Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Arne Næss: A dual biography

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writing is somewhat unique in philosophy, with its mixture of poetic imagery, romantic tone and polemic, and his writing, if not necessarily the ideas within, received praise throughout the time since it was first published. There are many philosophers who are more rigorous, more convincing, and generally more accurate, but there aren’t many writers in the philosophical field that match his literary feel and moving, emotional tone, with a similar persuasiveness that gives the reader a strong sense that there really is something to these ideas, no matter what they think of the argumentation. But I’d claim that one of the few that could hold a candle would be the late Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss. These philosophers, I think, are much more alike than anyone has previously noticed, both arguing for environmentalism and greater contact with nature from a romantic perspective which argues for nature for its own sake, rather than a means to an end. Beyond their philosophy, their lives, growing up in troubled families are reflected in their philosophies, which seek a desire to search beyond the society in which they grew up and find fulfilment through other means.

Like Rousseau, Næss grew up in a city (switch Geneva for Oslo), but it was in nature that he received his philosophical awakening. Growing up with no father, and a deliberately absent mother, he turned to nature for love and philosophy for answers, declaring later in life that his father was the mountain range Hallingskarvet.

“Well, of course people think it is very strange how a mountain could be a father. But not to me – at all. Because, very soon, I saw that humans live in symbols. So much of their life really in terms of symbols.” (Næss, 1995, p.2).

While on one of these explorations through the Norwegian Mountains, Næss met a judge who recommended to him Spinoza, a figure who would, alongside Mahatma Gandhi, the Buddha, and Martin Heidegger, form much of the basis of his later philosophy.

Like Næss, Rousseau also had one parent die at a very early age, his mother, and with an absent father after legal troubles forced him to move away. On top of this, he grew up an only child after his brother ran away from home. Already, we can see that the two philosophers share a difficult upbringing, lacking a true family to be part of. Rousseau desired freedom, running away from Geneva aged 15 to Annecy after accidentally finding himself locked out of the city. More traditionally, Næss completed degrees at the university of Oslo, before running away to Vienna instead of Annecy to complete a PhD, becoming part of the Vienna Circle and intermingling with figures such as Rudolf Carnap, W.V.O. Quine, and A.J. Ayer, who would later be puzzled by Næss’ simultaneous interests in hardcore analytic philosophy and Heideggerian phenomenology.

Aged 27 he became Norway’s only Professor of Philosophy, publishing some highly underrated work in philosophy of science, epistemology, and semantics, but most importantly as a pioneer of experimental philosophy as the leader of the Oslo school, which sought to create a more empirical basis for philosophy through the use of questionnaires and other forms of survey. But this work inside the academy has been overshadowed due to his bold move in 1969 to leave his post and instead become an environmental activist and writer.

Rousseau, coming before the professionalisation of philosophy in the 19th century, took a variety of odd, middle-class jobs while writing and thinking on the side; his Discourse on Arts and Sciences and Discourse on Inequality both came into existence as a response to an essay competition. Throughout his life, he gradually became a kind of early celebrity philosopher, much as figures like Bertrand Russell, Jean Baudrillard, and, in fact, Næss himself would become in the 20th century.

From these similar lives can be derived the roots of these figures’ philosophies, out of the alienation and rootlessness they both experienced from standard society, that lead them to turn towards a kind of romanticised view of nature as an escape. In his magnum opus Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle, Næss proposes in detail his theory of ‘Deep Ecology’, which holds that nature has intrinsic value independent of its relationship to human behaviour. But more intrinsic to the ‘Deep Ecology’ philosophy, for Næss, seems to be the actual process of philosophising itself; Næss does want us to broadly agree with the environmentalist principles he espouses, but he also wants us to find our own liberation through philosophy, create our own personal philosophies, and develop our own intellectual journey.

“Absolutely, exactly. What distinguishes supporters of the deep ecology movement from [others] in the ecology movement, is that the supporters of the deep ecology movement have, as a kind of starting point or motivation, a kind of life philosophy. So it’s… they go into themselves: ‘What [is] meaningful for me and what make[s] me feel as I feel I am’, what they feel that ‘what I am hangs together with nature.’ So when you protect nature, you protect yourself, in this way.” (Næss, 1995, p.39).

For me, this is the most valuable and inspiring part of Næss’ work. Deep ecology as an environmental movement is deeply suspect, with a reliance on dated notions of overpopulation, strange and somewhat orientalist mixtures of western philosophy with eastern religion, and general vagueness that lead Murray Bookchin to memorably accuse it of being a “black hole of half-digested, ill-formed, and half-baked ideas… a bottomless pit in which vague notions and moods of all kinds can be such into the depths of an ideological toxic dump.” But what attracts me is Næss’ clear love of philosophy, his sincere belief in pluralism, and his true account of alienation as it appears to him.

Once again, this shares parallels with Rousseau, especially his work on inequality. Rousseau’s work is difficult to draw out, the critique of modern society overpowering any other tones in the work. But the critique of modern society can be seen as an early form of underdeveloped environmentalism, suggesting that something is wrong, suggesting that it could be better if it involved nature in some way, but not quite managing to bridge all the way to environmentalism, and misfiring in the conclusion, which mistakenly blames human society entirely for its ills. Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality is a seriously flawed work, drawing together noble savage myth, bizarre anthropological claims, and poor argumentation. But it is not the philosophical rigour that attracts me to it, but the account of alienation from society that Rousseau’s first-person perspective gives, and his romanticised view of nature that assists it in its polemical anti-civilisation view. Reading it, it is clear that Rousseau is very troubled by the state of society, much as Næss is very troubled by the state of the natural environment. And, without becoming too psychoanalytic, we could certainly suggest that the troubled upbringing of both these figures has influenced this trouble and alienation that they feel.

The earth, left to its natural fertility and covered with immense forests that no axe had ever mutilated, would afford on all sides storehouses and places of shelter to every species of animal. Man, dispersed among the beasts, would observe and imitate their activities and so assimilate their instincts3

Næss writes in An Example of a Place: Tvergastein of the ‘place-corrosive process’, where man gradually becomes alienated as a result of leaving its natural environment. Under Næss’ conception, it is the process of ‘living off the land’ that allows humans to feel at home, and centralisation, migration for work, industrialisation and other factors cause a ‘loss of place’ that alienates people from their natural environment. It is a loss of place that created Næss and Rousseau, their difficulties growing up affecting their philosophy, and their alienation creating the lost but hopeful tones of their work. It is their palpable mental struggle in their writing that for me solidifies their status as some of the most innovative philosophers of their time. Næss deserves singling out for his account of how to remove oneself from this philosophical and mental struggle, through the development of one’s own personal philosophy. He stands as one of the most exciting figures in late 20th century philosophy, blending philosophical innovation with a standpoint borne out of genuine love for both nature and humans, and bringing together mental and philosophical struggle.

– Benjamin Watson

1 Næss, Arne., 1995. Interview with Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Næss [Interview] (June 1995). [Online]. Accessible atæss_1995.pdf

2 Ibid.

3 Rousseau, J.J., and Rosenblatt, H., 2010.  Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men: By Jean-Jacques Rousseau with Related Documents (The Bedford Series in History and Culture). 1st edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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