Communication Ecology of Arne Naess (1912-2009)

by Alan Drengson

 Tore Juell. “Portrait of Arne Naess;”
courtesy of the artist.


Self-realization is not a maximal realization of the coercive powers of the ego. The self, in the kinds of philosophy I am alluding to, is something expansive, and the environmental crisis may turn out to be of immense value for the further expansion of human consciousness.” Arne Naess (In Drengson and Devall 2008, p. 132)

From his earliest major work, Naess used a deep and comprehensive approach for studying languages and communication. (The work is, Interpretation and Preciseness: A Contribution to the Theory of Communication, 1953. Now SWAN Vol I in The Selected Works of Arne Naess, 2005.) He united disciplines to explore languages as part of diverse communication systems in the natural and human world. These systems are open ended, adaptive, creative and dynamic. They are constantly adjusting to changing conditions in unique communities and places. Communication between and within species involves meaningful variations of qualities (e.g. in sound, light, odor, heat, color, pattern, and texture,) with a wide range of frequencies, intensities and velocities. We now explore the communication ecology of languages with broad analytical and empirical methods, some pioneered by Naess. By studying whole systems, we appreciate the creative, place-based, knowledge skills of cultures woven into the other systems of the natural world. Diversity, complexity and creativity are important for environmental integrity, cultural richness, and personal freedom. Naess noted that when we know the ecological context, it helps us to understand one another without translation, even when from different cultures with unfamiliar languages. Knowing communication ecology helps us to resolve conflicts nonviolently. By having a sense for these whole systems, we are aware of the challenges to precise interpretation; this engenders positive cross-cultural and interspecies communication exchanges.

Naess loved diversity and appreciated the role of dialects in evolving systems of language families. He learned from empirical studies and by knowing many formal and vernacular languages (living and dead), that it is difficult to give precise (universal) definitions.  There are many ways to feel, see, say and write things. He used a descriptive approach to study linguistic communication. He remarked in The SWAN (see the Appendix below for excerpts) that his view contrasted with analytic philosophers in England and elsewhere, who used a prescriptive approach, suggesting there is one right meaning and that a single language reflects reality more precisely than others. Their views were more insular; they did not study dialects and the cross-cultural, natural context of language families (such as Indo-European) that we study in communication ecology. Communication ecology enabled Naess to reach a mature, whole understanding of human life in the evolving, changing Earth. The culture that he grew up in accepted multiple dialects, perhaps because there was no Norse king as authority for proper Norsk. For several centuries the rulers were not Norwegians but foreigners. In the English speaking world there was the authority of the “King’s English.”

Read all of this article: Communication Ecology of Arne Naess (1912-2009)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Alan Drengson is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, B.C. Canada, where he was a Director of Environmental Studies and a member of the Philosophy Department.  He is the author and co-author of numerous publications, including The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology. Berkeley, (CA): North Atlantic Books, 1995, Wild Foresting: Practicing Nature’s Wisdom. Gabriola Island (British Columbia): New Society Publishers, 2008, and the 3 volume work, Sacred Journeys, Victoria Island (British Columbia): Light Star Press, 1977. He is not only co-editor of the volume Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess, Berkeley (Ca): Counterpoint Press, 2010, but has also co-edited the definitive edition of Naess writings, the ten volume Selected Works of Arne Naess, Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2001. The article posted here is a revised, expanded version of the Introduction to Ecology of Wisdom. We are grateful to Alan Drengson and to Counterpoint Press for permission to post this article.

The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) was one of the foremost environmental thinkers of the 20th century, and is often referred to as “the father of deep ecology”. He was critical of environmentalists who did not seek to address the institutional causes of environmental degradation, or seek to change them. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) made a deep impact on him. And in the late 1960s he undertook a thorough study of Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent active resistance.  In satyagraha Naess found the answer to his quest for a strategy to address the ecological crisis: Gandhian nonviolent active resistance could be synthesized with deep ecology. This Gandhian side of Naess’s thinking is acknowledged but not well enough known. He was a major interpreter and theoretician of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent active resistance, on a par with, if not subtler than, either Joan Bondurant or Krishnalal Shridharani. In this work, his reinterpretation of the meaning of Gandhian strategy remains one of the most trenchant discussions of Gandhian philosophy thus far written.

Naess’s philosophical work was in the area of linguistic analysis, applying mathematical set theory to the problem of interpreting language and statements we make to each other. Every statement can have several interpretations, or sets and subsets. How do we evaluate these? He was also concerned about creating a new language for his environmental thinking, coining the term ecosophy, from the Greek words for environment and wisdom, to describe his belief that every living being, whether plant, animal, or person, has the right to live and blossom, to self-realization. Naess came from a wealthy banking family, and is not to be mistaken with his famous mountaineer nephew, Arne Naess, Jr., who was married to Diana Ross.

WEB REFERENCES: A useful critical appreciation has been written by David Orton of the Springer 10 volume set. The article serves as a useful guide also to the contents of the volumes.

The main site for articles on ecosophy, is Trumpeter. The Journal of Ecosophy.

Alan Drengson is one of the main interpreters of Arne Naess, and an executor of the Naess estate. His beautiful and useful ecostery foundation website is well worth visiting.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi