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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2416

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.

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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 ordinary users of language. Some philosophers claimed that this work was social science rather than philosophy.

It is sometimes suggested that the turn from academic philosophy to ecology was an abrupt life change for Naess. On the contrary, two essential characteristics of his semantic work were also fundamental to his ecological philosophy. First, Naess understood the world in relational terms. Words, he suggested, have meaning only in relation to other words in concrete situations. Later, he would maintain that human life can exist only in a web of relations with the nonhuman. Second, he maintained that goals, such as communication or protecting the environment, are achieved through an ongoing process of reaching an understanding on the basis of varied starting points.

Although best known for his work in semantics done before the 1960’s, Naess also published widely in the philosophy of science, the history of philosophy, and other topics. He was an authority on Spinoza and clearly was influenced by Spinoza’s concept of nature as an all-encompassing, interdependent system that could also be referred to as God. In 1958, Naess founded Inquiry, an interdisciplinary journal of philosophy and the social sciences, which he edited until 1975. He also served as visiting professor at universities around the world and gave frequent lectures in nonacademic settings.

By the late 1960’s, after reading the books of American ecological writer Rachel Carson and observing worldwide environmental destruction, Naess became convinced that the world was facing an ecological crisis. In 1969, he resigned from his university chair to focus his thinking and action on the environment.

In the 1973 article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements: A Summary,” Naess coined the term “deep ecology.” Shallow ecology, according to Naess, aimed at specific goals, such as lowering pollution levels or struggling against the depletion of natural resources. Deep ecology, on the other hand, involved adoption of a new perspective. From this perspective, one would see human beings as existing in relation to an environment and would adopt the idea that all parts of the environment are, in principle, of equal value.

Naess refined the definition of deep ecology further in 1984, when he and ecologist George Sessions collaborated on the deep ecology platform in Death Valley in the United States. The eight points of this platform have been expressed in several versions, but the essential meaning of these points can be paraphrased as follows. First, Naess and Sessions asserted that all life, human and nonhuman, has intrinsic value; this means that all living things have value apart from their usefulness in achieving human goals. Second, they asserted that the diversity of living things also has intrinsic value. Third, Naess and Sessions stated that humans do not have the right to reduce biological diversity. Fourth, they maintained that human beings currently interfere too much with the nonhuman world and that human interference with the nonhuman world is getting worse. Fifth, the deep ecology platform insists on the possibility and necessity of reducing the human population to lessen human pressure on nonhuman life. Sixth, the platform maintains that major political, economic, and technological changes are needed to change current living conditions. Seventh, Naess and Sessions maintained that these political, economic, and technological changes will require an ideological change; this ideological change involves turning away from the goal of constantly raising standards of living and toward the goal of appreciating the quality of life. Finally, they proposed that all those who are in general agreement with the points of the platform are obligated to work to bring about change.

The deep ecology platform consists of intentionally broad statements, meant to establish a common basis of understanding and action for people coming from a variety of philosophical and religious backgrounds. Naess referred to the ecological philosophy expressed by deep ecology as “ecosophy.” A key element in ecosophy is the idea of self-realization, which is realization of both the self and the Self. The self is the individual self, but the individual self can be fully realized only by identifying with the web of relations of which it is a part. This web of relations is the Self, the natural world in the broadest sense.

Living in his mountain cabin, Naess wrote prolifically on ecological issues. He also continued to act on his philosophical beliefs in nonviolent direct action. In January, 1981, Naess was one of about one thousand people who chained themselves together in an effort to stop the construction of a dam and power plant in northern Norway. This mass demonstration led to the largest police action in Norway’s history, as thousands of police officers slowly cut the chains and carried away the demonstrators, including Naess.


Even before his involvement with the ecological movement, Naess was widely recognized as a major influence on Norwegian academic life. Although Naess credits Rachel Carson with founding deep ecology, he gave it the name and is generally considered deep ecology’s central figure. Many of the ideas of the Green movement and of environmental counterculturalists have been drawn from Naess. The views of radical environmentalist activists, such as Dave Foreman of Earth First!, have been affected by Naess. Among philosophers, Naess has acquired an international following, including Warwick Fox of the University of Tasmania, David Rothenberg of Boston University, and Michael Zimmerman of Tulane University. The distinction that Naess drew between shallow and deep ecology was, for many of these thinkers, particularly influential. Deep ecology, a number of philosophers and social critics have argued, offers an alternative to Western civilization’s traditional anthropocentric, or human-centered, view of the world.

Critics of deep ecology and Naess often accuse deep ecology of being unrealistic and excessively mystical. Murray Bookchin, the founder of the social ecology movement, has attacked deep ecology as a form of passive spiritualism without a clear program for political action. Bookchin and others have argued that attributing intrinsic value to nonhuman life is a weak basis for environmental action because applying the assumption of intrinsic value in argument and debate will convince only those who already believe in it. Ecological philosophy would be on much firmer ground, these critics claim, if it could demonstrate that it is in the interest of humans to maintain natural resources or diversity of species. Even when it has provoked debate, though, deep ecology has led proponents and opponents alike to carefully examine their own thoughts about the place of humans in the environment.

Additional Reading

Bookchin, Murray. Remaking Society. Boston: South End Press, 1990. Bookchin is the founder of the social ecology movement, an ecological movement that tends to be more human-centered than deep ecology. In addition to discussing his own philosophy, Bookchin criticizes deep ecology as excessively spiritualistic and mystical. He also maintains that deep ecology is misanthropic—that it promotes a low view of human beings and values only the nonhuman world. Bookchin also claims that deep ecology is a “wilderness cult” of the economically privileged and that it does not contribute to the struggle of oppressed people.

Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living as If Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985. This book provides a description of deep ecology by two close collaborators of Naess.

Fox, Warwick. Toward a Transpersonal Ecology. Boston: Shambhala, 1990. Fox, an Australian proponent of deep ecology, examines the concept of ecosophy. He maintains that most deep ecologists share the worldview of Naess and claims that the norm of self-realization, as described by Naess, is the distinctive characteristic of deep ecology.

Milbrath, Lester. Environmentalists: Vanguard for a New Society. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. Milbrath provides an examination of the radical ecological movement and argues that it provides models for restructuring human society.

Reed, Peter, and David Rothenberg, eds. Wisdom and the Open Air: The Norwegian Roots of Deep Ecology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. This collection of writings by Norwegian environmentalists demonstrates the range of environmental thinking in Norway. It also shows the influence of Naess on contemporary Norwegian environmental thought.

Rothenberg, David. Is It Painful to Think? Conversations with Arne Naess. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. A good introduction to the life and thought of Naess, this book consists of taped conversations between Naess and the author, many of them held in Naess’s mountain cabin. Each conversation is prefaced with a short biographical essay; in combination, these essays provide a view of the development of the philosopher’s thought over the course of his lifetime.

Tobias, Michael, ed. Deep Ecology. San Diego, Calif.: Avant Books, 1985. This collection of writings by some of the most important figures in the deep ecology movement includes an essay by Naess as well as essays inspired by him.

Zimmerman, Michael. Contesting Earth’s Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Written by an American philosopher greatly influenced by deep ecology, this book provides a detailed consideration of deep ecology and of Naess’s thinking. It compares deep ecology with other radical approaches to ecology, such as social ecology and ecofeminism, and attempts to find common ground among the different approaches.

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