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As a hiker and (very amateur) philosopher, this question is one that has resonated with me a great deal. As well as hoping to spark discussion on the topic, I'm really hoping for guidance on existing literature and suggestions as to other debates in philosophy that may overlap with some of the themes.

The Problem

In general, we as humans seem to experience mental 'responses' from exposure to dramatic landscapes (mountain ranges, wilderness, open sea etc.) I would suggest that these responses are unique to such environments and are distinct from other more recognizable / intuitive feelings - pleasure, fear etc. that we are accustomed to.

Whilst, for example, spending time in the mountains may also illicit in a hiker such feelings as accomplishment dread and nervousness etc, I would propose that the sense of (what I will call) 'awe' is not something that can be easily tied back to their immediate state of affairs (unlike say a hiker's experiencing fear, brought about their awareness of the risk of falling).

It is not obvious to me why there should be some causal link between natural features and such sensations of awe in this way. It is also perhaps surprising that such landscapes enjoy an almost universal ability to bring about such feelings - film and poetry have so often relied upon this idea by using location as a means to convey drama / wonder.

It is of course possible that 'awe' is in fact reducible to more easily analysed emotional / pyschological responses that arise directly from conceptions of dramatic landscapes (e.g. the idea that they are inherently dangerous and so should be feared). However, that is not my experience, and I would challenge the idea that a city-dweller who has never seen or heard of the mountains would experience no unusual psychological response from teleporting to the top of Mont Blanc on a clear summer day.

If this is something philosophers have written about, I'd like to be pointed in the direction of interesting and relevant papers / books.

Thanks!

  • A Thousand Plateaus, the authors do analysis of “traits of landscapity” — will try to hunt down a cite... – Joseph Weissman Nov 30 '17 at 21:19
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    You seem to have stumbled on the aesthetic category of the sublime, "the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual, or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation", which is credited with evoking the feelings of awe. But mountain landscapes are not the only sublime things:“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe... the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me", Kant. – Conifold Nov 30 '17 at 22:20
  • Some reaction to landscapes may have a biological origin. Our distant ancestors evolved in tropical forests, while later generations were lured out of the forest by the vast open spaces beyond, an event that probably happened first on the African savanna. I've read that most people have a natural preference for savanna-like country - open country with a few trees. You might find some references under "landscaping," or something like that. – David Blomstrom Dec 1 '17 at 2:28
  • Most ancient peoples probably didn't venture high into the mountains, so they remained a relatively unknown and forbidding (but exciting) environment. Mt. Olympus was where the Greeks' gods existed, while some people believed volcanoes were gods. – David Blomstrom Dec 1 '17 at 2:30
  • Actually, there's lots of references under "savanna preference," such as mindshapedbox.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/… – David Blomstrom Dec 1 '17 at 2:32
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As Conifold alluded to in the comments, this is a well-known topic in philosophy, most closely associated with the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who called this feeling "the sublime". He uses this concept, which he sees as most directly related to the awe-inspiring qualities of nature, as a way of developing his theory of art, which he believes taps into similar territory in the human experience.

Your best bet of finding philosophical approaches to this idea, therefore, is probably to start with Kant's Critique of Judgement and work your way outwards from there.

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Funny that I should see this as I was just talking about this exact topic with my grandmother yesterday.

There are some people who believe in a "pre-existence." I don't know which religions specifically teach this other than Mormons but there's plenty of non-denominational stuff about it on the web.

The general idea is that we lived as spirits before birth in a "spirit world." When we're born we pass thru a proverbial "veil" and we forget about the preexistence until we die and return there. In the mean time, when we're awe-struck by landscapes that's your soul feeling homesick for the spirit world.

My point is just to make you aware of this theory. If you're interested you can peruse either the religious or non denominational versions of it..

“by the power of the Spirit, [...] we often catch a spark from the awakened memories of the immortal soul, which lights up our whole being as with the glory of our former home” - Joseph Smith

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    Although not usually tied to the sense of landscapes, this idea is most familiar to the world of philosophy as Plato's theory of Recollection. You might want to edit that into your answer. – Chris Sunami Dec 2 '17 at 14:55
  • that's fascinating. I'll add it to the answer after I get a chance to read up a bit more on it. ty. – I wrestled a bear once. Dec 4 '17 at 4:28
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I live deep in the forest in the mountains far away from any large city. It is about 20 -30 minutes to a small town and about two hours to a large city. I don't own a television and haven't watched a TV program in over 20 years. I spend much of my day quietly sitting outside without any other people, just with my dog watching the wildlife in the forest and thinking about things. Every day I see little families of deer coming to eat apples that have fallen from an apple tree next to where I sit. There are countless different types of birds and insects to watch fluttering, chirping, and buzzing by going about their pollination business. There are small families of Javelina that come by, Squirrels and chipmunks scurrying about playing and collecting food. As I am sitting there, every day there are all sorts of magical spiritual moments of awe to experience looking into the eyes of the animals when they stop to look at me as I am meditating. It is beautiful beyond words every day.

When I go to town once a week or so, I see pleasant people. Everyone is friendly and courteous. Nobody seems to be in a rush to go anywhere. I might go to town for some groceries and talk to someone I haven't met before for 20 minutes or so.

I don't realize I am living in a trance until I go down into to a city. The people in the cities are in another kind of trance. They don't realize it because they are in it all the time, perhaps for their whole lives. If they ever do leave a city, some go camping, but they are in it for only a short time, a few days or so, then rush back. You can't see the stars in the city. What I notice almost immediately when entering a city is how much movement there is all the time. Cars whizzing by blasting music. There seems to be a lot of aggression in the way people drive and the way people otherwise interact with each other. They are in a rush to go somewhere or take drugs. They all seem to be glued to various forms of entertainment all the time, television, radio, etc. Everywhere I go in the city, there are televisions in almost every environment on all the time. There are televisions in all the waiting rooms, in the hospitals, in the restaurants, in the bathrooms, in their homes, at the gas pump, everywhere blasting out advertisements. It is madness. It is difficult to find anywhere in the city where you can get away from the televisions. I would need noise canceling technology to survive in that environment. The people seem to have little patience or concern for other people. When I leave a city, I feel relieved that I managed to escape from it alive and uninjured. There is a noticeable difference in the amount of tension and anxiety that I experience in the different environments.

We are very much conditioned and sensitive to our environments. It takes a few days for me to adjust back, to slow down, and relieve the tension after leaving a city. They are different types of trances. I prefer the slower pace.

  • This is related to the question, but does not seem to be an answer to it. It's possible part of it should have been posted instead as a comment. – Chris Sunami Dec 1 '17 at 19:43
  • I thought it might have something to do with the beauty and pace of the different environments and how it can impact our perception, mental states, and beliefs. Perhaps it is related to the idea that people in cities or in the modern age often seem to be living in a kind of hyperreality trance state saturated with so much fantasy media content and nonlocal information. When they witness a nonmanufactured environment or the raw beauty of nature first hand, not on television, perhaps a shock.. Yes, it is probably more seconding the observation. perhaps some French Philosophers could help – Dan Boice Dec 2 '17 at 1:41
  • There's nothing or even off-topic wrong with what you said, it's just that it doesn't really fit the question-answer SE format. – Chris Sunami Dec 2 '17 at 14:56

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