Arne Naess’ Ecosophy: Valera Interviews Drengson

Luca Valera: When he was young, Arne Naess has attended meetings of the Vienna Circle (VC or Circle), expressing, at the same time, great dissatisfaction towards their way of inquiring into the nature of human experience and reality, more generally. Which was the main reason, in your opinion, that convinced Arne to abandon the Circle? Do you think they had a different opinion about philosophy? What did Arne think about their philosophy and their approach to perennial philosophical problems?

Alan Drengson: I think there is a misconception and some misleading ideas about the Vienna Circle that suggest a strong border with a surrounding wall. Naess says that the members of this loose-knit group were very accepting and encouraging in discussions. Furthermore, some people were considered members who almost never attended, liked Ludwig Wittgenstein. His famous “Tractatus” was considered an important work by many in the Circle and it is said to have influenced the group, but this is not so straight forward. Wittgenstein was more of a loner than Naess, even in their respective Norwegian huts. We visited both their hut sites and areas when we were in Norway with my family, but this is another story. Naess said the VC discussion groups were the most open-minded and helpful he had ever attended. They discussed in German, in which he was fluent, and he wrote his thesis and other works in German. While he was in Vienna he was doing work on his doctoral thesis, climbing mountains, taking piano lessons from a top concert teacher, and undergoing 14 months of daily psychoanalysis with Dr. Hitchman, meeting six days a week. He must have been very busy with all of this and also attending the circle discussions, of which he was the youngest member. It was during this time he realized he was not going to be a concert pianist. These were also turbulent times with the depression, the rise of Nazism and the beginnings of World War II.

When Naess was in Vienna writing and doing research for his doctoral work on the nature of scientific knowledge related to what scientists actually do, he already had a BSc and two Masters degrees from the University of Oslo, one in philosophy and the other in astronomy. When he was working with Hitchman and doing his own psychoanalysis, Dr. Hitchman arranged for him to make rounds with him in the psychiatric hospitals. He thought Naess was very talented and urged him to become a healer. Naess says that the intensive work with Hitchman changed his life and understanding of himself profoundly and gave him much greater compassion for those who have psychiatric and other illnesses. As far as his own health is concerned, he seems to have been very robust and was almost never ill and lived to nearly 97. He attributed this to having the old Mt. Hallingskarvet as his wise father. It probably had also to do with living outdoors and doing outdoor activities almost every day as a practice of the Norwegian “frilufstliv” (free-air-life) about which he wrote.

LV: We know that Arne strived to live his philosophy: he liked to see himself as a “philosopher of life” (and not only as an academic!). Or better: the thought of simply being an academic philosopher made him restless and uneasy. We know that, for Naess, philosophy is the unique realm in which we take up the deepest, most profound and most fundamental problems… Could you specify the concept of “depth” in Naess’ thought (and in his ecosophy)?

ARD: This is a challenging question, since “depth” itself is not a precise term, but one that lets us think and feel expansively. I think that this is related to Arne’s ecosophy in that one of the ways he talks about his own practices is in terms of an extension of identification. He observes that as we grow older and more mature, we are able to have a more integrated and secure sense of self. We transcend the need to defend ego boundaries and can be more open. He articulated this in English as the practice of extending our sense of identification, what we identify with as part of our larger sense of self, that includes our ecological Self, and so a sense of integration with a larger home place. We identify with this home place and we might take our name from it. He identified especially with his hut and its area, and he at one time considered changing his name to “Arne Tvergastein.” He did not do this, since he was already well known and identified with works and practices beyond Norway.

My family ancestral systems are part of older Norse naming traditions. We took our surname from our home-farm-place. This is larger than just the farm buildings and includes the farm in all its extent, the summer pastures, and so on. My last name in this tradition “Drengson” means son of Dreng. In old Norse a “dreng” is a capable multifaceted male person. Thus, my name means I am the son of Dreng. But I am not, of course, since in North America we don’t follow this older Norse tradition. Some of my relatives in Norway take their surnames from the farm of their birth. They sometimes change their surname when they become a farmer at a different farm. This is true for men and women. Arne and I are both fascinated with names and their meanings. There are many dialects in Norway and no single dialect that is the ruling way of talking and spelling. Places often have very old names and sometimes people no longer know what they originally meant. As Naess found in his studies of language and meaning, living languages are like streams and are always changing. The traditional areas of Norway, as for example “Setesdal,” have dialects, patterns of farming, knitting and official costumes (“bunads”) unique to these areas and places. You see this when you go to the folk museum in Oslo.

LV: Naess’ life is very rich and complex, and so is his thought: do you think it is possible to outline different phases or periods in his philosophical work? How are they characterized?

ARD: Naess’ life was very rich and complex and this is reflected in his play, work and thought. I don’t think his life and work can be easily divided into different phases and periods, the way we approach some composers, e.g., Beethoven. I also don’t think Arne saw his life and work divided in this way. I remember many times when we were working on the 10-volume “Selected Works of Arne Naess,” or SWAN collection, when we passed one of the essays or chapters to Arne to look over. For him this was an opportunity to continue that piece, and he started revising it in much different ways than we needed for the book or chapter that we (the editors) saw as historical documents in the case of his earlier works.

LV: Naess strived all his life against dualisms and dualities (subject/object, fact/value, man/nature, etc.), developing the concept of “gestalt ontology.” Can you deepen the concept of gestalt ontology (which seems to be very different from Gestalt Psychology or holism…)? How is, then, gestalt ontology connected with spontaneous experience?

ARD: I don’t know if “strive” is the best way to characterize his openness to multiple interpretations and the nuances of ordinary languages, which he appreciated for their ever changing diversity down to local dialects in Norwegian. His approach to language and meaning was based in part on empirical semantics. He thought that our spontaneous experience is beyond all languages and arts in its depth and complexity. His ontology was gestalt because he recognized that the depth of our ordinary experience is better appreciated as connected and whole, rather than reduced to fragments and bits. He was not a gestalt psychologist in the psychologist’s sense; he was a gestalt ontologist, and so he did not reduce experience to psychic bits, but appreciated its inherent interconnectedness and coherence. As a mountain climber, and one who lived in nature as much as possible, this was a natural way for him to see and experience the world. As climbers and trekkers, we see the world in so many different ways and lights, amid storms, and under starry skies, covered in snow, as bare rock, in meadows, forests, and so on. This is only the beginning as I have not even begun to bring in the myriad living beings of all sorts we meet being in nature.

LV: When talking about spontaneous experience, we can recognize the influence of Husserl’s phenomenology on his philosophy. In your opinion, can we define Naess a phenomenologian?

ARD: I don’t think Naess can be defined in any straight forward way. He was rivers and mountains together, always changing, but with a consistent integrity and sense of values and direction that made him wise before his time, like a reliable mountain guide. He felt that Mt. Hallingskarvet was his “old father,” since he never knew his own father, who died before Arne was a year old. He learned from his very old father (some of the oldest rock in Europe.) He knew his way around in all circumstances and was equally at home on campus, in the city, in the forest, or in the mountains. He, like Spinoza, is/was a philosopher who always had a sense of center and direction. He did not get lost. He was a reliable guide and friend, an amazing mentor and fun to be with. He was never boring or tiresome. He was a leader in multicultural, pluralistic approaches to the world bringing joy, not fear, despair or violence. He was never threatened and defensive, but always open and inquiring. When he met someone who strongly disagreed with him, he genuinely wanted to know their ways of thinking and feeling. Again and again I saw this sense of centeredness in him. He invented “Gandhian boxing.” He knew that to practice nonviolence you need to be strong and centered, not passive. You stand up for what you know is right, but you do this nonviolently with respect. In its philosophy, his boxing was very much like the Japanese spiritual discipline I practice called Aikido. He came to observe our Aikido class when on campus. He arrived before I was there. My assistant asked if he was there for the Aikido class and he said “yes.” My assistant thought he was one of the students, and so he gave him a push broom and said “Clean the mats!” When I arrived, Arne was happily sweeping the mats. I thought, “he likes to help.” Later my assistant told me he was mortified that he gave our guest observer the broom and told him to sweep. I said, “don’t worry, he likes to help and was complemented to be asked.” After the class, when I talked to Arne, he said of the art we were practicing “very Gandhian!” A high compliment! The word “aikido” literally means the way (do) harmony (ai) with universal energy (ki). Its practice is integrated into daily life. It is a non-aggressive martial art and is creative and always changing.

LV: In Naess’ thought we can appreciate a radical effort to reconceptualize (or to redefine) reason in a more complex way, integrating it with emotions and feelings. What is Naess’ idea of reason? Is it closer to Spinoza’s idea of reason?

ARD: I would say that he appreciated Spinoza’s cosmopolitan approach, which Spinoza gained from his life experiences and his ability to work on projects by himself, such a lens grinding and writing in longhand. Spinoza, like Naess, was conversant in the classical languages. He wrote in Latin, which Naess knew well. Naess translated the passages he uses in his works on Spinoza. Naess felt as he read these Latin texts while in high school, that Spinoza was a good and wise philosopher he could trust.

LV: The problem of truth: Naess spent a great amount of time – at least in his early years – reasoning on this topic. In his last years, this issue seems to disappear from his writings. Is it correct? Why, in your opinion?

ARD: I don’t think that he abandons his interest in this topic, but that it becomes less of a focus as he grows older. He shifts his focus to value systems, worldviews and international social-political movements with the publication of his 1973 deep ecology movement essay. There is no reason for him to return to these earlier studies, not because they are not worth revisiting, but because there is limited time. He did continue to do surveys that involved questions of interpretation and truth, even at advanced years in his life. We published some of these the SWAN volumes eight, nine and ten.

LV: Arne’s thought has been – and continues to be – a very fruitful source for academic and researcher. What did Arne think about this? And what about the possibility for his thought to be changed or misunderstood by his disciples?

ARD: He did not encourage disciples. One time, when here in Victoria, he spent time being a squirrel in a plum tree in our back yard with our youngest daughter, who was then 9. They talked about being and acting like squirrels and did the things they thought squirrels like to do, especially in climbing up in the branches. When I went to fetch him for the reception in his honor inside the house, he was very reluctant to come down from the tree. He said, “It’s more fun being a squirrel with Anna.” Another time when we were at his hut in Norway, he led our family to the summit of its Mt. Hallingskarvet. He had each of our daughters climb some rocks and then said we should rope Anna for the climb. When we got up to the summit plateau, he said he had never climbed to it before via that route. As we climbed, he told us stories about different things that happened on and to the mountain. When we got to the high hut called the “Eagle’s Nest” we went inside, sat on the bunks and looked over a low table into a yawning space and abyss opening to a vast plateau called Hardangervidda. We asked him why he built this higher hut, and he said it was a result of a dream. When we asked him to explain, he said he dreamt he would have an aerie, like an eagle, and he could look out and soar from it like a nest. He meant that from his desk and table he had both eagle and human views. What comes out in these situations, and in so many others, is his childlike spontaneity. He was creating as he or we went along. I think he found life more like jazz than classical music, the latter of which he played and studied with advanced teachers in Vienna. He was not predictable or determined. He had a playful childlike approach to life as joyful.

LV: Many ecologists, environmentalists, and philosophers reinterpreted Arne’s thought, saying that his ecosophy (and also his conception of deep ecology) is a proof that the human being is like a cancer on the planet. In this regard, his ecosophy probably seems to be characterized as an anti-humanistic thought. What do you think about this claim? Was Naess pessimistic or optimistic about human possibilities?

ARD: In all of my contacts with Arne, I don’t recall that he ever expressed a pessimistic attitude toward life and our problems as contemporary humans. He was always positive in his attitudes toward life on Earth amongst the other living beings. He was a possibilist and pluralist, neither of which lead to negative approaches to life. Since reality is all possibilities, we cannot know what will happen next. The old determinisms associated with some worldviews are not part of his approach to life, which was more in keeping with leading edge work in all the sciences, and especially in the biological and social sciences in this last decade. He cheered the kind of research done throughout the world that appreciates diversity of all kinds. Some of us once thought he was introducing a specific philosophy of life called “deep ecology,” and this we confused with different ways of seeing ecology as a multi-leveled study of our whole reality, from metaphysical down to the details of our life places, and biotic and personal relationships. We thought “ecology” is a life science of places and relationships, so “deep ecology” must include the feelings and spiritual levels of our life worlds. Thus, Naess invited us to become cosmologists so as to appreciate multi-valued systems, life worlds, cultures, worldviews, and even multiple cosmologies. His work transcended the narrow positivism of some members of the Vienna Circle, who had very narrow conceptions of language and logic. Since Naess was a multiculturalist and mastered so many languages and logics, including math and musical notation, his views were more open, complex, deep and rich. In these ways he took us not only to systems but to systems of systems, to meta-systems and meta-meta-systems. He helped us to deeply appreciate the excitement and creative possibilities in the new realities of Einsteinian infinities and multicultural value diversity. He challenges us to give up the security of the old myths and see the depth of creative mythologies, as Joseph Campbell also urged. All mythologies and religions undergo a transformation that appreciates and incorporates diverse values and infinities and nonviolence.

LV: What are the main philosophical/ecological issues to be studied in the future, which Naess could have sent us, like a “message in a bottle”?

ARD: I find a most useful one is “Be positive in all ways, recognize the inherent creative capacity in yourself, your friends, other people, in all beings and in nature. Spend time walking and being in Nature every day without distractions and devices. Unplug all devices and just walk. Be positive to everyone and all beings that you meet.”