It’s Pronounced Næss I: A Hidden Oracle, A History Boy, 18/12/2014

Arne Næss wasn’t exactly hidden, but he isn’t as prominent in typical histories of philosophy as I think he should be. He plays a major role in my Ecophilosophy manuscript, returning multiple times to the manuscript’s argument, each time with a different aspect of his thought in focus, depending on the context manifested by appearing at that point in the book’s overall plot.*

* I realized a while ago that a lot of my writing works by creative repetition, cycling through several key ideas or themes, letting what’s come before change the new occurrence or each concept or image. This is true for my philosophy and my fiction work.

I wanted to find a picture of a fairly young Arne Næss, if
only to be different from almost every other photo out there.
I’ve never really written about Næss on the blog before, even though engaging with his work was vitally important for developing my Ecophilosophy manuscript in the first place. This was the first seriously large production in philosophy that I’ve ever done, and writing it marked a serious transition in my abilities to write and to plan long-form works. 

Most of my research and interpretation of Næss' ideas was already in the past long before I started the Adam Writes Everything blog in July 2013, so I never wrote much about it. Næss’ philosophy played an important role in the Ecophilosophy manuscript, as one major goal that ran throughout the entire project was to rescue his core concepts from the relative neglect into which they’d fallen in the discipline. 

But one of the final results of that manuscript is in pointing out how, while Næss’ ideas get the ball rolling on a genuinely ecological philosophy, they also contain their own limitations that prevent him from finishing the job. My manuscript exists to finish the job.

Næss spent a lot of his career in a strange position that way, always ahead of what would turn out to be the curve, but in ways that never had any direct successors or imitators in the discipline of philosophy. For example, even though he’s mostly known today for the works he composed later in his life on environmental and ecocentric ethics, did you know that Arne Næss was a member of the Vienna Circle?

Næss' entire family live interesting
lives. To illustrate, these are two of Arne
Næss' grandchildren, Ross and Evan,
with their mother, Diana Ross.
You probably didn’t. But Næss didn’t die until he was 96 years old, and that was in 2009. Being born in 1912 gave him the chance to experience every major change in analytic philosophy in the 20th century. He isn’t remembered as a major member of the Vienna Circle because he was never a protagonist in many of their historically significant debates or a direct influence on any of their followers or successors. As well, most of his professional life he spent in Norway, and Oslo is too far outside the major hubs of analytic philosophy’s social networks during its formative years to have been directly powerful.

But his work on logic during the 1930s and 1940s, his first major development as a young philosopher, became the foundation of his first major masterwork, Interpretation and Preciseness. It was an application of set theory to argumentation theory, creating a detailed formal method of how the act of making a statement very precise actually worked. Basically, a description becomes more precise as you add more content and qualifiers, and none of those new qualifiers allow for any possible interpretations beyond what the previous, more general description did.

As well, his period with the logical positivists produced a remarkable early product of his career, Cognition and Scientific Behaviour. This was the first serious work in what has become a rather hot new field, experimental philosophy. Næss literally designed a survey and what we would today call a focus group protocol, which tested people’s intuitions about basic scientific and philosophical concepts like causality. 

This method of doing philosophy, slamming the empirical techniques of the social sciences into what’s typically a purely contemplative practice, is considered controversial and strange today, when it’s practices in the labs and campuses of Joshua Knobe and Jonathan Weinberg. Consider how this must have gone over in the Weimar era of Europe. 

Næss, for much of his career, was a pioneer of new techniques and ideas in philosophy whose status as such was only given retroactively, not because he had any direct successors. He was a harbinger of philosophy’s future in experimentation and an intriguing side contributor to a significant movement. Until he read Silent Spring. . . To be continued


  1. Actually Ness didn't originate experimental philosophy. He was basically extending work already done by the Wuerzburg School of psychology, which he probably found out about when he hung out at the Vienna Circle. Among the Wuerzburgers was Karl Buehler, who did something quite similar but is perhaps best known today as Karl Popper's PhD supervisor. This is not to deny that Ness is an interesting character. And perhaps you're about get into deep ecology -- and why that leads to dark ecology?

    1. Cool. I didn't know the particular group of psychologists he was building from, or about Buehler.

      I'm thinking of something for the weekend about deep and dark ecology. Right now I'll say that I'm not actually a big fan of the dark ecology term. The pessimism it seems to provoke is a little too simple for me, at least in the discussions that come to my mind at the moment.

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