Norway’s by no comparison greatest philosopher was born one hundred years ago today, and died close to the age of 97. A world philosopher, a human being with an incredible radiation. Nobody who came close remained the same.
What was his basic theme? In one word: nonviolence, but in a broader and deeper sense than most approaching demanding idea.
Næss was very sensitive to verbal violence in debates; his answer was objectivity. He identified physical violence in political struggle; his answer was gandhian nonviolence, strongly inspired as a student in Paris early 1930s by Indian students strongly convinced that nonviolence was the way. He identified violence against nature, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and his own closeness to nature as a mountaineer; his answer was deep ecology. He identified violence to reality through the logico-empirical straitjacket of positivism, a philosophy he shared as a younger man but gradually left in favor of what he called possibilism, the diversity of the world inspired by Duhem-Poincaré’s thesis of theory manifold. And he identified violence to philosophy by reducing it to Western philosophy, starting with a Geek and ending with a French or German philosopher. His answer was a world philosophy at least open to Indian and Chinese thought.
A theme in Norway is “Anglo-American vs continental”, the latter in practice meaning Germany or France. Much too narrow for Næss. He had a yearning eastward, at home in Greek, Latin and mathematics, but when we drove together by car from Oslo to a Gandhi conference in Varanasi in January 1969 he examined himself in Sanskrit. Næss worked hard, deeply, broadly.
His philosophy history included Gandhi and general Chinese thought, under the heading “The Masses Philosophize”. This was an early theme in Næss’ research, with questionnaires and interview guides, social science methods, not only analysis of philosophers’ texts. Exploring “Truth as Conceived of by–” Norwegian housewives and students. And found that housewives had in them the key interpretations of “truth”: correspondence with empirical reality, valid deduction from axioms, and a pragmatic truth as means to higher goals. But housewives did not write down their thoughts.
Philosophy is pluralistic, like the world. He wanted diverse images of the world, and also many possible worlds, in symbiosis.
Næss was a moralist. He expressed his ideas analytically, but also normatively, as Thou shalt. His deep ecology was summarized in eight normative propositions:
That human and other forms of life unfold on earth has a value in its own right regardless of the use value for narrow human purposes; the diversity and richness of all forms of life has a value in its own right; human beings have no right to reduce this diversity which in no way limits the satisfaction of their needs; the complete realization of the potentials of individual human beings and the diversity of cultures is compatible with a reduction of the size of the human population, the preservation and further development of the diversity and richness of forms of life presuppose that reduction unless, alternatively, we change our style of life fundamentally, which seems improbable; the human intervention in nature at the present time is indefensible and the deterioration of the situation accelerates; basic improvement presupposes fundamental change of economic, technical and ideological structures to a joyful experience of how “everything hangs together”, the so-called struggle against nature becomes meaningless; the ideological change will be in terms of search for quality of life rather than standard of living, and a concern for goals rather than means for their own sake; those who accept these points have a responsibility to try to contribute directly or indirectly to create the necessary changes.
His six theses about objectivity in debates were:
Avoid ad hominem, characteristics of personalities and motives, stick to the issue, the arguments; avoid biased presentation of your opponent’s arguments; avoid attributing to your opponent views he has not himself expressed; avoid presentations that are untrue, incomplete, biased, withholding relevant information; avoid irony, sarcasms, negative epithets, exaggerations, threats.
You serve common human interest and enrich yourself by taking in the strongest argument of your opponent against your own views, not the weakest. And you may conclude that you both have valid points to offer, that neither you nor he has monopoly on truth.
And then the norms he extracted from Gandhi’s life and teachings, like: Struggle against the antagonism, not the antagonist; be willing to compromise; admit when you are in the wrong; convert, no coerce your opponent.[i]
A challenging vision to what happens today in his native Norway: more biased, ad hominem debate than ever in the name of freedom of expression, even anonymous on the web-site of the Norwegian state broadcasting corporation; instead of deep ecology Norway buys eco-quotas abroad so as to proceed as before; Norway joins one US-led war after the other–Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya; Norway propagates itself as a world norm, not diversity; and textbooks are back to normal, Western regional philosophy.
So the message for the coming hundred years emanating from this giant would be: time has come for practice. He will be rediscovered. And his vision will enlighten our inner selves, and guide us toward better, less violent, societies.
Oslo, 27 January 2012
[i]. Typical of his ability to make much younger researchers parties to his work I was invited to be his assistant on Gandhi’s Political Ethics, Oslo: Tanum 1955. By Johan Galtung and Arne Næss (though out by Arne, written by Johan). Taken to task by one who has propagated and used gandhian nonviolence all over the world, Jörgen Johansen, for not having a translation into English the answer could be that we tried five English publishing companies at the time. But the doors were closed. Maybe not that enthusiastic about a book trying to elevate the political ethics of the man who brought down not only the British rule in India but the whole British empire? Well, never too late!