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Changing Perspectives on Landscape Perception: Seeking Common Ground Between the Psychological Sciences and the Humanities

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What is the relationship between landscapes and human experience? In modern Western thought, at least, interest in the experience of landscape has been most closely tied to the arts and the humanities. Landscape has been considered the beautiful shape of a place, offering opportunities for contemplation and ...

What is the relationship between landscapes and human experience? In modern Western thought, at least, interest in the experience of landscape has been most closely tied to the arts and the humanities. Landscape has been considered the beautiful shape of a place, offering opportunities for contemplation and inspiration. Indeed, philosophy identifies the origin of the concept of landscape in history of art, and frames it in terms of aesthetical features and preferences.

In the last decades the concept of landscape has evolved and has been questioned in many ways. Philosophical studies on landscape cover a wide range of theories: phenomenology, ontology, environmental ethics, neuro-aesthetics just to quote some. The dominant approach defines landscape as a cultural product involving a specific relationship between human beings and environment. Place attachment, biophilia, topophilia, identity of place, difference between space, place and territory, commons and common good are just few among the key concepts used in humanities in analyzing contemporary and globalised landscapes at several levels. While aesthetics is renovating its approach to the debate by introducing evolution and neurosciences in landscape perception by attempting at naturalisation of the concept, environmental ethics and environmental philosophy consider landscape as part of ecological systems or as a common good and a right to be pursued along the democratization of the belonging to a place.

In parallel, over the last four decades empirical science has also taken up the nature of landscape perception, not only with regard to aesthetic considerations, but also with an interest in the impact of landscape experience on health and well-being. As very different as these traditions are, their approaches to the perception of landscape turn out to have a great deal in common. Most of these efforts issuing from both traditions assume that the individual perceiver adopts a detached stance in relation to the landscape, in the manner of looking at a picture. Even in those rare cases where contemplation or research involves individuals moving though landscapes, the principle interest is sheer visual exposure to their environmental properties. That shared perspective can be traced to the long-standing assumption that the initial stage of visual perception is the formation of an image on the two-dimensional surface of the retina, or more recently, the production of picture-like percept based on retinal stimulation. In these ways, the study of landscape perception has unwittingly taken the form of an inquiry into the nature of picture perception.

A change of perspective, however, can be summarized in the definition of landscape given in the European Landscape Convention as: “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors” (ELC: Chapter 1, General Provisions, Article 1. Definition). This definition, adopted in landscape research and in official documents worldwide (e.g., UNESCO Declaration on Landscape, or the Latin American Initiative on Landscape) departs from prior traditions’ emphasis on landscape as principally an ‘object’ of contemplation through sheer exposure and instead conveys the idea of landscape as a cultural product involving human interactions.

In parallel, an ecological perspective in psychology emphasizes environment-organism reciprocity: the individual is not taken to be a stationary ‘processor’ of stimulus input, but rather as an agent and a transactional participant in its eco-niche. Such an approach invites a consideration of landscape as a dynamic context offering possibilities for action (affordances), exploration and modification.

By starting from this theoretical point of view and by considering the pivotal role of both cultural and scientific approaches to landscape theory, this call for papers welcomes submissions addressing questions such as: (a) What is the nature of landscape perception from a transactional standpoint, and what does that stance imply for the definition of landscape? (b) Does this shift in perspective open up new ways to bridge differences that arise between the humanities and scientific approaches to landscape perception? (c) What might be the impact of this alternative approach for future environmental policy?

Papers addressing related questions are also welcomed.


Keywords: landscape, place, perception, aesthetics, affordance, restorative environments


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