Vignettes on Contemplation

                                                 Contemplating a Landscape

                                                                                           by Jorge D. Goldfarb


    There is a certain ambivalence in the relation between appreciation and contemplation and some readers may be puzzled at my inclusion of ‘contemplation’ amongst the components or ingredients of landscape appreciation represented in the 'cloud diagram' of the Introduction. The puzzlement is justified because, according to some views of appreciation (and some views of contemplation), the contemplative activity has little to do with the appreciative one. On the other hand, especially from other views of appreciation, it looks sort of bizarre that someone may be attempting to appreciate some thing without having contemplated it.  It appears to me necessary therefore to start these vignettes on contemplation with an attempt, not so much of dissipating the said ambivalence, but at least to deal on its roots. 


           If appreciation is understood as consisting in correct or sound valuation [1], a purpose is entailed: that of discerning the value(s) of the object being appreciated. Contemplation, on the other hand, is not conducted for a definite purpose; we just contemplate something without ever coming to our minds the what for. thus, it would appear that, while appreciating some thing, we have to put contemplation aside as unnecessary or even a hindrance. Within the context of the so called ‘cognitive views’ of appreciation, a correct valuation of a natural object would require knowledge of its characteristics as supplied by the natural sciences.

          Unless contemplation is taken up in its reductive meaning of “looking at some thing with concentrated attention” its role within the ‘cognitive views’ of appreciation,  appears to be that of an uninvited guest who may be tolerated but not welcomed. 


       As will be clear from the following vignettes, I subscribe to the view that the contemplative activity, and particularly that of contemplating a landscape, involves far more than looking at it with concentrated attention.  While examining this ‘far more than’ from the perspective of various authors we may be led to accept that, within so-called ‘non-cognitive views’ of appreciation contemplation assume the role of a welcomed guest.


      This is not the place for a review of ‘cognitive’ and ‘non-cognitive’ views of appreciation; fortunately for the  interested reader, there is on-line an excellent review of the subject by Allen Carlson [2] . Although restricted to environmental aesthetics, Carlson’s observations, I think, may easily extended to appreciation in general and landscape appreciation in particular.


     I shall end this by reiterating that the case of contemplation and appreciation, with its apparent contradictions and conflicting views is just another example of the general situation we confront while dealing with the cloud-diagram of landscape appreciation. Closeness or remoteness of ideas, their interpenetration or exclusion, are the result of the various meanings that various thinkers confer to the various words that denote ingredients of appreciation. A discussion of the alternative meanings allow the reader to realize that the courses of apparently colliding discourses may be, hopefully, modified so that they follow parallel lines. Somewhat simplistically one could say that the most marked differences in meaning arise from a dissociation of the contemplated object from the contemplating subject, as opposed to a fusion of both. This difference may be traced to the one between a Cartesian approach and a phenomenological one. In the vignettes that follow I’ll try to present both views although I must confess at the start that I am quite biased in favor of the later world view.






      I will take up first John Dewey’s views on contemplation [3] because I find them quite helpful in describing the problematic of the term. Dewey starts by asserting that, when the bond that binds a living creature with his environment is analytically broken up by compartmentalization, nothing is left that can hold together “the various factors and phases of the self. The result is then that: “Thought, emotion, sense, purpose, impulsion fall apart and are

assigned to different compartments of our being.” They fall apart because their unity, which is the unity of experience, is found in the cooperative roles that each plays in “active and receptive relations to the environment” and, I may add, notoriously in the landscape experience.

         For Dewey, a case in point of the harmful effects of compartmentalization is that of the sad story of the term contemplation within aesthetics:

       “At first sight, 'contemplation' appears to be about as inept a term as could be selected to denote the excited and passionate absorption that often accompanies experience of a drama, a poem or a painting. Attentive observation is certainly one essential factor in all genuine perception, including the aesthetic. Bit how does it happen that this factor is reduced to the bare act of contemplation?”  


      The answer to that question can be traced to Kant’s Critique of Judgment. In this respect, Dewey adds some sardonic allusions to Kant as: “a pastmaster in first drawing distinctions and then erecting them into compartmental divisions.”  

      "The effect upon subsequent theory was to give the separation of the esthetic from other modes of experience an alleged scientific basis in the constitution of human nature."

    Dewey continues, in the same sardonic style, dealing with, but without mentioning it by its name,disinterestedness. that sacred cow of Kantian aesthetics: 

Kant “bethought himself of a faculty of judgment which is not reflective but intuitive and yet not concerned with objects of Pure Reason. This faculty is exercised in Contemplation, and the distinctively esthetic element is the pleasure which attends that Contemplation. Thus the psychological road was opened leading to the ivory tower of “Beauty” remote from all desire, action and stir of emotion.”


      …” Not absence of desire and thought but their thorough incorporation into perceptual experience characterizes esthetic experience” … “The uniqueness of the object perceived is an obstacle rather than an aid to the investigator”... 

 ... "One trouble with the Kantian psychology is that it supposes all 'pleasure' save that of 'contemplation' to consist wholly of personal and private gratification. Every experience, including the most general and idealistic, contains an element of seeking, of pressing forward. Only when we are dulled by routine and sunk in apathy does this eagerness forsake us. Attention is built out of an organization of these factors, and a contemplation that is not an aroused and intensified form of attention to material in perception presented through the senses is an idle stare.  (my emphasis)




      Gabriel Marcel, a prominent Catholic philosopher of the last century, deals with contemplation in a Chapter of his The Mystery of Being aptly called Being in a Situation [4].   Marcel writes that the notion of contemplation becomes intelligible when we are willing to accept the ambiguity of the simpler notion of ‘looking’. Looking at something with concentrated attention may have a practical purpose, as when a botanist, for instance, goes around attentively looking for a particular plant, a specimen. But might we not say, he asks, that “the very essence of contemplation consists, negatively at least, in the fact that it can never be brought to bear on a specimen as such. “… “The object of contemplation, if it has an object, is not considered as being a member of a class; …it is considered in itself in its uniqueness” For the specialist the specimen might have a value for being a member of a nearly extinguished family of plants; considered in itself and by itself, it may be considered as just another plant. 


         Within those approaches to appreciation which give primacy to appreciation as it is carried out for works of art, or that emphasize cognitive aspects related to categorization of the appreciated object, that attitude of the specialist is closer to that of the appreciator. 

To appreciate a musical composition involves its relation with other musical pieces of the same genre. We don’t consider worthless a landscape painting of the 15th century because it lacks the power of expression of paintings of three centuries later; its value is discerned largely when compared with other works of the same genre and historical circumstances. 


         I would say, following Marcel, say that the more we distance ourselves from the notion of contemplation as merely a more intense or refined form of looking the closer we become to understanding contemplation as an act by which the self concentrates its attention on its own state and thus the dissociation between the subject and the contemplated  becomes blurred. 


      Let us consider another situation: taking some liberties with language, we could say that looking at an idea and contemplating it are markedly different actions. Looking at an idea, that of  Free Will for instance, entails registering the idea and, without further ado, deciding whether we consider it plausible or not; looking at ends in a judgment, it admits ‘yes or no’, ‘true or false’, ‘like or dislike’ as a result of the action. On the other hand, to contemplate the idea of Free Will would entail not just registering it but reflecting upon it, contrasting it with other ideas we have internalized in the past. It entails, as Dewey puts it, a “excited and passionate absorption” (Not quite the Platonic version of contemplating ideas).  The result, if any, of such an activity  is not a judgment but the incorporation of the idea into what we usually call our experience of the world or, even simpler, to our self





           Continuing with  Marcel thoughts: Might we not properly say – he asks—that contemplation is a   turning inwards of our awareness of the outer world?

   "This idea becomes clearer, it seems to me, if one remembers that there can be no contemplation without a kind of inward regrouping of one's resources, or a kind of ingatheredness; to contemplate is to ingather oneself in the presence of whatever is being contemplated, and this in such a fashion that the reality, confronting which one ingathers oneself, itself becomes a factor in the ingathering."

 "It is obvious that in the case in which the reality confronting me is interpreted as mere spectacle, mere outer show with no inner meaning, what I have just been saying makes no sense. If it is possible to turn one's impression of a spectacle inwards, that is because, after all, one is not interpreting it as mere spectacle but as something else and something more."

   This quote of his brings us back to the topic of landscape contemplation with which I am concerned. As long as landscape is taken up as a mere spectacle, an outer show with no inner meaning, what Marcel says is at odds with common sense. It makes sense only if the impression of a landscape is turned inwards so that landscape becomes not simply a mere spectacle but “something else and something more”....  It is only when the spectator reflects on the emotion which the spectacle is capable of arousing in him that the awareness of himself as a mere recording device is shattered; in Marcel's words: " she goes from the role of being spectans to that of being a particeps"

     The notion of contemplation as a participatory activity is echoed in Arnold Berleant’s notion of aesthetic engagement:

   Aesthetic engagement recognizes that beauty, or aesthetic value more generally, inheres not in the object or in the perceiver but is rather the leading feature of the reciprocal process of perceptual participation between appreciator and object.{5]

  According to Berleant, aesthetic engagement is an approach that rejects the dualism epitomized in Kantian aesthetics.

   "Aesthetic engagement rejects the dualism inherent in traditional accounts of aesthetic appreciation and epitomized in Kantian aesthetics, which treats aesthetic experience as the subjective appreciation of a beautiful object.  Instead, aesthetic engagement emphasizes the holistic, contextual character of aesthetic appreciation.  Aesthetic engagement involves active participation in the appreciative process, sometimes by overt physical action but always by creative perceptual involvement.  Aesthetic engagement also returns aesthetics to its etymological origins by stressing the primacy of sense perception, of sensible experience.  Perception itself is reconfigured to recognize the mutual activity of all the sense modalities, including kinesthetic and somatic sensibility more generally."[5]



     For reasons that I will not discuss here, prepositions have come to we considered as having a humbly role to play in the exposition of our thought. On closer inspection we see that, when hanged on the more august nouns and verbs, they can radically change what we communicate to others. That is the case of the humble in, upon, at, for, in front of, towards and others.

   Confronted with a landscape, in a situation where I may be looking at a landscape in front of me, I may look for certain figures included in my visual field. In such a situation  I’d be a spectator receiving bits of information communicated by another entity; in this sense, the spectacle may be said to be external to me. If it were to happen that I am deeply moved by the scene, my situation would be radically altered from that of a  spectator to that of a participant; landscape and scene would participate in the action of contemplating. The landscape not merely in front of me but in me; it becomes mine and not just that scene over there. Through proper contemplation then the dissociation of my inner and my outer world would be transcended.

   For Berleant  “perceiving environment from within as it were, looking not at it but being in it” makes all the difference about our notions of nature in that it is transformed into a realm in which we live as participants, not observers. [6]



In his Art and Engagement [7] Berleant writes:

Aesthetic engagement, then, joins the perceiver and object into a perceptual unity.  It establishes a coherence that displays at leas three related characteristics: continuity, perceptual integration and, participation. Continuity contributes to this unity by the inseparability (although not the indistinguishablity) of the factors and forces that join to give an identity to the aesthetic experience. Perceptual integration occurs in synaesthesia, experimental fusion of the senses,  as they join in resonance meaning and significance; …the appreciator participates in the aesthetic process by activating the unity of the factors that compose it.

                "The psychology of perception has joined phenomenological philosophy in undermining  the common division of sense experience into separate channels of perception, each governed by its dominant sense. …” Engagement stresses the active nature of aesthetic experience and its essential participatory quality”  His ‘participatory quality’ links with the participatory in His ‘participatory quality’ links with the participatory in contemplation as emphasized in Marcel's excerpts above. 


       Throughout his writings, Berleant refers repeatedly to what he calls “the contemplative activity” in a somewhat derisive way. In my reading of his, what he alludes to is to the contemplative activity of Kantian aesthetics, (see Dewey's critique of Kant in my second vignette above). I'd venture to say that he would have no quarrels with contemplation as envisaged by Dewey or Marcel. It may be said that, for them,  also the contemplative activity entails engagement and, as such, participates in the appreciative activity.

         Within the context of the ‘non-cognitive’ views of appreciation, it appears then that 'contemplating a landscape', in a way that distills from the writings of Dewey and Marcel, plays a substantial role in 'appreciating a landscape'. 



       L.M. Wills, in her book Le Regard Contemplatif *, performs an interesting etymological reading of  the term 'to contemplate'. I quote some excerpts here because, through it, contemplation is illuminated from a surprising angle, somewhat complementary to the angles discussed in the above vignettes. (my translations from the French)

        "To contemplate (fr. contempler) comes from the Latin 'contemplari', a verb composed from 

cum - templum; that is, 'being together (by the gaze)in a temple'. "  

          According to Wills the term templum "variously denotes:- i) a circle of observation; ii) a discovered space traced by the stick of the augur (hence a privileges space); iii) a consecrated place. The person that contemplates then would be the one who, with her gaze, penetrates a circular, vast and open place of sacred character." ... "Two things attract our attention within these meanings: first, the penetrating quality of the gaze (the cum-) which enters the spectacle and, second, the spatial quality of what is seen ( which evokes the horizon line where the sky meets the sea or the land). Such an space calls for 'a vast regard' encompassing an amplitude while maintaining a penetrating attention. Thus the one that contemplates is absorbed into an spectacle which fascinates as much as a sacred space can." 


          Wills allusion to 'the sacred' in connection with contemplating a landscape might seem to some of you as a bit  far-fetched; not so much so if one recalls the wider signification given by Mircea Eliade to the sacred space**. For him: 

    ..."There is then a sacred space and hence a strong, significant space. There are other spaces (the profane) which are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous."   and : "...properly speaking, the temple constitutes an opening in the upward direction and ensures communication with the world of the gods". Wills  just juxtaposes the world of the gods with that of the world of reverie, the dreamed world of poetic contemplation of Paul Valery as in this 'sacred' landscape of his:  

                            Ce toit tranquille, ou marchent des colombes 

                   Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;

                   Midi le juste y compose des feux

                  La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée
                  O récompense après une pensée
                   Qu'un long regard sur le calme des dieux!

                                                (Valery, Le Cimetière Marin)




       "Bachelard, having noted that a person in the act of contemplating  is in communion with the world and that her vision then resembles more and more a dream,  justly says that she becomes a world dreamer  --her imagination opens up to the world. When a (day-)dreamer of cosmic reveries opens herself to the world and the world opens to her, time is suspended, the world is tranquil and the dreamer is tranquil." 

 For Wills then " the contemplation of the exterior world requires a nearly paralyzing attention and an absorption such that the one contemplating transforms herself into a dreamer lost in his dream."  ...and the contemplative gaze is, in the words of the poet  "un long regard sur le calme des dieux"


  *   Wills L.M., Le Regard Contemplatif chez Valery et Mallarmee, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1974, pp 49-50 

  ** Eliade M., The Sacred and the Profane, HarcourtInc., Florida, 1987, pp. 20-1.


Notes and References :

** All images on this page by courtesy of Reunion des Musees Nationaux-Grand Palais photo agency,France. URL:

[1] Budd M.(1998), Kant on the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature, British J. Of Aesthetics, 38:1, 1-18


[2] Carlson, Allen, "Environmental Aesthetics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[3] Dewey J., Art as Experience, Perigee Printings, Putnam's & Sons, New York, (1980), pp 252-255


[4] Marcel G.  The Mistery of Being, Regnery Publishing Inc, London 1960, pp267 -269


[5] Berleant A., (2013)  What is Aesthetic Engagement?, Contemporary Aesthetics, 11


[6] Berleant ,  The Aesthetics of Art and Nature,  in The Aesthetics of Natural Environment. Carlson and Berleant (eds)  76-88


[7] Berleant Art and Engagement, Temple Univ. Press, Philadelphia, (1991)  pp83

[8] Brady E., The Aesthetics in the  Natural Environment, Eds, Edinburgh University Press,  (2003) 

                                                                                     Last Edited: October, 2014

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