landscapes according to which a landscape is not conceived of as an object, but as a way of experiencing one’s surroundings. We will, however, start with a reconstruction of two ontologies lying at the heart of the two best known aesthetic approaches to landscapes, i.e., the landscape and environmental models. We focus on landscape aesthetics not because we would like to discuss issues of aesthetic appreciation of landscapes, but because it is mainly in the context of such discussions that the idea of landscape is analyzed in philosophy. Our intention is to offer a philosophical definition of landscape that will go beyond aesthetics, which may be justified by, among other things, the fact that there is a trend in the humanities to interpret landscapes as not subject to aesthetic experience.5 At the same time our theory may be termed aesthetic insofar as it associates the idea of landscape with aisthesis, i.e., sensory experience. Next, we will analyze a recent proposal made by Jiři Benovsky who, discussing the issue of aesthetic appreciation of landscapes, explicitly offers his own ontology of landscapes. We claim that all three approaches have many advantages, especially Benovsky’s, yet they have as many shortcomings which – we believe – our theory avoids. Not only does the latter correspond with everyday intuitions, including aesthetic ones, according to which a landscape is conceived of as one’s surroundings and/or a view of them, but also with an approach that has recently gained importance within landscape studies, as we shall prove in the final section of the article.

2. Scenic ontology and reductionist ontology

  • 6 Thompson et al. 2013: 1-7.

7Due to the fact that, etymologically speaking, the term landscape is rooted on the one hand in geographical and legal vocabulary and on the other in artistic practice, it has a double meaning today.6 It may refer either to a stretch of land distinct from its surroundings or to a view of it, especially when such a view may be praised for its aesthetic qualities. Philosophers tend to focus on the latter and consequently are mainly interested in the aesthetic appreciation of landscapes.

8Our intention is to offer a different philosophical understanding of landscapes than that implied by the theories dominating in landscape aesthetics, namely the landscape and the environmental model. Yet we do not intend to critique these aesthetic theories, but to focus on and reconstruct their ontological components. We believe that establishing an explicit ontology of landscape is useful not only because it allows one to understand what a landscape is but because it avoids a number of problems inherent in the established aesthetic theories that arise from the fact that the ontological assumptions are taken for granted and thus remain hidden.

  • 7 Andrews 1994.
  • 8 This view has been reconstructed mainly by its critics: Carlson 2000: 16-39, Moore 2004: 213-216, P (...)

9Philosophers, in general, tend to refer to the idea of landscape according to the centuries-old tradition stemming from Early Modern landscape painting and strengthened by the 18th-century concept of the picturesque.7 This “landscape model” based on a visual experience of the world is still the dominant approach, not only among academics but also, and foremost, among ordinary people who identify a landscape with a view of their surroundings.8 This model of aesthetic appreciation presupposes an implicit ontology that we shall call the “scenic ontology” (henceforth SO) which may be reconstructed as follows: a landscape is two-dimensional and purely visual object “standing” in front of the detached observer (like a painting on the wall) whose aesthetic qualities are rooted solely in its colors, shapes and textures as seen from a particular standpoint; in fact it may be said to be created by the beholder’s gaze which defines its boundaries and decides what is included in it. As such, a landscape is believed to exist only in so far as it is a “bit” of reality that is actually aesthetically experienced by someone. It is also static in the sense that any modification stemming from any change either in what is seen or in the observer’s position results in an alteration of the landscape. In other words, a landscape is always a scenery frozen in time.

  • 9 Roger 2017, Larsen, Urry 2011.

10The main strength of SO is that it adequately describes what the term landscape means to many people when they aesthetically appreciate their surroundings, which is the case, for instance, when they travel as tourists longing for scenic views.9

  • 10 Hepburn 2004.
  • 11 Carlson 2000.

11There are, however, certain shortcomings to SO. First, it reduces landscape to visuality, since not only does it favour sight but it virtually ignores other senses which are likewise important to how we experience the world around us.10 Second, it misrepresents the relationship between people and their surroundings, which are never just in front of them but – as the term itself suggests – are all around them. It may even be said that people are elements of their surroundings even when they are tourists. A well-known criticism of the “landscape model” as an aesthetic theory claims that it wrongly imposes artistic categories onto nature, since it suggests that nature should be appreciated as if it were art.11 However, this criticism is in fact based on ontological grounds (i.e., an implicit assumption of certain ontology), since it claims that the “landscape model” misrepresents the ontology of landscape. As a result, it has been suggested that, given that the term landscape has the aforementioned implications, it should be replaced with environment, which is free of them.

  • 12 Ibidem.

12According to the “environmental model”, most famously offered by Allen Carlson who also made the above suggestion, an aesthetic experience of an environment has to be an informed experience shaped by knowledge offering a set of objective categories that create an “objective” frame for aesthetic appreciation.12 Aesthetic appreciation is, then, in fact a discovery of objective aesthetic qualities, which is possible only if the appreciator uses concepts fitting the environment that is appreciated hic et nunc.

  • 13 In a certain way, SO is also reductive as it reduces a landscape to the visual aspects of the envir (...)

13Carlson’s theory of aesthetic appreciation is based on an ontology that largely differs from SO. Even if it refers to what SO takes to be a landscape, it identifies it with what exists independently of the subject. For that reason we suggest that the ontology presupposed by the environmental model shall be called the “reductionist ontology” (henceforth RO).13 According to it, an environment is a setting consisting of objects, processes and relations. An environment is three-dimensional and dynamic: it encompasses a person who is inevitably immersed in it and thus figures as one of its elements. As such, an environment is physical or material and thus cannot be reduced to any sensory dimension typical of human experience.

14There are a number of reasons why RO is better than SO. First, by underlining the fact that the world is a web of objects, processes, and situations, it adequately describes what is aesthetically appreciated when people take in their surroundings, no matter whether they think of them in terms of landscape or environment. Second, it also adequately describes the relationship between people and their environments, showing that they belong to what they appreciate.

  • 14 See, e.g., the essays written by E. Brady, C. Foster, T. Heyd and R. Moore collected in Carlson, Be (...)

15Carlson’s theory has been criticized mainly for putting too much stress on knowledge, dismissing such factors as emotions or imagination.14 Our criticism, however, is different as we believe that getting rid of the idea of landscape as distinct from environment is too hasty, for it neglects the fact that it is used in everyday contexts and it corresponds to how people experience the world around them. Those ordinary uses very often differ from the philosophical ones in that they imply an altogether different ontology: leaving aside that fact that people quite often identify landscapes with nice views, sometimes they will say that they look differently at the same landscape or that they have different views of the same landscapes, but sometimes they will claim that when looking at or being in the same place, they are in or see different landscapes.

3. Ontology first: Benovsky’s approach

  • 15 Benovsky 2016.

16Recently, Jiři Benovsky has offered a new view on the appreciation of landscapes.15 He explores the notion of landscape in a manner similar to the one implied by SO, but goes much further: he pushes SO to its limits by introducing some radical elements that are not explicitly present in SO as it has been reconstructed. He also follows the “landscape model” in aesthetic appreciation, but at the same time, he incorporates several points taken from the “environmental model”. He thus intends to give a general account of landscape appreciation which might reconcile the dominant aesthetic approaches mentioned above. What is unusual is that Benovsky explicitly starts by establishing a general ontology of landscapes and, based on that, moves to aesthetic issues. However, as we shall point out, his own ontological theory faces a number of problems as well.

  • 16 Ibidem: 325.
  • 17 Benovsky refers explicitly to landscapes and natural environments. However, the ontological differe (...)
  • 18 Ibidem: 326. Emphasis in the original.
  • 19 Benovsky notes that there is no opposition between the two: they usefully complete each other. Info (...)

17For Benovsky, landscapes are perspectival entities (thus, they are relative to the observer) and «the “creator” of the landscape necessarily happens to be the same person as the spectator».16 Hence, there is a crucial ontological difference between nature and landscapes.17 Nature is something existing independently from us as observers, namely, entities such as mountains, forests, lakes, etc. are just out there in the world no matter whether they are experienced by any one or not. Landscapes are different in that regard, for they do not exist independently from observers since they require «at least a point of view and a framing».18 Moreover, nature is something much “broader” than landscapes. It consists of such (normally) non-perceptual entities as bacteria or macroscopic structures like galaxies, whereas landscapes are understood as purely (or, at least mostly) visual entities. In a further step, Benovsky distinguishes two types of aesthetic appreciation of landscapes: a simple one and an informed one, which cover the modes of appreciation found within the “landscape model” and the “environmental model”, respectively.19

  • 20 Ibidem: 336.
  • 21 Ibidem: 337.
  • 22 Ibidem: 338. Emphasis in the original. The transparency thesis regarding photographs says, roughly, (...)
  • 23 Benovsky 2016: 338.

18Having clarified that, he tries to highlight the ontological nature of landscapes by comparing them with photographs. This helps him to show how ontological properties of landscapes are crucial for establishing their aesthetic properties. His main claim is that there is a relevant affinity between the two. First, they exist in a similar way – namely, they are mind-dependent entities: «no observer, no landscapes; no photographer, no photography».20 Second, landscapes and photographs, in coming into existence, are relative to a specific point of view, a frame, and a defined time. Benovsky states that «[…]the time at which it [landscape/photograph] was observed/taken is absolutely crucial – indeed, in this case, it is the main thing that makes it aesthetically interesting».21 The aesthetic properties of landscapes and photographs are relative to an observer and the time of observation, so the context of creation matters greatly for the aesthetic appreciation of both. Another similarity between landscapes and photographs is that they depend on something real in the world. That is, photographs are depictions of something existing in the outside world, and the same is true for landscapes. Benovsky illustrates this point as follows: «[…]when we see a photograph of the Matterhorn, given the transparency thesis, we see the Matterhorn itself. When we look at the Matterhorn and we appreciate the resulting landscape, we see the Matterhorn itself as well – framed and all, as we have already seen…. (Of course, it is crucial to keep in mind here that the landscape is not just the mountain. The mountain is out there in the world, it is a piece of nature. The landscape is a perspectival observer-dependent entity.)».22 Lastly, when it comes to attention management techniques, there is a non-trivial affinity between photography and landscapes. When a photograph is taken one might intentionally choose a way in which the photographed object is presented, e.g. to focus our attention on a detail of the object, whereas its other parts may remain unnoticed.23

19Ultimately, by exploring the SO, Benovsky claims that a landscape is a two-dimensional, static, perspectival entity existing dependently of its creator/observer. This is deepened by his comparison of landscapes to photographs – he highlights the importance of a frame, a point of view and a defined time in creating/experiencing landscapes. Based on this ontology, Benovsky offers a new account of landscape appreciation which is an amalgam of points borrowed from the “landscape model” and the “environmental model”.

4. Challenges

20While trying to bridge the gap between the two dominant trends in the philosophy of landscapes, Benovsky’s proposal – interesting as it is – is not itself free of problems. We shall formulate and explore the two main ontological objections to it: “The Individuation Fallacy” and “The Representational Fallacy”.

21The Individuation Fallacy refers to the ontological consequences of Benovsky’s proposal. As we already mentioned, according to him, a landscape is individuated by an observer of the landscape (1) who is, by necessity, the landscape’s creator, and (2) who frames it in virtue of the fact that the landscape is “taken” from a certain perspective (a standpoint) at a certain time. As a result, a static observer-dependent entity comes into existence. Taking the affinity with photographs seriously, as Benovsky does, we end up with a view that: (1) our eyes work – in a similar way – as a camera lens, and (2) every frame is unique and limited to a particular observer. Granting that, just imagine that you’re admiring wonderful surroundings. If you adhere to Benovsky’s theory, you believe that each time you close and open your eyes a new landscape is created. (Analogously, shooting a series of 10 photographs in 7 seconds creates ten numerically different – though similar – photographs.) This is because you change the moment of the landscape’s creation, one of the essential parameters responsible for a landscape’s individuation. Similarly, when admiring a Mediterranean tempest in Jerusalem, you are forced into saying that you are watching a number of subsequent landscapes (spatiotemporally connected with each other, to be sure) since, as claimed by Benovsky, a landscape is something static, not dynamic. And, as claimed by Benovsky, the landscape’s time of creation is crucial for its aesthetic properties. As a result, every change in the environment as well as in the observer results in a new landscape.

  • 24 We shall identify a factor responsible for the landscape’s individuation in Section 5.
  • 25 For example, we would lose the critical dimension of the appreciation of landscapes. We may have cr (...)

22Someone could ask why this is a problem for the landscape’s individuation, since such a case is perfectly acceptable with photographs. The reason is simple: the reconstructed ontology of landscape is, paradoxically, counterintuitive. It clashes with the widespread intuition that we can observe (or, more broadly, experience) a single landscape for a while in order to fully enjoy it. That is, it is quite natural to say that if a person stopped for a while in order to admire the surrounding, she sees and experiences the same landscape for a minute or two. Without doubt, there must be something that ensures a sense of “unity” allowing her to differentiate that landscape from other landscapes, but it seems to be something other than just the parameters of time, frame, and observer standpoint which suggest a static view of landscapes. (Or, rather, these parameters alone do not allow for a given landscape’s individuation).24 Moreover, the problem has another face. Again, imagine that you’re admiring a beautiful setting. You are not alone since you are there on a romantic date. Taking Benovsky’s theory seriously, you cannot be sure that you are observing literally the same landscape as your date. You may be very close to each other, but she or he could take a step or two further or you might just pay attention to a slightly different part of the surroundings, all of which can change the frame and, as a consequence, the landscape. Moreover, Benovsky explicitly says, when pointing to the role of attention management techniques, that the creator of a landscape is necessarily its spectator. If so, then landscapes are strictly private and can never be shared with or experienced by other people. This sounds like an unwelcome and counterintuitive consequence. We are often convinced that we share landscapes with other people, and this is important not only for aesthetic reasons but also for emotional and moral reasons, not to mention practical ones.25

  • 26 This is similar to, e.g., postulates that we experience nature as nature or everydayness as everyda (...)

23The Representational Fallacy refers instead to the ontological relationship between landscapes and environment. The former are mind-dependent objects, whereas the latter are mind-independent entities. In addition, the environment is more inclusive. It can be said that an environment is an objective background for subjective landscapes. There is, however, another connection between the two. Landscapes are transparent (as per Benovsky’s “transparency thesis”) which means that when we are looking at a landscape we actually see our environment as well. In Benovsky’s view, when we are looking at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, we are actually admiring its landscape and thus we see two things: the landscape and the Mount of Olives itself. Thus, we actually see two separate entities. In the case of photographs that makes perfect sense. To be sure, they are separate entities differing from the objects they represent, and yet, given the transparency thesis, when we are looking at photographs we see the objects represented in them. Nevertheless, the same idea in the case of landscapes is questionable. It is not clear why we could not experience an environment in its own rights and not only as represented by something different from it.26 The second case ends up with the situation when an environment might be seen (or, broadly, experienced) in a framework belonging to a different domain of entities (e.g. art). According to Benovsky, in the landscape-situation we experience an environment as something represented by the landscape itself. It is counterintuitive because it implies that we see (and so experience) environment through the landscape (a separate entity), and this clashes with the intuitive view that environments are experienced directly.

5. Experience-based ontology

  • 27 For a notable example of reconciling the landscape model and the environmental model see also Crawf (...)

24We would now like to propose an alternative theory of landscapes. Our goal is to sketch an account of an experienced-based landscape ontology (henceforth EO) that is free from the shortcomings faced by SO, RO, and Benovsky’s theory and is consistent not only with some of the everyday intuitions concerning landscapes mentioned above but also with – as has already been suggested – recent theoretical perspectives. In order to do so, it will be useful to point out explicitly which parts of the above theories we accept and incorporate into our approach since, as we believe, they are partly right in accounting for what landscapes are. First, following SO, we accept the distinction between landscapes and environment by claiming that the concept of landscape refers to something different than environment and as such is informative. Second, we accept that the environment is objective, dynamic and three-dimensional. In that respect we follow RO.27

  • 28 1997.
  • 29 Casey 2013, Tilley 2007.

25In line with the above, and inspired by Arnold Berleant28 and other phenomenological accounts29, we shall propose that a landscape should be understood not as a kind of entity but rather as a way of experiencing. In other words, we claim that whenever we describe or refer to something as a “landscape” we really mean someone’s specific way of experiencing a given environment; that is, we focus on how someone is experiencing or at least may experience his or her surroundings in the first place, and in the second on what is experienced in this manner.

  • 30 Foster 1998: 131.
  • 31 Ibidem.
  • 32 See «[…]there is only appreciating an object as ordered in light of a story» (Carlson 1999: 221).

26In order to argue in favour of the above-mentioned hypothesis we shall refer to the concept of “narrative”. Cheryl Foster pointed out two paradigms regarding the aesthetic appreciation of nature, namely, the ambient model and the narrative one. While the former implies sensual immersion à la Arnold Berleant, she associates the latter with Allen Carlson’s view on the aesthetic appreciation of environments, claiming that «we do [in each case] read the surface of the environment as a kind of story. We filter the perceptual properties of nature’s surface through a frame of reference that functions as narrative in character, one that contextualizes the objects before us as players in a partially invisible drama.»30 In other words, according to her a narrative is a discourse on the «invisible or intangible events and processes beneath, behind or before [the visible environment]»31. In such cases the narratives are offered by natural sciences which allow us to think of nature as something ordered and dramatically structured: there is always a “story” to be told about a given environment.32 That is, natural sciences enable us to “see” and understand the origins of the natural world, link the stages between the origin and the here and now, and thus create a sort of local natural history which at least partly determines the aesthetic appreciation of an environment. Yet we do not need to limit narratives to “scientific stories”.

  • 33 Heyd 2001: 130.
  • 34 Ibidem: 133.
  • 35 Carlson finally admitted that the cultural history of a landscape may be crucial for its aesthetic (...)

27Thomas Heyd opts for a diversity of stories, stating that the role of narratives in the aesthetic appreciation of nature is to prolong aesthetic experience and enrich our aesthetic horizons.33 There are three types of non-scientific stories that may lead us to an aesthetic appreciation of nature: artistic stories (e.g. poems, literature, and spoken tales that guide us in our appreciation of nature, as well as other forms that give us access to the aesthetic experiences of artists), non-artistic stories (e.g. mythological and religious tales), and non-verbally expressed stories «that tell stories in non-verbal fashion» such as paintings, buildings, sculptures, films and the like.34 Narratives here may be understood as the interpretations of the stories behind landscapes that guide our aesthetic appreciation of these landscapes.35

  • 36 When speaking about nature and stories, Heyd explicitly refers to “landscapes”; see ibidem: 130. It (...)
  • 37 Here we are sympathetic with Walter Fisher’s understanding of the term. Narratives are «[…]symbolic (...)

28We would like to give narratives an even more important role than Heyd does.36 Our contention is that landscapes are framed by narratives which guide one’s experiences. The term “narrative” refers here to an explanatory account of facts which allows one to understand the connection between them.37 Narratives are always coloured by one’s beliefs, emotions, values, expectations, interests, purposes, etc. These elements are crucial for one’s story and people would refer explicitly or implicitly to them if they were asked to describe the landscape they are looking at. In other words, we claim that narratives are responsible for the individuation of landscapes, yet narratives are distinct from landscapes. That is, narratives enable us to shape and give a sense of unity to a special way of experiencing an environment. In order to illustrate this point we would like to consider the following scenario which is (happily) quite unlikely to happen but tells quite a lot about the role of narratives in shaping people’s ways of experiencing their surroundings.

29Imagine that you are on a deserved vacation and you are travelling with a group of people across the Sahara desert. You have chosen this destination because you are a huge fan of monotone and unified surroundings, whereas your fellows have been motivated by good memories (e.g. a trip with parents as kids), a sense of snobbery, or an old-fashioned desire to experience something new. Of course, every participant of this trip focuses on different aspects of the desert and, thus, experiences it differently. But imagine that something horrific happened. Your guide just passed away. From that sad moment you are fighting for life. You get completely lost, are without water and food, etc. United with the others, you are desperate to survive.

30We contend that it is justified to state that in the first case, there were many landscapes as people experienced the desert differently, since they referred consciously to many (personal) associations, purposes and expectations, and probably made a number of incompatible judgments about the desert (including aesthetic ones). In the second case, however, an additional, predominant landscape came into existence. People had the same goal and thought in very similar ways about their surroundings, and even if their previous experiences determined by their personal narratives probably still counted to some extent they were superseded by a common way of experiencing based on a narrative about how to survive. The new narrative “inflects” the other personal narratives making them overlap or resemble each other. It does not mean that people do not experience the hostile environment in slightly different ways. They might experience the threat to their survival differently according to what is at stake – e.g. some may be overwhelmed by the idea of never seeing their partner or their children again, or never setting things right with their parents, etc.

  • 38 Naturally, levels of flexibility within these hierarchies vary depending on the type of narrative i (...)
  • 39 Of course, the same action might be a result of accepting and following (radically) different narra (...)

31One could, however, argue that it is not possible for two or more individuals to share the same narrative and that even if this is the case, then they do not share the same landscape. Our answer is that we do not need strict identity between persons’ mental states (which is obviously not possible) for a narrative to be shared. Narratives are associated with reasons, beliefs, and statements with some sort of hierarchy among them.38 So, it can be said – and this is a minimal condition – that a narrative, N, is shared by a group of individuals at time t when they act and think according to N in a very similar way when facing a situation, B, at t.39 In other words, a shared narrative allows people to think about their surroundings in ways that are more similar to each other than were the ways they thought about the surroundings on different occasions. Individual narratives are not replaced by the shared narrative but are made more similar and even overlapping thanks to the shared narrative; moreover, they enable a common experience of a given environment to be shared by a group of individuals.

32Sharing a narrative about the environment with other people can amount to sharing a landscape of that environment with these people. As we said, this of course does not mean that people enjoy the same “unit” of experience but that they participate in a certain way of experiencing the shared environment.

  • 40 Berleant 2006.

33Another necessary factor for a landscape to appear (that is, for the coming into existence of this kind of experiencing) is that one has to sensually experience the surroundings in question. (In this we follow Foster’s ambient model.) In this sense, a landscape is always aesthetic insofar as aesthetic means sensory.40

  • 41 This is because a narrative framing a landscape (and so, shaping the experience) is modified by the (...)

34Going back to the Jerusalem scenario from the beginning of the paper, Christian pilgrims share the religious landscape of Jerusalem only when they are in the city (or at least when they visited the city in the past).41 Narratives inevitably “belong” to individuals and so do landscapes insofar as they are defined by those narratives. If someone tells his or her narrative about a given place it reveals how he or she experiences it, that is, what the place means to him or her, what it is like, etc. In other words, he or she describes his or her way of experiencing his or her surroundings, that is, his or her landscape. Yet, people may share narratives with others, which makes them experience an environment in the same way (except for inevitable differences rooted in them as individuals). This is especially striking when we allow for the possibility to learn someone’s landscape. It means that he or she can guide me in how to experience a piece of reality in the way that he or she does. For this, a mere explanation of the narrative is not enough. It is quite unlikely that a tourist accepts the mode of behaviour of a pilgrim, and vice versa. To learn a landscape is to make someone’s narrative our own or at least to think that it could be ours to some extent. Learning someone’s landscape, i.e., finding out how someone experiences his or her surroundings, does not amount to sharing it. In fact, people may be said to share other people’s landscapes not only when they know how these people experience their environment but also when they themselves identify with this attitude, i.e., when they endorse this way of experiencing it as theirs.

  • 42 One could object by saying that awareness of the narrative is too strong a condition to impose on t (...)
  • 43 The term “meaningful” is understood here in a similar way to Ronald Hepburn’s notion of “serious” i (...)

35If taken alone, the idea that landscapes are framed by narratives may be understood as a theory stating that every single experience of an environment turns it into a landscape. If such an interpretation is to be avoided, as it would make the term landscape uninformative (if everything is a landscape we can and should get rid of the term), a qualification has to be added. We want to restrict the meaning of the term landscape in such a way as to cover only certain ways of experiencing environments, those which can be judged to be meaningful. We thus claim that in order to experience an environment as a landscape a person has to be (at least partly) aware42 of his or her narrative.43

36Such an experience takes places whenever people experience their environment in a particular way either because they experience that environment as a cultural landscape or because they analyze their relationship to their environment, as happens when they are asked how they feel about or what they think of an environment, when they say why an environment is important to them or why they like it (or not), etc.

37As a conclusion, we would like to formulate the following definition of what a landscape is:

Def. x is a landscape iff: x is a way of experiencing an environment E by a person A who ascribes a set of features V to E in virtue of a narrative N of which they are aware.

  • 44 Naturally, not every landscape must be an aesthetic one.

38One could object that by proposing the ontological shift from “object” to “way of experiencing” we make our ontology a bit elusive and counterintuitive compared with existing theories of landscapes. We would answer by saying that in the existing theories what is intuitive is the aesthetics rather than the ontology. That is, the “landscape model” and the “environmental model” indeed account for certain intuitions about aesthetic appreciation, namely that we may admire formal qualities of what we see around us and that our experience of our surroundings is always multisensory and is often guided by knowledge and beliefs. But when it comes to ontology the situation seems to be far more complicated. SO conceives of a landscape as static and two-dimensional and in the final analysis leads to Benovsky’s conclusions which are radical and unlikely to be accepted (as noted in the previous section). Instead, RO completely eliminates the concept of landscape as flawed and uninformative. Another possible objection to our proposal is that the above definition suggests that when we aesthetically appreciate a landscape we in fact do not appreciate an environment but our experience of it. It is not the case however, as we claim that environments may be experienced in various ways and aesthetic appreciation is one such manner. What are aesthetically appreciated are environments, while aesthetic appreciation is a way of experiencing them. In other words, an aesthetic landscape is a way of experiencing the environment as subject to aesthetic appreciation.44 It may also be argued in defense of EO that even if the term landscape belongs to a great extent to our everyday vocabulary, only on particular occasions do people refer to their surroundings as landscapes, e.g. when they travel as tourists heading to widely appreciated places and are eager to take nice pictures, when they describe their affection for their homeland, when they describe certain spots as scientists, or when they represent the world as artists in different media (including literature). All of these cases imply and require an extraordinary and meaningful way of experiencing of the world in the sense given above.

39If we go back to the question resulting from the scenario described at the outset, we can see what answer may be given to it on the basis of the ontology discussed above. Contrary to SO implying that these people cannot be located in the same cityscape, since landscapes are observer-dependent visual static phenomena, and contrary to RO according to which a landscape is just an environment where people are physically present, EO suggest that how their location is interpreted depends on how they experience it: in this case, Jerusalem. If they all experience it according to a shared narrative, then they may in fact be thought of as situated in the same (shared) landscape (e.g. the tourist’s Jerusalem or the dweller’s Jerusalem), but if their narratives have no common elements their landscapes are different, even if they experience the same surroundings. What is at stake here is not so much a trivial physical presence, occupying a location in three-dimensional space, but being in a place experienced as something meaningful. By associating the idea of landscape with how people experience their surroundings, EO is phenomenological and as such gives the answer to our initial question. It is not possible to answer it in any other manner than by taking the standpoint of the protagonists of the Jerusalem scenario.

  • 45 Again, we would like to stress that narratives are distinct from landscapes.

40EO has a number of advantages over SO, RO, and Benovsky’s theory. Despite the fact that it defines a landscape as observer-dependent, it does not explain it in terms of representation as it claims that an environment is experienced directly and that a landscape is someone’s way of experiencing it. As such, EO remains untouched by the Representational Fallacy. It then explains both the changeability and permanence of landscapes, thus avoiding the Individuation Fallacy. On the one hand, as long as a person is committed to a narrative, and consequently to a certain way of experiencing an environment, a landscape is constant and coherent regardless of any changes the experienced environment may undergo.45 On the other, the same environment may be experienced differently by the same person on different occasions – thus, there are two different landscapes at two different moments. In other words, EO implies that two landscapes L1 and L2 are the same landscape iff E, V, and N are the same for both L1 and L2. Finally, EO accounts for people’s intuitions about landscapes, intuitions that are often blurred or contradictory and cause them to claim that landscapes are personal or private yet also public, or that they are “nice views” or “nice places”. According to EO there are “personal” landscapes that belong to particular individuals (e.g. landscapes of one’s childhood created in memories) and there are common landscapes that people share (or at least believe they share, e.g. national landscapes). One and the same environment may thus be experienced as either a private landscape or a shared one. There is a continuity between these ways of experiencing landscapes which enables one to shift his or her attitude, e.g. replace one’s biographical narrative with a characteristic of the community to which one belongs. This means that it is possible to shape the way in which one experiences his or her surroundings, e.g. by offering him or her new narratives.

  • 46 Wylie 2007; see also Haapala 2005: 47-48.
  • 47 European Landscape Convention 2000.

41It also should be noted that a conceptual shift in landscape studies has recently been made. Landscapes are less and less defined as cultural representations or environments where people act. Instead, they tend to be conceived of as places experienced in a particular way by particular people that happen to be there or – to put it differently – as the places that the human Lebenswelt consists of.46 This change is proved, among other things, by the definition of the term landscape given in the European Landscape Convention which reads that: landscape is «an area, as perceived by people (…).»47 Such a formula implies that it is not possible to approach a landscape either in purely objective terms or in purely subjective (e.g. representational) ones. One way to account for its character is then to think of it as a way in which subjects experience their surroundings.

6. Conclusions

  • 48 We would like to express our gratitude to Tiziana Andina, Elisa Caldarola, David Collins, David Dav (...)

42The purpose of this paper has been to shed light on the ontology of landscapes. We focused on aesthetics as the dominant philosophical approach to the subject, showing that aesthetic theories (in many cases) do not provide an explicit ontological account of what landscapes are, which, among other things, leads to the belief that “landscape” is in fact only an aesthetic category, i.e., that whenever we speak of a landscape we have in mind the aesthetic appreciation of our surroundings. We then proposed an alternative ontology of landscapes which avoids the problems generated by other ontologies. The main idea is that what we call “landscape” is in fact not an object (subject to aesthetic appreciation as is claimed by philosophical theories) but rather a special way of experiencing an environment and so aesthetic appreciation would be just one of the many possible ways in which an environment may be experienced. We claim that landscapes are individuated on the basis of narratives. In addition, the processes of sharing and learning someone’s landscape – maintaining which is highly intuitive – have been formulated and explained in terms of EO. We contend that one of the advantages of EO over the other approaches we analyze is that it dissociates the idea of landscape from aesthetic appreciation. This in turn is fruitful inasmuch as it may make aesthetic theories of landscape more sensitive to experiences other than aesthetic ones.48

Torna su


Andrews, M. 1994, The Picturesque, Mountfield (UK), Helm Information.

Bachelard, G. 2014, Poetics of Space, trans. by M. Jolas, New York, Penguin Books.

Benovsky, J. 2016, Aesthetic appreciation of landscapes, “The Journal of Value Inquiry”, 50: 325-340.

Berleant, A. 1997, Living in the Landscape: Toward an Aesthetics of Environment, Lawrence, University Press of Kansas.

Berleant, A. 2016, Re-thinking Aesthetics: Rogue Essays on Aesthetics and the Arts, Oxon, Routledge.

Brady, E. 2003, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press.

Carlson, A. 1999, Appreciating art and appreciating nature, in S. Kemal, I. Gaskell (eds), Landcape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Carlson, A. 2000, Aesthetics and the Environment. The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture. New York, Routledge.

Carlson, A. 2008, Nature & Landscape, New York, Columbia University Press.

Carlson, A. 2009, Landscape and Nature, New York, Columbia University Press.

Carlson, A., Berleant, A. 2004, The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (eds), Peterborough, Broadview Press.

Casey, E. 2013, Fate of Place: a Philosophical History, Berkeley, Harvard University Press.

Crawford, W.D. 2004, Scenery and the aesthetics of nature, in A. Carlson, A. Berleant (eds),The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, Peterborough, Broadview Press.

Cuccuru, K. 2018, Aesthetic attention: A proposal to pay it more, “Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics”, 55, 2: 155-179.

Fisher, W. 1987, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press.

Foster, C. 1998, The narrative and the ambient in environmental aesthetics, “Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 56, 2: 127-137.

Haapala, A. 2005, On the aesthetics of the everyday: Familiarity, strageness, and the meaning of place, in A. Light, J.M. Smith (eds), The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, New York, Columbia University Press.

Hepburn, R. 1993, Trivial and serious in aesthetic appreciation of nature, in S. Kemal, I. Gaskell (eds), Landscapes, Natural Beauty, and the Arts, Cambridgee, Cambridge University Press.

Hepburn, R. 2004, Contemporary aesthetics and the neglect of natural beauty, in A. Carlson, A. Berleant (eds), The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, Peterborough, Broadview Press.

Heyd, T. 2001, Aesthetic appreciation and stories about nature, “The British Journal of Aesthetics”, 41, 2: 125-137.

Kühne, O. 2019, Landscape Theories: A Brief Introduction, Wiesbaden, Springer.

Moore, R. 2004, Natural Beauty: A Theory of Aesthetics Beyond the Arts, Peterborough, Broadview Press.

Olwig K. 2019, The Meanings of Landscape: Essays on Place, Space, Environment and Justice, Milton, Routledge.

Parsons, G. 2008, Aesthetics & Nature, London, Continuum.

Parsons, G., Zhang, X. 2016, Appreciating nature and art: Recent Western and Chinese perspectives, “Contemporary Aesthetics”, 16 (online).

Porteus, J.D. 1990, Landscapes of the Mind: Worlds of Sense and Metaphor, Boston, University of Toronto Press.

Roger, A. 2017, Court traité du paysage, Paris, Gallimard, Folio Essais.

Saito, Y. 1998, Appreciating nature on its own terms, “Enviromental Ethics”, 20: 135-149.

Sepanmaa, Y. 2004, Environmental stories: Speaking and writing nature, in The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, in A. Carlson, A. Berleant (eds), Peterborough, Broadview Press.

Thompson, I., Howard, P., Waterton, E. 2013, Introduction, in P. Howard, I. Thompson, E. Waterton (eds), The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies, New York, Routledge.

Tilley, Ch.Y. 2007, Phenomenology of Landscape, Oxford, Berg.

Untea, I. 2018, Homelessness in the urban landscape: Beyond negative aesthetics, “The Monist”, 1, 101: 1-30.

Walton, K. 2008, Transparent pictures: On the nature of photographic realism, in S. Walden, (ed.), Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature, Oxford, Blackwell.

Wylie, J. 2007, Landscape, New York, Routledge.

Young, A. 2014, Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination, New York, Routledge.

European Landscape Convention 2000, [accessed: September 15, 2019].

Unesco 2019, [accessed: October 20, 2019].

Torna su


1 Bachelard 2014, Porteous 1990.

2 The cityscape is a particular sort of landscape defined by the fact that it is urban. See e.g. Untea 2018: 23, Young 2014.

3 Carlson and Berleant 2004, Parsons 2008, Brady 2003, Moore 2004.

4 See, e.g., Carlson 2009. Carlson is known for his critique of the aesthetic concept of landscape (see below), yet he seems to accept the term in its general meaning.

5 See e.g. Kühne 2019, Olwig 2019.

6 Thompson et al. 2013: 1-7.

7 Andrews 1994.

8 This view has been reconstructed mainly by its critics: Carlson 2000: 16-39, Moore 2004: 213-216, Parsons 2008: 34-48, Parsons, Zhang 2018.

9 Roger 2017, Larsen, Urry 2011.

10 Hepburn 2004.

11 Carlson 2000.

12 Ibidem.

13 In a certain way, SO is also reductive as it reduces a landscape to the visual aspects of the environment, but it does not intend to dispose of the idea of landscape and what it refers to.

14 See, e.g., the essays written by E. Brady, C. Foster, T. Heyd and R. Moore collected in Carlson, Berleant 2004.

15 Benovsky 2016.

16 Ibidem: 325.

17 Benovsky refers explicitly to landscapes and natural environments. However, the ontological difference between the two could easily be extended to apply to human environments as well.

18 Ibidem: 326. Emphasis in the original.

19 Benovsky notes that there is no opposition between the two: they usefully complete each other. Informed appreciation might “enrich” or “supplement” the simple one.

20 Ibidem: 336.

21 Ibidem: 337.

22 Ibidem: 338. Emphasis in the original. The transparency thesis regarding photographs says, roughly, that when looking at a photograph we indirectly see the objects depicted in it (“seeing-through-photography”). See Walton 2008: 23-25. This is an unsettled issue, however.

23 Benovsky 2016: 338.

24 We shall identify a factor responsible for the landscape’s individuation in Section 5.

25 For example, we would lose the critical dimension of the appreciation of landscapes. We may have criteria for evaluating a landscape, but we cannot have an argument with another person over the value of a particular landscape since you and that person experience different landscapes.

26 This is similar to, e.g., postulates that we experience nature as nature or everydayness as everydayness. See Saito 1998, Haapala 2005.

27 For a notable example of reconciling the landscape model and the environmental model see also Crawford 2004.

28 1997.

29 Casey 2013, Tilley 2007.

30 Foster 1998: 131.

31 Ibidem.

32 See «[…]there is only appreciating an object as ordered in light of a story» (Carlson 1999: 221).

33 Heyd 2001: 130.

34 Ibidem: 133.

35 Carlson finally admitted that the cultural history of a landscape may be crucial for its aesthetic appreciation, when he wrote that, e.g., religion and arts may «have explanatory power concerning the way landscapes look, at least with respect to the way they look to those who are captive by the relevant images», 2008: 125.

36 When speaking about nature and stories, Heyd explicitly refers to “landscapes”; see ibidem: 130. It seems that he has something similar in mind, ontologically speaking, to landscapes as described by SO.

37 Here we are sympathetic with Walter Fisher’s understanding of the term. Narratives are «[…]symbolic actions – words and/or deeds – that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create and interpret them.» See his 1987: 58, and also Sepänmaa 2004.

38 Naturally, levels of flexibility within these hierarchies vary depending on the type of narrative in question. For example, artistic narratives probably enjoy more freedom than scientific or religious ones. Also, it seems that some narratives are more likely than others to be shared.

39 Of course, the same action might be a result of accepting and following (radically) different narratives. Thus, it is important to know what values, motives, and intentions are ascribed to a certain action by a group of individuals if we want to know whether or not they follow the same narrative.

40 Berleant 2006.

41 This is because a narrative framing a landscape (and so, shaping the experience) is modified by the reaction to the actual surroundings.

42 One could object by saying that awareness of the narrative is too strong a condition to impose on the definition of landscapes. After all, we are not always conscious about the narratives we have and follow. This is obviously true. However, please note that in case of aesthetic appreciation (of both human and natural environments as well as artworks) we need at least a certain degree of focal attention towards the object of our interest. See Cuccuru 2018. The same holds true for many other ways of experiencing our surroundings.

43 The term “meaningful” is understood here in a similar way to Ronald Hepburn’s notion of “serious” in aesthetic appreciation. See his 1993: 68–69. NB: we believe that “seriousness” in aesthetic appreciation refers not exclusively to natural environments but could be extended to human environments as well. It is worth noting that narratives are important also for experiencing a number of entities, such as artworks or architectural pieces. What is claimed here, however, is that narratives are crucial for landscapes’ individuation.

44 Naturally, not every landscape must be an aesthetic one.

45 Again, we would like to stress that narratives are distinct from landscapes.

46 Wylie 2007; see also Haapala 2005: 47-48.

47 European Landscape Convention 2000.

48 We would like to express our gratitude to Tiziana Andina, Elisa Caldarola, David Collins, David Davies, Huyn Hochsmann, Kalle Puolakka, Zoltan Somhegyi, Enrico Terrone, Iris Vidmar Jovanović, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and constructive criticism on this paper in draft. We are also indebted to the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Warsaw for the generous support. The authors contributed equally to this work.

Torna su

Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Adam Andrzejewski e Mateusz Salwa, «The Ontology of Landscapes»Rivista di estetica, 75 | 2020, 164-182.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Adam Andrzejewski e Mateusz Salwa, «The Ontology of Landscapes»Rivista di estetica [Online], 75 | 2020, online dal 02 février 2021, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

Torna su


Adam Andrzejewski

Articoli dello stesso autore

Mateusz Salwa

Torna su

Diritti d’autore


Solamente il testo è utilizzabile con licenza CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Salvo diversa indicazione, per tutti agli altri elementi (illustrazioni, allegati importati) la copia non è autorizzata ("Tutti i diritti riservati").

Torna su
Cerca su OpenEdition Search

Sarai reindirizzato su OpenEdition Search