Enactive Imagination in Nature Aesthetics

James M. Dow is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Neuroscience, and Director of the Steel Center for the Study of Philosophy and Religion at Hendrix College, an ultrarunner, is obsessed with math rock and conceptual art, and lives on an eco-farm in Arkansas with Melissa Cowper-Smith, a Canadian mixed media artist. James has published articles on self-consciousness, social cognition, expert bodily action, awareness of agency, and joint action and is now working on a book applying insights from the philosophy of mind and action theory to debates concerning the aesthetic appreciation of nature.

James M. Dow is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Neuroscience, and Director of the Steel Center for the Study of Philosophy and Religion at Hendrix College, an ultrarunner, is obsessed with math rock and conceptual art, and lives on an eco-farm in Arkansas with Melissa Cowper-Smith, a Canadian mixed media artist. James has published articles on self-consciousness, social cognition, expert bodily action, awareness of agency, and joint action and is now working on a book applying insights from the philosophy of mind and action theory to debates concerning the aesthetic appreciation of nature.

A post by James M. Dow.

At the peak of the mountain the sky hurled a lightning bolt in my path. A rounded and gnarled knot of white light and white heat hung at the center of the bolt. The phenomenon connected me, the sky, and the ground. I tried to imagine myself projected into the light and walked forward into the space where the orb hovered. I found myself standing in awe in the empty place where the lightning had been.

Such an experience raises questions about what types of imagination are involved in nature appreciation. When imagination is involved in aesthetic appreciation, is it the same mental state in the contexts of everyday aesthetics, art aesthetics, and nature aesthetics? When aesthetic experiences of nature are experienced as sublime, wild, or awesome, how should we think about the types of imagination involved? Such experiences seem to involve aesthetic properties such as powerfulness, grandness, spontaneity, and an agency beyond our control. Can we use imagination to aesthetically appreciate the intensity of tornado winds, the vastness of towering waterfalls, and the swift movements of cheetahs?

Emily Brady (1998; 2003) has argued that imagination is central to the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Her view of projective imagination involves projecting ourselves into natural environments (1998: 154–156). For example, you might imagine your body as a zinnia being pelted by hail as a thunderstorm approaches. As you are perceiving the zinnia, you imagine yourself onto what is perceived: “what is actually there is somehow replaced with or overlaid by the projected image” (154–155). But what exactly is projective imagination, how does it work, and what are the implications for nature appreciation?

Projective imagination can be further illuminated by thinking about different accounts of empathy as types of perspective taking. In a common view of empathy, Person P empathizes with a subject S when P takes S’s perspective on S’s experiences (for further discussions of empathy see Coplan and Goldie (2011)). Let’s focus on empathy with motions, movements, and bodily movements as dynamic processes in the natural world. In aesthetic experiences of a Sequoia swaying in the wind, the jaws of a Venus fly trap snapping on a fly, a deer bounding down a hill in thick forest, what type of perspective taking is involved in projective imagination? Thinking about art cases on analogy with nature cases might help to indirectly illuminate projective imagination.

As you look at the abstract expressionist paintings of Joan Mitchell, for instance, “Bracket,” you might imagine the gestures that Mitchell used to put paint to canvas. You project your own bodily movements as making similar gestures, making the lines, colors, and shapes in the painting come alive. As you listen to Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs album, the staggered rhythms of the acoustic guitar, the persistent 8th beat of the floor tom, the repetition of ziz-zagged lyrics are experienced as movement. This might make your body engage in a gestural rendering, maybe giving rise to tapping your foot or nodding in accord with the rhythm. You watch Martha Graham’s “Lamentations,” as the dancer’s arm swings toward you, you might simulate the type of movement of ducking out of the way of the swinging arm.

We employ our projective imagination to put ourselves in the point of view of the movements of the painter, the musician, and the dancer in these cases. Is the use of projective imagination analogous in the appreciation of natural environments? Natural environments are not made by agents, are not artifacts, and are not crafted with the intention to make you experience movement. The bodies and the behaviors of human beings are involved in the art cases; however, they are not involved in the nature cases. These differences make a difference to how projective imagination draws on perspective taking with nature. We might interpret perspective taking involved in projective imagination in three different ways: the doxastic interpretation, the perceptual interpretation, and the enactive interpretation (Cf. Tim Bayne 2011).

The doxastic interpretation suggests that beliefs, thoughts, or other states that cognitively represent the world are core for interpreting perspective taking with nature. As I look at erosion in turtle rocks, I use narratives to identify with the waters eroding the rocks or with the steadfastness of the rock as it slowly gives way to spheroidal weathering.

The perceptual interpretation suggests that sensations, perceptions, or other states that are receptive to experience of the world are central for understanding perspective taking with nature. Looking at the patterns in the turtle rocks, I project myself into the lines, colors, shapes focusing on the close associations between what is perceived and what is imagined by highlighting the formal qualities of the turtle rocks.

The enactive interpretation suggests that motions, movements, bodily movements, and actions are central for grasping how we empathize with natural environments. Projecting yourself into the perspective of the turtle rocks is a type of doing involving intentional actions analogous to performances, as Fisher has argued (2007). On the enactive interpretation, projective imagination is a type of embodied and embedded activity of rehearsing the motions, movements, and bodily movements while participating in the natural environment.

Jose Medina (2013) discusses a similar concept of enactive imagination. Medina contrasts enactive imagination with representational imagination and mostly focuses on appreciation of art. According to Medina’s account, enactive imagination is agentive, a product of second nature, embodied and embedded, kinesthetic, and interactive with the environment. I suggest that such an enactive interpretation of perspective taking is pivotal for capturing dynamic movements in the natural world, especially dynamic movements that are experienced as sublime, wild, or awesome. The main reason is that enactive imagination has greater top-down effects on perception in these cases than doxastic psychological states or associations from perceptual psychological states.

I wouldn’t suggest that focusing on discursive narratives and generating stories or focusing on lines, colors, and shapes and generating associations do not produce top-down effects on perceptual content and phenomenal character. They do alter the objects, properties and relations that are perceived and they do alter the subjective ways things seem to the subject. However, enactive imagination discloses more depth of perceptual content and phenomenal character.

The enactive interpretation is similar to Arnold Berleant’s (1992) engagement account of nature aesthetics. The engagement account of nature aesthetics privileges sensuous body, bodily movement, and action in the natural world in order to disclose aesthetic experiences. What’s most psychologically relevant to nature appreciation is the movement of the body as a means to achieve flow experiences and immersion in the natural world. 

While enactment and engagement traditionally involve a rejection of representations as structures that explain and predict the perspective taking with subjects, I do not think such a rejection of representations is necessary. There’s a possibility of a rapprochement between enactive imagination and being a pluralist about different forms of representation. While enactive imagination doesn’t draw on discursive representations or conceptual representations, it could be understood as drawing on schematic representations.

Bence Nanay (2013) provides an account of pragmatic representations to account for two phenomena that might be relevant to understand schematic representations: 1) the action-oriented nature of perception and 2) the awareness of action. Nanay defines pragmatic representations as perceptual states that arise in response to sensory stimulation and are the cognitive components of the immediate mental antecedents of action. While pragmatic representations make progress in enabling us to talk about the action-oriented features of perception, I think that schematic representations involved in enactive imagination should be thought of as conative rather than cognitive.

We can think of them as tryings. Since the aim of aesthetic appreciation is something that is purposive, in the sense that we’re trying to perceive in a multisensory way, trying to vary our perspectives along several trajectories, and trying to disclose meanings in an exploratory way, such a view captures the agency involved in aesthetic appreciation. Such tryings could be understood in terms of motor specifications of what types of intentional actions one will perform in engaging with nature.

On the peak of the mountain, the snap of the lightning bolt drew me to move into the space where it was occurring and encouraged me to engage in similar motions, movements, and actions. What’s interesting about such a phenomenon is that our motor specifications sometimes do not match with the natural world. On those occasions, our aesthetic experiences of the natural world seem strange, beyond our concepts, and beyond our control.

There are a few positive implications of adopting the enactive imagination view that might lead to further conversations. One implication is that the aesthetic appreciation of nature can be understood as a type of aesthetic agency that involves embodied skills. Another implication for the history of philosophy is that we can make sense of how Kant’s schematism had a rippling effect in influencing Merleau-Ponty’s (1964) aesthetics, namely on how the notion of a figurative gesture is pivotal to the way each understands aesthetic appreciation. The last implication is that forms of enactive imagination can enable us to understand the role of consciousness and self-consciousness in aesthetic appreciation of nature in ways yet to be explored.

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This post is inspired by material in my book manuscript provisionally called Enacting Nature’s Value, which develops an enactive approach to nature appreciation that integrates philosophy of mind and action theory with environmental aesthetics.


Bayne, T. (2011) The sense of agency. In F. Macpherson (Ed.), The senses: Classic and contemporary philosophical perspectives.

Berleant, Arnold (1992/2002). The Aesthetics of Environment. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Brady, Emily (1998) “Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 56.2: 139–147 in Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson, The Aesthetics of Natural Environments. Peterborough: Broadview Press.

Brady, Emily (2003). Aesthetics of the Natural Environment. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Coplan, Amy and Goldie, Peter (2011) Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Fisher, John Andrew (2007) “Performing Nature” Environmental Philosophy 4.1&2: 15–28.

Medina, Jose (2013). “An Enactivist Approach to the Imagination: Embodied Enactments and ‘Fictional Emotions’” American Philosophical Quarterly 50.3: 317–335.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964). “Eye and Mind” in The Primacy of Perception Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, pp. 121–149.

Nanay, Bence (2013) Between Perception and Action. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press