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Naess, Dr. Arne (1912 – ) Norwegian Philosopher and Naturalist

Dr. Arne Naess (1912 )
Norwegian philosopher and naturalist

Arne Naess is a noted mountaineer and philosopher and the founder of the deep ecology movement. He was born to Ragnar and Christine Naess in Oslo, Norway, on January 27, 1912, the youngest of five children. Naess was an introspective child, and he displayed an early interest in logic and philosophy. After undergraduate work at the Sorbonne in Paris, he did graduate work at the University of Vienna, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Oslo. While in Vienna, his interests in logic, language, and methodology drew him to the Vienna Circle of logical empiricism. He was awarded the Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oslo in 1938.

A year later, in 1939, Naess was made full professor of philosophy at the same university. He promptly reorganized Norwegian higher education, making the history of ideas a prerequisite for all academic specializations and encouraging greater conceptual sophistication and tolerance. From the beginning, Naess was interested in empirical semantics, that is, how ordinary persons use words to communicate. In "Truth" as Conceived by Those Who Are Not Professional Philosophers (1939), he was one of the first to use statistical methods and questionnaires to survey philosophical beliefs. Shortly after his appointment at the university, the Germans occupied Norway. Naess resisted any changes in academic routine, insisting that education be separate from politics. The increasing brutality of the Quisling regime, however, impelled him to join the resistance movement. While in the resistance he helped avert the shipment of thousands of university students to concentration camps. Immediately after the war, he confronted Nazi atrocities by mediating conversations between the families of torture victims and their pro-Nazi Norwegian victimizers.

In the post-War period, Naess's academic interests and accomplishments were many and varied. He continued his work on language and communication in Interpretation and Preciseness (1953) and Communication and Argument (1966), concluding that communication is not based on a precise and shared language. Rather we understand words, sentences, and intentions by interpreting their meaning. Language is thus a double-edged sword. Communication is often difficult and requires successive interpretations. Even so, the ambiguity of language allows for a tremendous flexibility in verbal meaning and content. Because of his work in communication and his resistance to the Nazis, Naess was selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] in 1949 to explore the meanings of democracy. This project resulted in Democracy, Ideology and Objectivity (1956). In 1958, he founded the journal Inquiry, serving as its editor until 1976. The magazine explores the relations of philosophy, science, and society, especially as they reflect normative assumptions and implications. He also published on diverse topics, including Gandhian nonviolence, the philosophies of science, and the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (16321677). These works include Gandhi and the Nuclear Age (1965), Skepticism (1968), Four Modern Philosophers: Carnap, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre (1968), The Pluralist and Possibilist Aspect of the Scientific Enterprise (1972), and Freedom, Emotion and Self-Subsistence: The Structure of a Central Part of Spinoza's "Ethic" (1972).

Naess began examining humanity's relationship with nature during the early 1970s. The genesis of this interest is best understood in the context of Norway's environment , culture, and politics. Nature, not humanity, dominates the landscape of Norway. The nation has the lowest population density in Europe, and over 90% of the land is undeveloped. As a consequence, the interior of Norway is relatively wild and diverse, a mixture of mountains, glaciers, fjords, forests, tundra , and small human settlements. Moreover, Norwegian culture deeply values nature; environmental themes are common in Norwegian literature, and the majority of Norwegians share a passion for outdoor activities and recreation . This passion is known as friluftsliv, meaning "open air life." Friluftsliv is widely touted as one means of reconnecting with the natural world. Norwegian environmental politics has been wracked by a succession of ecological and resource conflicts. These conflicts involve predator control , recreation areas, national parks, industrial pollution , dams and hydroelectric power, nuclear energy, North Sea oil, and economic development. During the 1960s Naess became deeply involved in environmental activism. Indeed, his participation in protests lead to his arrest for nonviolent civil disobedience. He even wrote a manual to help environmental and community activists participate in nonviolent resistance. Growing up, Naess was deeply moved by his experiences in the wild places of Norway. He became an avid mountaineer, leading several ascents of the Tirich Mir (25,300 ft [7700 m]) in the Hindu Kush range. In 1937, he built a small cabin near the final assent to the summit of Hallingskarvet, a mountain approximately 111 mi (180 km) northeast of Oslo. He named it Tvergastein, meaning "across the stones."

Since his retirement, Naess has published widely on environmental topics. His main contributions are in ecophilosophy, environmental policy , and conservation biology . The insight and controversy surrounding these writings have propelled him to the forefront of environmental ethics and politics.

Naess regards philosophy as "wisdom in action." He notes that many policy decisions are "made in a state of philosophical stupor" wherein narrow and short-term goals are all that is considered or recommended. Lucid thinking and clear communication help widen and lengthen the options available at any point in time. Naess describes this work as a labor in "ecophilosophy," that is, an inquiry where philosophy is used to study the natural world and humanity's relationship to it. Recalling the ambiguity of language and communication, he distinguishes ecophilosophy from ecosophya personal philosophy whose conceptions guide one's conduct toward nature and human beings. While important elements of our ecosophies may be shared, we each proceed from assumptions, norms, and hypotheses that vary in substance and/or interpretation. Of central importance to Naess's exploration of ecophilosophy are norms and beliefs about what one should or ought to do based on what is prudent or ethical. Norms play a leading role in any ecophilosophy. While science may explain nature and human ecology , it is norms that justify and motivate our actions in the natural world. Along with the concept of norms, Naess stresses the importance of depth. By depth, Naess means reflecting deeply on our concepts, emotions and experiences of nature, as well as digging to the cultural, personal, and social roots of our environmental problems. Thinking deeply means taking a broad and incisive look at our values, lifestyles, and community life. In so doing, we discover if our way of life is consistent with our most deeply felt norms.

An ecophilosophy which deeply investigates and clarifies its norms is called a "deep ecological philosophy." A social movement that incorporates this process, shares significant norms, and seeks deep personal and social change is termed "deep ecology movement." Naess coined the term "deep ecology" in 1973, intending to highlight the importance of norms and social change in environmental decisionmaking. He also coined the term "shallow ecology" to describe what he considered short-term technological solutions to environmental concerns. Naess's own ecophilosophy is called "Ecosophy T." The "T" symbolizes Tvergastein. Ecosophy T stresses a number of themes, including the intrinsic value of nature, the importance of cultural and natural diversity, and the norm of self-realization for persons, cultures, and non-human life-forms. Naess offers his ecosophy as a tentative template, encouraging others to construct their own ecosophies.

Deep ecology is therefore a rubric representing many philosophies and practices, each differing in significant ways. Naess encourages this diversity, recognizing that many mutually acceptable interpretations of deep ecology are possible. On the whole, therefore, Naess is philosophically and environmentally non-dogmatic. He avoids rigid dichotomies pitting individual versus social accounts, liberal versus radical solutions, or wilderness versus justice concerns. To paraphrase Naess, "the frontier is long and there are many places to stand." Some may focus their thoughts and efforts on nature, others on society, still others on culture. According to Naess, these are legitimate and necessary foci and should be encouraged as separate endeavors and joint undertakings.

[William S. Lynn ]



Naess, A. "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements." Inquiry 16 (1973): 95100.

. "Intrinsic Value: Will the Defenders of Nature Please Rise?" In Conservation Biology: The Science of Scarcity and Diversity, edited by M. E. Soule. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1986.

. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Reed, P., and D. Rothenberg, eds. Wisdom in the Open Air: The Norwegian Roots of Deep Ecology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Rothenberg, D. Is It Painful to Think? Conversations with Arne Naess. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

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