Arne Naess Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Naess is Norway’s most prominent philosopher. Before his retirement from the University of Oslo in 1969, his writings and personal influence shaped philosophy and social science in Norway. After 1969, Naess achieved international recognition as the founder of a style of environmentalism known as deep ecology.

Early Life

Arne Naess was the youngest of four children in a wealthy Norwegian family. His father died less than a year after he was born. His mother, already in her forties at the time of his birth, had become pregnant unexpectedly, and Naess later reported that relations with his mother were strained. The mother hired a governess to take care of him as an infant, and the small boy formed a close emotional attachment to the governess. At the age of three, he lost this early caretaker when his mother fired her for spoiling him. As an older man, Naess attributed his lifelong concern with the use of language to his reaction against his mother and against what he saw as her exaggerated, emotional manner of expressing herself.

In high school, Naess developed an interest in philosophy after discovering the works of seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. At the same time, the rugged terrain of his native country inspired him with a passion for mountain climbing, and he became an accomplished climber. In the early 1930’s, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, an international center of philosophy in a mountain-climbing nation. He became the youngest member of the Vienna Circle, a philosophical school based on the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and he underwent psychoanalysis under the care of a colleague of Sigmund Freud.

Naess married the first of his three wives, Else Hertzberg, in 1937. His intense working schedule and lifelong traveling strained his personal relations, and this marriage and a second one ended in divorce.

In 1938, Naess’s interest in developing a scientific, empirical approach to psychology led to an invitation from behavioral psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley. He studied psychology at Berkeley with pioneering behavioral psychologist E. C. Tolman. The young Norwegian developed a fascination with Tolman’s laboratory rats that grew out of a continuing appreciation for nonhuman life. The following year, at the age of twenty-seven, Naess was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo, a position he would hold for thirty years.

Life’s Work

From the beginning of his academic career, Naess was an activist and a reformer as well as a philosopher. After taking his university position, Naess set about reforming university education in Norway. He persuaded the Norwegian university system to adopt a general examination in the history of ideas, known as the examen philosophicum, which all students had to pass before taking more specialized courses. Many observers believe that this changed the intellectual climate of Norwegian academic life, making it broader and more tolerant of varied perspectives.

Mountain climbing and nature continued to be important to the young philosopher. In interviews, he later remembered that he would often work long hours at the university and arrange that all his lectures be on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to make time to get away to the mountains. He built a small mountaintop cabin in 1937 and named it Tvergastein, meaning “crossed stones.” There, Naess studied the classics of philosophy, scientific literature, and Sanskrit and other languages. At Tvergastein, he developed his ideas on semantics and, eventually, on ecology.

In April, 1940, the Nazis invaded Norway and occupied it, putting in place the Norwegian puppet government of Vidkun Quisling. Although Naess at first reacted by treating the occupation as unimportant and philosophically irrelevant, by 1942, he had made contact with the Norwegian resistance movement. Influenced by the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, he advocated resisting the enemy by nonviolent means. When the Nazis closed the university in 1943 and tried to round up students to send to Germany for re-education in concentration camps, Naess worked with the resistance to help students escape and go into hiding.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Naess became known for a radical approach to semantics known as empirical semantics, and he became recognized as the leader of a philosophical circle known as the Oslo group. His semantics were a reaction against the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, who maintained that only the most specific, strictly logical statements were meaningful. The members of the Vienna Circle concerned themselves with identifying what kinds of statements were logically meaningful and with how language could be used. Naess argued that one cannot find meaning in any words or sentences by themselves; instead, meaning is a matter of how people use language in particular situations. If a philosopher wants to find out what a given word or statement means, the philosopher must be empirical and investigate the use of the word or statement. The empirical approach led Naess to take a view of vague, general expressions that differed greatly from the view of the Vienna Circle and many other logicians. Instead of arguing that statements are made meaningful by rendering them specific and precise, Naess maintained that vague generalities can be starting points for reaching many parallel interpretations, making communication possible.

Naess pioneered an empirical approach to language with his 1938 work “Truth” as Conceived by Those Who Are Not Professional Philosophers. Researching the meaning of the word “truth,” Naess constructed surveys and interviewed people about their use of this word. Naess and his colleagues refined the technique of using questionnaires to determine meanings through responses of...

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