THE TAO OF ARNE NAESS
Escape is not possible nor desirable

Escape is not possible nor desirable

During his lifetime in Norway and elsewhere, Arne Naess walked around with an identity-card number 27011230992. He died on January 12, 2009; his birthday was January 27, 1912. Arne has been a great teacher for countless students and colleagues, being the universal mind he was. The experience of a vast space permeates all his writings: from ontology to epistemology; from language to deep ecology; from his Unesco study on democracy to his mountain climbing. Arne taught me that philosophical inquiries, concrete actions and mystical aspirations go hand in hand, on the condition that we are prepared to enter a vast space, in which all happens simultaneously in the here-and-now. There is no past and no future than the past and the future of the here and now. Escape is not possible nor desirable. Such an experience and philosophical vision require courage. Arne Naess had the experience, the vision and the courage to enter unlimited space.

The Way means Tao

In Chinese philosophy Tao means the Way: the Way of Ultimate Reality, the Way of the Universe, and the Way of Life. All three are one, and congenial with the Arab word “Tawhid” in so far as Tawhid coincides with Reality. Tao is described as pure energy, present in all reality without form of itself. Therefore, ‘he who knows does not speak’, and ‘he who speaks does not know’. This implies that I only can speak about my orientation to the Way: my quest for a balance between knowing that I don’t know, and not-knowing that I do know. Any human tao is necessarily the merger of this not-knowing and knowing, the mystery of human existence.

An all-embracing philosophical vision

The impossibility to speak about Tao, doesn’t mean that we cannot speak about the tao of Arne Naess. On the contrary. By trying to grasp the ‘essentialia’, the questions that really mattered to him, we fulfill the intention of his work: not to be afraid to go into depth by asking why his tao is remarkable. Is it his semantic empiricism, or Pyrrhonic scepticism? Is it his trust in the infinite value of each human or the ultimate unity of all living beings? Is it his ambition for a total view? The answer is a threefold “yes”. But his aspiration to develop an all-embracing philosophical vision, his tao, stems from a deeper level than the sharpness of his mind or his statements about the infinite value of each person, and the ultimate unity of whatever exists. The deeper level in Naess’ psychology and philosophy coincides with his experience of space and time.

Space, time and number determine our world view

January 27, 1982. I slept in Arne’s house. I was there to participate in the festivities for his seventieth birthday. When I woke up, I suddenly realized that space, time and number are the basic ideas by which we organize our world, not like the a priori categories of Immanuel Kant but in an immediate connection with all there is. In the years 1983-1985 this realization led to a research project about space and time. The two ideas became my guide to search for the roots of a culture: its paradigms. I discovered that a culture only transforms in its depth structure when its space-time perception transforms. A culture can also harbor two more or less opposite paradigms like Western culture does with its classic mind and romantic mind.

A haiku

January 14, 2009. Early morning, still in bed, a haiku came to my mind:

The here and the now

Without borders and limits

Infinite presence

The haiku made me think of Arne Naess, not knowing that he had died two days before. You might wonder why I see a connection between the haiku and the philosophy of Arne. Let me explain.

Space, the key to the understanding of Naess’ philosophy

In 1970, I visited Arne Naess for the first time to invite him to debate with Sir Alfred Ayer in the International Philosopher’s Project on Dutch TV. We talked all through a long evening. I enjoyed his questions and remarks; also his attitude, always in control, always a bit provocative but diving into the depth of consciousness, searching for the limits of what we can think of. It was the year he wrote a letter to the King of Nepal:

“The great Mountains have since remote antiquity been the objects of religious cults. They have been the symbols of the Highest, the Imperishable, the Unsurpassable and Unreachable, and of course, symbols of the Deity. Those who look upon the Great Mountains as temples, may not hesitate to climb them, only they do it with an attitude acceptable in or on a temple. But those who rather feel them as symbols of the Highest and the Unreachable tend to reject climbing to their summits. It only shows the vanity, the impudence and also the dullness of mankind to carry out an act symbolizing the dethronement of God and the conquest of the Unreachable.”

The letter to the King shows Naess’ deepest longing for a space without borders and limits, for the here and now, in its infinite presence. And there are other indications as well.

The task of a philosopher

The debate in 1971 between Sir Alfred and Arne began with the question how each of them viewed his task as a philosopher.
Ayer: ‘Well, I suppose to try to answer a certain quite specific range of questions that are classified as philosophical questions – and are very much the same questions that, I think, have been asked since the Greeks, mainly about what can be known, how it can be known, what kind of things they are, how they relate to one another. In general, I think of philosophy as an activity of questioning accepted beliefs, trying to find criteria and trying to evaluate these criteria: trying to unearth the assumptions behind thinking, scientific thinking and ordinary thinking, and then trying to see if they are valid.’

Naess: ‘Well, I see it a little different, because I would rather say that to philosophy belong the most profound, the deepest, the most fundamental problems. They will change very little, and they have not changed much over the last two thousand years. So that’s a difference. But I think we agree that the epistemological questions such as “what can we know?” and “what is stuff made of in the universe?” would be such things which we consider the deepest questions. In that sense there’s partly an agreement.’

Ayer: ‘Yes, but how do you measure the profundity of a problem?’ to which Naess responds: ‘How do we measure? Well, that’s one of the most profound questions of all’ to continue that ‘a definition of philosophy should be about what we consider to be the most profound, rather than picking out certain definite precise questions.’

It’s clear! Naess dives to the bottom of space and time right away, saying quietly that they have not changed much and will change very little. His epistemology expresses a similar vastness of space and time as his testimony about the Great Mountains.

What about facts and truth and Naess’ Pyrrhonic scepticism?

Ayer defines a fact as: ‘it’s being so’; Naess responds: ‘If it is so; we have a conditional there, and there we agree’. Ayer: ‘Yes’. Naess: ‘It is only true, ‘if it is so’.’ Ayer: ‘Certainly’. The difference between the logical empiricism of Ayer and the Pyrrhonic scepticism of Naess consists in the use of ‘if‘, the use of the conditional, by which Naess opens a vast space within which everything can happen, because one can never be completely sure. This is Naess’ first semester scepticism. In his second semester scepticism, Naess develops trust in the meaning of general statements. The only difference between a sceptic and a non-sceptic is then that a sceptic is less amazed than a non-sceptic if the bank doesn’t pay out, because a sceptic realizes that everything can happen. Naess approaches reality without borders and limits. That’s the profound meaning of the conditional in his epistemology and Pyrrhonic scepticism.

What about Naess’ semantic empiricism?

Naess developed a research program with his students in Oslo under the name: empirical semantics. Empirical semantics shows that three factors determine the meaning of a sentence, namely 1. who says something; 2. to whom; 3. in which context. If we wish to understand what it means when someone yells: death to the King; or how to ‘read’ the Danish cartoon of Mohammed, we have to ask ourselves: 1. who is saying or drawing it; 2. for whom or for which public, and 3. in which context. A change in one or two of the conditions may transform the possible meanings in opposite directions. When an actor in a theatre yells: Death to the King, its meaning is quite different than when it happens during an uproar. The same is true for a cartoon: to suggest Mohammed is a terrorist is perhaps funny for Danish youngsters but not for youngsters in Gaza. Who, for whom and in which context determine the possible meanings. In his semantic empiricism Naess doesn’t talk about space-time in the dimension without borders and limits. No, just the opposite! Space becomes place, a concrete, specific situation, in the here and now of daily life. We must not only enlarge our horizon, but also look at the level of micro reality, for example a mosquito. It means that Naess’ philosophy embraces two opposite energies in human life: the centrifugal and the centripetal forces. Tao implies both: the unlimited circumference and its invisible centre.

Rudolph Carnap on Arne Naess

After visiting Naess, I visited Rudolph Carnap in Los Angeles. My aspiration was a debate between him and Martin Heidegger. Carnap reacted amazed as I had expected, and said: Arne Naess wrote about me and Heidegger in one and the same book. I don’t understand how such an intelligent man could do so. I replied that I recently read in a Victorian etiquette book how books written by a woman were not supposed to stand on book shelves close to books written by a man. There we left the issue. Carnap, one of the founders of logical positivism, admired Arne Naess but from a completely different perspective, narrowing down the reach of real meanings to what can be verified. By reducing the notion of truth to what is verifiable, Carnap reduces truth to a specific validity criterion. This reduction is inconsistent in so far the principle of verifiability is itself an a priori metaphysical principle that falls outside the domain of empirical sciences and their methods. Karl Popper speaks within this context laughingly of be-ba-bo for all the statements outside the domain of the verifiability criterion of Carnap and the Vienna Circle.

The three Graces and Naess’ monistic pluralism

There is the story of Arne of which the third part is fictitious but sometimes fiction reveals more than ‘facts’. He told me that after accepting an invitation for a lecture in Taiwan, he asked the organization whether he could bring his secretary. The answer: allright.
In a second letter he asked whether his wife could accompany him because of his age. The answer: allright. In a third letter he asked to bring his mistress. This time his Chinese host didn’t know what to answer anymore, and began to worry if he could also until Arne replied that all three were one person. I like the story because it shows how Naess loved to tease his environment, as he did in the debate with Alfred Ayer. But the way in which he teases has its origin in his monistic pluralism. What seems to be mutually exclusive in bourgeois society, doesn’t have to be so on a deeper level, dependent on the perception of the actor or reader.

Unification of the three Graces into Venus

I played a modest role in the unification of the three Graces into Venus by inviting Arne and Kit Fai, his partner, to travel to Amsterdam in 1990. The year before on February 14, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini had issued a death-fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The University for Humanist Studies in Utrecht accepted my proposal to organize a Salman Rushdie symposium in Amsterdam’s Paradiso to discuss, as open minded as possible, the controversy around The Satanic Verses, the fourth novel of Rushdie. Wanting to invite Arne Naess, I called Oslo. Kit Fai told me that Arne couldn’t come because on June 9, 1990 they would marry and with Arne, she said, one is never sure what is going to happen before it has happened. I solved the problem by promising to take care of her marriage, on the condition that they would travel together to The Netherlands. And so it happened. I arranged the marriage on Norwegian soil in Norway’s embassy in The Hague. My daughter Tara was the bridesmaid and I the witness. Everything went according to plan. The formula of his Excellency the Norwegian ambassador, belonged to the shortest ones I ever heard in my life. He said: what can I tell an experienced alpinist to do in marriage? The act was signed, and the champagne uncorked. That evening in Paradiso we all sang for the newly married couple.

June 7, 1990: The Rushdie Symposium, Paradiso, Amsterdam

Arne Naess: ‘Originally, I was a kind of a naturalist. I preferred the company of small animals to that of humans, whom I found too complex. I went into philosophy to find out the meaning of my life. I was a professor for thirty years in Oslo and a guest professor in many places. Mostly I try to be in nature, Grand Nature, tiny nature. For the last ten years, I have been very involved in what is called deep ecology, which is trying to generalize a feeling of solidarity which may exist among humans, to include every living creature on this earth. It is a philosophical, but also a spiritual ecology.’

I asked Naess how he thinks about the freedom of expression in the spoken and written word:

“I feel differently than the others here because I’ve been interested in deep cultural differences for a very long time… We are provincial in our outlook in that we only consider these big, big cultures, not the small ones which are just as deep and which are really under terrible pressure… Perhaps it is a little paradoxical, but in order to have a richness of deep different cultures, there must be something in common having to do with non-violence and the difference between person and institution, or person and social product, such as religion. What’s good about Ghandi’s non-violence is that we separate clearly the inherent value of a person. We distinguish this question of the infinite value of a person from the question of any kind of doctrine or belief. Our problem is not so much for or against secular society as it is against indifference. We must try to protect religious feeling, what Rushdie calls ‘religious spirit’, as it was in communism a hundred years ago, without fanaticism towards other people’s meanings. We must try to stand up in our secularized society and clearly say: This is correct; this is false. If someone disagrees, then we must ask them to try to convince us. This combination should not be called humanism. Complete openness should apply to the sanctity of any living being, even a mosquito. We don’t kill them because we are more intelligent. It takes time and a lot of courage to communicate with people we detest. You have to go beyond the distinction of secularized and religious communication.”

The sentence Complete openness should apply to the sanctity of any living being, even a mosquito… is another example of his space-time frame that reaches, without borders and limits, to the outskirts of the earth and its different cultures, but also to a concrete place, symbolized by the mosquito, and in his semantic empiricism to the importance of context. Place and space are the yin and yang of Naess’ tao.

How does Naess balance his Yin and Yang?

Here we enter a difficult question. It is not easy to grasp on hearing or reading the complexity of Naess’ statements. He is balancing between numerous ideas and values, only drawing the line where he says: we cannot have Hitlers. The distinction he makes between the infinite value of a person and the question of any kind of doctrine or belief is consistent with his Pyrrhonic scepticism. He trusts his intuition not less than the French mathematician Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) who describes intuition as the vehicle for discovery, and logic as the tool for mathematical proof. In the case of Arne Naess logic and semantic empiricism become the tools for the elaboration of his intuition with regard to deep ecology. The gate to “deep ecology” is the feeling of solidarity trying to include every living creature on earth. It implies both a philosophical and spiritual ecology.

Main characteristics of Naess’ Deep Ecology Movement

Naess formulated seven maxims for his deep ecology. They all fit into space as the circumference of Naess’ philosophy with countless places as ‘refuge’. Naess’ reasoning flows from an open mind without which there is no open space, and without open space there is no need to realize (1) the intrinsic value of human and non-human life on earth; no need for (2) the rejection of the man-in-environment image in favor of the relational, total-field image nor for (3) biospherical egalitarianism “in principle”, neither for (4) principles of diversity and of symbiosis and anti-class posture. From here follows (5) to fight against pollution and resource depletion; for (6) complexity, not complication, and (7) local autonomy and decentralization. Naess includes under (3) the “in principle” clause ‘because any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression’. This realism, however, is less present in his political views. Point (6) calls for local autonomy and decentralization, the reason that Naess has been campaigning all his life against the Common Market, today’s European Union. I didn’t agree with him and still don’t, because globalization is a double edged sword. Globalization is the outcome of the worldwide extension – without any democratic control – of the international financial institutions and economic networks like the multinational corporations which worldwide control 60% of all productions and services. This hierarchical concentration backed by (inter)national laws, mirrors the feudal patterns as they existed from 800 till 1800 in Western and Central Europe with only the cities as an exception to the feudal rules. Stadslucht maakt vrij (City air is liberating) is the expression that reminds us of the rule that a serf became a free ‘man’ if he had been living one year + one day in a city.

Bernard Lietaer and Arne Naess

We need a similar process in the 21st century for the actual capitalist system with a new currency for cities and regions, as Bernard Lietaer sketches in New Money for a New World, 2012. Read on his site The Call of Our Times, September 3, 2010: ‘Humanity is now at a critical juncture. As Paul Hanken succinctly put it in his inspiring address to Portland University’s graduate class in May 2009, “civilization needs a new operating system”, and fast. Many of the socio-economic rules under which we operate, were created under a worldview that failed to recognize that the earth is a living system and that every form of life has its unique and valuable place and purpose in sustaining the larger web of life’. Here speaks Arne Naess through the mouth of a former banker who formulates meaningful questions for governments, business, community and research; followed by currency proposals for the renewal of our societies and communities, in order to lift the heavy burdens of the financial crisis, by renewing social life in the local communities.

Globalization and the European Union

12 November 2012, in the Old Festival Hall (Gamle Festsal), Oslo University, there is a Philosophical Festival in honour of Arne Naess: Thinking Dutifully, Acting Beautifully, Our Responsibility for a Sustainable Future.

The 2012 Arne Naess Symposium will explore social and environmental responsibility in academia, politics, finance, journalism, and the arts.

Arne Naess’s concept of thinking dutifully, acting beautifully takes social and environmental responsibility beyond good intentions and glossy mantras to concrete ethical actions. Has responsibility been strengthened or pulverised in institutions and society as a whole in the 21st century? What has been the personal and social cost of acting beautifully?

This year’s Arne Naess lecture will be delivered by the author of the ground-breaking study The Environmental Imagination, Lawrence Buell of Harvard University. His reflections will be followed by three distinguished key-note speakers: George Monbiot, Jostein Gaarder, and Eva Joly. There will also be a reminiscence about Arne Næss conveyed by his close friend and intellectual sparring partner Fons Elders.

To promote deep and wide ranging transformations, Europe needs a political transformation that embraces at least the actual European Union (EU). The EU is only in its first stage of becoming a democratic EU. Its greatest opponent of becoming more democratic is the nationalist fever in many European countries, while nationalism caused the greatest disaster, viz. two world wars, in its history. If ecology is not bound to national borders, why not to strive for a federal Europe with a simultaneous countermovement for more autonomy of regions and local communities? To turn globalization into a positive spiral instead of being a negative one, we need a vision on a similar scale, recognizing that all humans share each other’s DNA for 99,9%. Nationalist, racist, ethnic and cultural superiority feelings fall into an abyss when compared with the innate biological and mental capacities of a child. At birth its eyes mirror an immense space. Don’t narrow it down to just one place on Earth.

My first philosophical walk, a visit to Arne Naess, comes to an end. The last words are Naess’ contribution to a symposium in 1994, in the ancient city Tempio Pausania on the island Sardinia:

‘my decision has been to join and to encourage those who feel that the degradation of living conditions on planet Earth is a degradation of ourselves, a degradation of our own effort to self-realization, our own feeling of participating in a system of life that has gone on for millions of years, and which, unhampered by us, should continue to go on for millions of years. What is happening now casts a shadow on the dignity of humanity ‘How can we be passive seeing what is going on?’

Fons Elders

La Source, St. Jean de V.
January 6, 2013

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