On and about landscape experiences 

                                                                                                                                              by J.D. Goldfarb 

          We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
   Will be to arrive where we started
         And know the place for the first time
                                                                                   T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding


     This article is intended as an exploration of the so-called 'landscape experience'. I use the word exploration in its meaning of "to go to a place that is not well known to find out more about it". The idea being 'to find more about it', not to find out what it is; hence readers are cautioned that they won't find,  as a conclusion at the end of the exploration,  a sentence like "the 'landscape experience' isthis or that. As in Eliot's quote above, at the end of the exploration we might get back to where we started but, hopefully, wiser about landscape experiences.

    The experience of what we call landscape is crucial for its understanding. As Cosgrove puts it  "…landscape denotes the external world mediated through subjective human experience in a way that neither region or area immediately suggest" [2]. If we accept this, as I do in the following, we are led to conclude that without that "subjective human experience" the notion of landscape as distinct from that of area, region…or space looses its foundations.[3]

(Notes and references as footnotes at bottom of each page)

     The term 'landscape experience' is frequently taken up in the relevant literature as a given, under the implicit assumption that the pertinent questions have already been answered. On close examination it appears that they haven't and, quite a few, not even posed. I should make explicit at the start that I don't consider it as a given but as a notion wide open to questions of the sort of -- what is it to experience a landscape? And, even, -- is there such a thing as the experience of landscape? The later question taken to mean-- can it be clearly differentiated from the adjoining experiences of place or of space?


   Such questions, although relevant to Geography and other disciplines in which landscapes play an important role cannot be tackled internally, within the discipline itself; they require foundations that may only come from philosophical inquiries about experience and about the triad place/space/landscape. Accordingly, the exploration that is attempted at here has largely a philosophical character.

     We must realize that the question of experience is a vexed one and justly deserve its having been called "one of the most arduous problems in philosophy". Tentative answers to the question – what is it to experience? -- differ, sometimes drastically, according to the various philosophical schools or traditions. Not being a philosopher myself, I don't feel under a compulsion to subscribe exclusively to one or another school of philosophy and hence uninhibited to pick up freely from philosophers which may be considered strange bedfellows (such as Bergson, Dewey, Strawson, Malpas, Husserl, Bollnow, James, Merleau Ponty, Santayana and others). Because of this eclectic mix of discursive sources, I feel I must make explicit at each point, in order to make my considerations intelligible, which are the views on experience that I subscribe to. 

       I use the word subscribe intentionally, admitting that this is a personal choice, a reflection of my preferences; this admission leaves the gate wide open for alternative ways of considering experience (spatial experience in particular). 




    Before we set out in this exploration I'd like to explain my use of images to illustrate some points of this Essay. 

   Talking about a character of a novel one might be reading, Henri Bergson considers the possibility of:

"the simple and indivisible feeling which I should experience if I were able for an instant to identify myself with the person himself. Out of that indivisible feeling, as from a spring, all the words gestures and actions of that person would appear to me to flow naturally"… "The character would be given to me all at once, in its entirety" [4]

This identifying oneself with the character in question requires according to Bergson that "consciousness must at least consent to make the effort"…"so as to come by itself to the intuition."

    Thus the presentation of images in the following pages affords the possibility that through an effort of one's consciousness one may gain some knowledge by intuition about how a character in a photo or a painting might have experienced a life world as presented in that image. Accordingly, my presentation of images here evades the problem of representation of the world by an image and instead stresses the concern of what and how would you feel and think (what and how would you experience) if placed in the same situation as that of the characters in the image presented.



        Some words about the region I am setting out to explore: this region is loosely located at the place of the confluence of discourses on Place, Space and Experience.

          In the image above I have drawn a number of cloud-shaped elements of various colours, each cloud representing a particular discourse on Place, Space, Landscape or Experience. Discourses on Place are at the bottom as some sort of foundation of all the rest. This because I subscribe to Malpas' perspective: "all experience begins in place and place and experience are intrinsically related". Following Heidegger, Malpas argues that "place is central to the very possibility of human experience at all. We couldn't speak of experience without speaking of place." [5]

            On top of discourses on Place I have placed discourses on Space. It may be noted from the drawing that they  interpenetrate and intermingle, a reflection on that, in many cases, they are used interchangeably. This especially so in discourses on human space as distinct from absolute space, or mathematical space of the Classical Mechanics, (henceforward called Newtonian space). I've set the later one well apart from the rest because I'll have very little use of it; not that is unimportant, after all it has a capital role in Physics, it just happens that the concept is far removed from space as usually experienced by humans. Place and human space are so inextricably linked that, in the following, whenever I wrote 'space' I could have written 'place' instead and we wouldn't be any wiser for the substitution. I use the term space more frequently than place only because place usually carries with it a certain connotation of closure while Space is frequently associated with extendedness, as is Landscape as well. [6}

          Alongside in the drawing we have the various discourses on Experience; there is quite a number of them because few if any philosophers have resisted the temptation to have a go at it.

   At the core of each discourse (where there is more light and hence clearer thinking) we have the concepts that underlie discourses, either explicitly or implicitly. It is a characteristic of this field of inquiry that to none of the headings can we ascribe a single, unique, concept; there are all sorts of concepts of place, space and landscape and experience going around. As noted, particular discourses assume the validity of particular sets of concepts and that is what really differentiates one from another. To the only one we could ascribe a single, well delimited concept is to the Newtonian space…an additional reason why we left it alone, away from the rest.


      In the later decades we have witnessed what M. Tanca aptly calls a "frenetica moltiplicazione dei discursi sul paessagggio" [7]. This heightened attention to the question of Landscape in a number of disciplines is to be welcomed but it makes also more pressing the need of thorough discussions on the unifying basic principles of this multiplicity of discourses. We may borrow from N.Thrift in asserting that we are dealing here with "a series of overlapping, contending and colliding discourses that seek in various ways and for various purposes to make landscape intelligible[8].  Particularly for the contending and colliding discourses, there is a need as Abrams said, regarding literary theories, of "translating them into a single plane of discourse".


The fact is that many theories of art cannot be compared at all because they lack a common ground on which to meet and clash. They seem incommensurable because stated in diverse terms, or in identical terms with diverse signification, or because they are an integral part of larger systems of thought which differ in assumptions and procedure. As a result it is hard to find where they agree, where disagree, or even what the points at issue are. [9]

       "But this same proliferation should press landscape criticism in the direction of devising structures through which the diverse genres and discourses could be compared and contrasted; the strategy being to strive not so much for an all-containing general system but for a poetics of landscape" [10] 

 I believe that the landscape experience may play the leading role in such enterprise. I said above that, at the core of each discourse, we have particular concepts selected by the author; my contention is that this selection of concepts underlies a particular view of what a landscape experience may be

   Jean Marc Besse writes about: "certaines approches contemporaines qui s’efforcent de mettre en relief et d’interroger la nature de l’experience spatiale specifique qui est mise en oeuvre dans le paysage," .  These approaches:
"ouvrent des enjeux essentiels pour la question de l’elaboration ou de la reformulation d’une theorie du paysage" [11]

     A note a propos of Image 2 and of Besse: Choosing a region of exploration, as I have chosen, implies a different approach from his. Besse main question is that of "l'espace du paysage" and hence "spaces paysageres" which amounts to choose a path going from landscape to space [11]. I have chosen here the opposite direction because I happen to believe that Place and Space are the basic categories and that, from them, emerges the question of Landscape


           I pointed out above above that, before proceeding to expound on and about landscape experience one should discuss the question: -- is there such a thing as the experience of landscape? In order to make that question
somewhat more meaningful I'll try to adopt from a similar one concerning the aesthetic experience as posed by S. Gardner and P. Haezrahi.

          Let's start with this quote from Gardner:
                  The experiences that we have when we listen to music,

           read poetry and look at paintings or scenes in nature, have

           a distinctive immediate, emotional and contemplative character
           and lead us to describe what we experience in a special vocabulary,

           and to use terms such as ‘beautiful’, ‘exquisite’, ‘inspiring’,

           ‘moving’ and so on. Philosophy employs the term ‘aesthetic’

           to circumscribe this kind of experience. [12] 

       The above quote may be taken as a programme of inquiry into the topic of ‘landscape experience’. To do this, a first step may be to restrict the initial part of the sentence to: 

“The experiences  that we have when we look at scenes in nature…”


    Next, to insert a conditional ‘may’ before the ‘have’ . Gardner asserts that those experiences have “a distinctive immediate, emotional and contemplative character” whereas it is my intention to question whether or not experiences “we have when we look at scenes in nature” (particularly, expanses of scenery) actually “have a distinctive character”, distinct, that is, from experiences of other, supposedly  related, aspects of the world  (place, space, prospect, etc.,). The condition that we are “led to describe what we experience in a special vocabulary” does not seem to hold for the case of landscapes since the words we might use to describe the experience do not differ usually from those used for place or space. After   

introducing the above modifications, Gardner’s quote would read:


         The experiences we have when we look at (extended) scenes in

     Nature may have a distinctive immediate, emotional and contemplative  

     character and, if so, we may employ the term ‘landscape experience to 

     circumscribe this kind of experience.

   Implicit in the last sentence of Gardner’s quote is the assertion that the aesthetic experience is ‘a kind’ of experience. Within classical thinking in Philosophy, to be able to differentiate a kind of objects from other, related, kinds we need for instances of the kind to show attributes not shown by instances of  the other kinds. That assumption may be warranted in the case of the aesthetic experience (I’d better leave that to aestheticians);  Whether it is warranted to circumscribe some particular experiences as  belonging to the kind of ‘landscape experiences’ is actually our question.

   The same question is posed in more precise terms by P. Haezrahi: :

  Every theoretical inquiry (and aesthetics is one such inquiry) is based and indeed must presuppose three initial assumptions. It must presuppose that it inquires into something. It must presuppose that what it inquires into has   certain distinct and circumscribed meaning of its own. And it must presuppose that this meaning, though not necessarily defined in exact terms can be described and can be communicated.[13]


And, in connection with the second assumption (which appears to me as the most problematic for landscape experience):

  The aesthetic experience, then, is different from all other kinds of experience. It can be distinguished, and recognized,

as a aesthetic experience. The second assumption can then be formulated as follows: There exists an experience which is specifically aesthetic; or the aesthetic experience exists. (my underlinings throughout


    Can one adequately justify a similar claim for ' landscape experience'?

I think such a justification will require first of all to make explicit reference to which readings of experience we subscribe and, next, how do those readings or conceptions of experience would affect an assumed, hypothetical landscape experience?  These and other questions are discussed in the following pages. 



Notes and References 

1.- T.S. Eliot: Little Gidding, Four Quartets, (1943)

2.-  D.E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Wisconsin Univ. Press, Wisconsin (1998), p.13

3.-  The experience of a landscape is as well primordial to its appreciation; interrelations such as perceiving, seeing, contemplating a landscape, cannot be disentangled from experiencing. 

4.- Bergson H., An Introduction to Metaphysics, Putnam's Sons, New York, (1912) p.3

5.- Malpas J., Place and Experience. A Philosophical Topography, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge (2007).

6.- Malpas J.,(2012), Putting Space in Place: philosophical topography and relational geography, Environment and Planning, D: Society and   Space 30, pp. 226-242.

7.- Tanca M., L'essere che non puo esser detto, e paesaggio, in Sguardi sul paesaggio, sguardi sul mondo., a cura di S. Aru et al, Franco Angeli Ed., Milano (2012) p. 66

8.- Thrift N., Non Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, Routledge, Oxford (2007).

9.- Abrams M. H., The Mirror and the Lamp: romantic theory and the critical tradition, Oxford Univ. Press, London (1971)

10.- Goldfarb J. D., (2012) On Landscape Criticism and Literary Criticism, Landscapes, 5:1,6-23

11.- Besse J.M., Tra la geografia et l'etica, in Sguardi sul paesaggio, sguardi sul mondo., a cura di S. Aru et al, Franco Angeli Ed., Milano (2012) pp. 47-62 

12.- Gardner S., Aesthetics, Chap. 7  in Bunnin and Tsui-James (Eds): The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, Blackwell Publish.,

Oxford (2003), p. 231        

13.- Haezrahi P., The Contemplative Activity, Allen and Unwin, London (1954),p. 10


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