David Rothenberg on Arne Naess

Arne Naess, the founder of deep ecology, died on 12 January 2009, three weeks before his 97th birthday.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess was best known for his invention of the term “deep ecology” to describe the way in which environmental issues are fundamentally questions of ethics and philosophy beneath our science and politics. Through a combination of his ideas and his persona, Naess was probably the most influential living environmental philosopher.

In the 1930s Naess traveled to Vienna as a young student to join the Vienna Circle, working closely with Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap to develop his own take on analytic philosophy. In 1937 Naess became the youngest full professor in Norway’s history, and over subsequent decades he wrote a series of introductory logic and history of philosophy textbooks that became the foundation for reform of his nation’s university system, which required for many years that all students study a semester of philosophy before continuing on to their chosen disciplines. His first book Truth As Conceived By Those Who Are Not Themselves Professional Philosophers (1938) used a survey approach to demonstrate that ordinary people hold a range of views on truth similar to those voiced by the range of philosophers.

During World War II Naess was active in the clandestine resistance against the Nazis occupiers, and after the war he led a reconciliation project to bring war criminals together with the parents of the Norwegian soldiers they tortured and killed. In the Cold War, Naess was asked by the United Nations to lead a philosophical effort to study the worldwide uses of the term ‘democracy’. The resulting book Democracy in a World of Tensions (1951) revealed that the word could mean almost anything, and it was never reprinted, because of this disturbing conclusion.

In mainstream philosophy Naess is most known for his work in philosophy of language in Interpretation and Preciseness (1953) and Communication and Argument (1966). Other majorn theoretical works in English include Scepticism (1968), Gandhi and Group Conflict (1974), and The Pluralist and Possibilist Aspect of the Scientific Enterprise (1969). Naess had always been an accomplished mountaineer, and for a few years in the early fifties he, with his ascent of Tirich Mir, held a record for the highest mountain ever climbed. A decade later, inspired by Rachel Carson, Naess resigned from his professorship to devote his full time to environmental issues. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle (in Norwegian 1976, in English 1989, translated by David Rothenberg) was his main theoretical work in environmental philosophy, where the theory of deep ecology is articulated in depth. It was an environmental philosophy, not an ethic, that encouraged each individual to think of nature as the ground of our own interest, so that the greatest sense of self-realization will encompass a “Self” of the environment, and become “Self-realization” with a capital S. We should all situate our identity and our interests in nature uniquely, developing our own “ecosophies” that build on a personal sense of place and duty of care for the Earth and fit into our immediate surroundings with greater attention and dignity.

Together with George Sessions, Naess politicized deep ecology by putting forth a platform of eight points that turn his conceptual idea into an ethical manifesto: 1) The flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth has intrinsic value. The value of nonhuman life forms is independent of the usefulness these may have for narrow human purposes. 2) Richness and diversity of life forms are values in themselves. 3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs. 4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening. 5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease in the human population. 6) Significant change of life conditions for the better require change in economic and technological policies. 7) Life quality should be given more primacy than a high standard of living. (8) Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to implement the necessary changes.

This platform was specifically adopted by radical environmental groups such as Earth First! as their guiding philosophy, but deep ecology may have reached its greatest popular prominence when Senator Al Gore wrote in his 1989 book Earth in the Balance that “we must change the fundamental values at the heart of our civilization” in order to solve global environmental problems. This is deep ecology in a nutshell, and by the first decade of the twenty-first century, the majority of educated people are finally going along with it, even if they may not realize where the idea came from.

In 2000, at the age of eighty-eight, Naess published Life’s Philosophy, a more personal account of his own history through ideas. It became the number one bestseller in Norway, and catapulted its author to a new level of fame in his native land. In 2005 the Selected Works of Arne Naess was published in ten volumes by Kluwer, with the financial support of Doug Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. It is perhaps the most comprehensive publication of the works of any living philosopher.

Until his death Naess continued to speak out in the name of free nature and conservation, and he always remained optimistic that humanity will be able to improve our relationship to the world around us “by the twenty-second century.” Through his works and deeds he remains an inspiration to generations of younger environmental activists and philosophers.

At the 2007 annual conference of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, President Anthony Appiah praised Naess’ early work investigating the philosophical views of ordinary people as the pioneering work in what is now the new discipline of “experimental philosophy,” an attempt to make philosophy a more empirical kind of investigation more compatible with social and natural science. So at the very end of his life, Arne Naess’ work returned back to the mainstream of the discipline.

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• Arne Naess, Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle, translated by David Rothenberg. New York:
• Cambridge University Press, 1989.
• Arne Naess, with Per Ingvar Haukeland, Life’s Philosophy, translated by Roland Huntford.
• Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
• Andrew Brennan and Nina Witoszek, editors. Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.