– Bruce Long

Most of us – especially the Catholics and High Anglicans among us – are aware that Medieval Cathedrals were often constructed with  flying buttresses. These external arch like props or supports had two functions. One function was practical, and yet had an ultimately aesthetic purpose. The other function was religio-aesthetic. The aesthetic of Cathedrals was and is very much motivated by spiritual considerations. The idea of space inside a place dedicated to the worship of deities visualised as very large was important to the overseers and worshipers alike. As a result, much was invested in maximising the high internal space of cathedrals. They were in a sense, after all, supposed to house the spirit of a god that was thought to be very big in different ways (or to be sporting a large presence) or at least to stand as some kind of  metaphorical reference thereto for the comfort of the community (flock). To this end the structural strength of the support of the roof and walls was moved partially to the outside of many Cathedrals (Notre Dame and Strasborg are notable examples).

Originally flying buttresses were developed to support the vault of cathedrals and their roofs. Later Cathedral construction was able to eliminate the external buttress due to improvements in construction technology, but it was retained in some cases for the second function: the aesthetic function. The design of a flying buttress is such that the massive (usually stone) pillar stands apart from the wall it is supporting, while the arch affixed to the pillar meets the supported wall of the vault  and/or roof at the top. The series of arches gives a space underneath. This space is associated – by those in the business of knowing spiritual and supernatural things – with impressions of the supernatural.

Spaces filled with light are prominent in the interior of cathedrals, and are featured in many famous Gothic and classical Christian artworks. Light through the clouds, rays of light through space and the air, horizons and sunsets full of light: all of the kinds of image tropes that most of us readily associate with spiritual impressions – even those of us not of a supernaturalist leaning, perhaps. Waters and light in air and through space are themes touched upon extensively in religious writ from The Bhagavad Gita, to Buddhism and Taoism, to the Pentateuch with its body of a god hovering over the waters and the creation of light. In many of these traditions, however, these supernatural and miraculous concepts stem from and merge with the natural.

The aesthetic effect on the inside of a cathedral is well documented. The imposing impression of size and space has been discussed and described many times by architecture and art critics. What I am interested in here, however, is the philosophy of aesthetics – or just aesthetics – and how it relates to planned social spaces.

Philosophy courses about aesthetics often start with something Greek (the Greeks were certainly interested in beauty), then move on to – say – Tolstoy. Tolstoy is a central figure because of his formative place in European aesthetic theory. He had a very straightforward and very religioius definition of the beautiful. Art is only beautiful and of high quality if it elicits feelings. But these feelings are best if they glorify and morally elevate the god mentioned in the Bible (which character’s name is God in English, of course). By the time of Tolstoy, however, natural theology – based upon the theological premise that nature was a prime testimony of the power of the Christian god – had been well established for some time.

Generally (in the West) students of the philosophy of aesthe

Notre Dame

tics are moved from the ecclesiastical-supernaturalist and other religious conceptions of beauty to more contemporary relativist and postmodern theories via thinkers like the romantic Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. Hume famously asserted that one cannot get an ought from an is – meaning that one cannot assert what should be the case simply based on the habits of people in society. His conception of what was moral was thus associated not with an objective external standard of some kind (called objective moral realism) as Tolstoy’s god-centered morality was. Hume instead asserted that sentiment was the basis of moral value. If a social group had certain sentiments about the moral value of something, then this was all there was as a basis of morals – and another group or individual may have different sentiments. Hume’s approach to aesthetic value – the beautiful – was similar. He asserted that aesthetic value is only subjective: the root of the idea that beauty is in the idea of the beholder. However, when it came to expert assessment of what kinds of art and design are to be called beautiful: that required an expert with years of training. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but judging art required a well cultivated and trained eye.

Kant revised Hume on just about everything (although many philosophers are not convinced at his success in the endeavour, including Bertrand Russell). Kant’s approach to almost everything involved his concept of normativity. According to Kant, the moral thing to do is that which one would normally will to do ideally in any given circumstance. His aesthetics was also normative in flavour, but more importantly, he tried to reintroduce an objectivity into the evaluation of the aesthetic. Except, however, for Rousseau and Hume, the concept of the link between the beautiful and the natural gets somewhat lost by the time of Kant.

St Giles

Kant in a sense regarded beauty as having a natural basis, since he thought that human cognition was determined in its nature teleologically, along with nature itself. That is to say, almost everything in Kant’s doctrine was subsumed to teleology – purposed nature – and of course for Kant the purpose is from an all powerful god. Kant performs something of a philosophical sleight of hand in that he rarely discusses the connection between God and teleology, but his assumed source of purpose as a theist, and something of a theologian, could be nothing else. He was commissioned by the academy and the elite to counter the significantly anti-religious scepticism of Hume.

However, to the credit of the power of Hume’s thought and philosophical argumentation, and based upon the backdrop of a powerful recent empiricist turn in philosophy and natural philosophy, Kant did not feel free to call on the god of the bible in his philosophy openly (although said Biblical character did get a mention sometimes) because Hume had set the tone such that this could never be a philosophically respectable response. It would be theology – not philosophy to use a god as the explanation for everything, and the Empiricists – of which Hume was arguably the chief exemplar – had established their doctrine of demonstrable empirical evidence soundly by the time Kant arrived on the scene (although one of them – Locke – was certainly theist). Thus Kant emphasised teleological nature as central in almost everything. However – according to Kant it was the teleology – the purpose – itself that provided the basis for the aesthetic, moral, and objective value of things.

Nature as beautiful in and of itself is a theme that is central to Eastern mysticism and religious philosophy: especially Taoism and Buddhism. It was, however, arguably only recovered in West in the 20th century by Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre in the sense that most of them – as existentialist philosophers – had naturalist leanings with respect to the environment in which humans lived existence was experienced:

However, whilst Camus’ ‘absurd’ names the essentially tragic state of humanity, it is counterbalanced by his awe towards the indifferent majesty of Nature. For Camus, one of the ways of liberating oneself from the illusion of meaning and unity is to open up to the beauty of Nature and partake in it, abandoning oneself in privileged moments of hedonistic communion with wild environments, such as the rugged Algerian landscape or the Mediterranean, or in eroticism (1938a; see the moments of happiness in The Outsider, for example, 1942a, 23–24, 116–117). (SEP: Existentialist Aesthetics)

In contemporary planning theory and philosophy, nature takes a central place across the board. It is elemental in positivism from the scientific standpoint of systems approaches where the systems in question are often natural systems that must be integrated and managed into lived environments. Similarly for the constructivist outlook: nature is the basis of the idea of the value of the greenspace. In China’s functionalist sustainability-harmony model nature has center stage – not just in terms of resource optimisation and conservation efforts (like staggeringly ambitious zero emission targets) but also in the sense that ancient Chinese appreciation for the centrality of the relationship between people and nature is re-deployed anew with the concept of harmony (within the community and between human society and natural environment).

The topic of the pragmatic and alleged psychological value of belief in higher powers is one extensively debated in the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science (usually in the context of what are called evolutionary debunking arguments). I am not going to try to engage with that extensive material here, except to comment that, in the context of the philosophy of planning, there is strong evidence from the field of social psychology and the field of psychology that the more Utopian or ‘Eden like’ – the more like the Elysian Fields or Shangri La or Heaven on Earth a place is – the psychologically healthier its inhabitants are. Actually, I suggest that, human beings being the evolved psychological agents that we are, it is probably nature that informs our impression of what is beautiful. This would fit with the studies done on the psychological benefits of greenspace.

No flying Buttresses, but arrangement of negative space plus the management of curated greenspace.

From the time of the Greeks through to Tolstoy and then Hume, Kant, and then the existentialists, the concepts of both the supernatural and natural as elements of the aesthetic persisted (existentialist Kierkegaard was of course a theist). Scientific naturalism is critical and central to sustainable and psychologically healthy urban plans, and so nature has taken the lead as the key to aesthetic value in urban planning. City buildings are now often planned and architected with gardens on their roofs and walls, and the garden-park features prominently in city greenspaces. So architecture plays a part in greenspace now, but as we saw earlier, architecture has been known to have a psychological impact for some time. Cathedral builders used it to great effect – and affect. The design and arrangement of large vaults of space was their primary tool, and spaciousness is an aesthetic associated with luxury and comfort for good reason. The opposite of spaciousness is labelled as ‘cosy’ by real estate marketers, but there is arguably not really any positive aesthetic value associated with it – just claustrophobia.

If constructed spaces designed to communicate impressions of the supernaturally large were once the mainstay of aesthetics in architecture and the planning of social and public spaces that went with it, they were always perhaps a spiritual-romantic facsimile of the grandeur of nature and its spaces: the cosmos, the horizon, the sky, the oceans, celestial bodies, and the clouds. Now planners of architecturally defined urban and city spaces defer directly to nature – but still push it into the maximally comfortable and curated format possible in many cases. So the impression of not just nature and the open natural space alone is seemingly not all that constructivists are now interested in. There is still a strong reference to the managing of nature into a Utopian garden. Lions, tigers, and poisonous thickets might be exciting and awe-inspiring, but they are also the kind of thing nature offers that motivated us to build cities in the first place. Edifice and curated nature still both have an important aesthetic place, and they are increasingly merged.

Bibliography and References

  1. Deranty, J.-P. (2015). Existentialist Aesthetics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/aesthetics-existentialist/
  2. Sesonske, A. (1965). What is art?: Aesthetic theory from Plato to Tolstoy. N.Y: O.U.P.
  3. Tolstoy, graf, Leo, & Maude, A. (1932). What is art?: and essays on art (Vol. 331.). New York;London; Oxford university press.
  4. Zangwill, N. (2014). Aesthetic Judgment. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/aesthetic-judgment/

Links of Interest


Kant, Immanuel: Aesthetics