We the living: The reception of Uexküll in Norwegian ecophilosophy
By Morten Tönnessen
Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, University of Tartu
Submission to the Tenth Annual International Gathering in Biosemiotics,
to be held on June 22–7, 2010
at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Portuguese Catholic University (UCP)
in Braga, Portugal
Arne Naess (1913-2009) and Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990) are two out of three classics within Norwegian ecophilosophy, which has been acclaimed for its influence on 'radical environmentalism' internationally (cf. Peter Reed & David Rothenborg (eds.), Wisdom In The Open Air: The Norwegian Roots of Deep Ecology, University Of Minnesota Press 1992). Both Naess and Zapffe introduced fundamental disciplinary concepts (e.g. 'biosophy' by Zapffe, 'ecosophy' and the distinction between the deep and the shallow ecological movement (thus 'deep ecology') by Naess). And they both based part of their philosophies on Uexküll's work – though Uexküll was admittedly much more central to Zapffe than he was to Naess, for whom Uexküll mattered first of all in the development of his early (pre-environmentalist) philosophy. For a start, we can say that while Naess in the main neglected the experiential and interpretative aspects of Umwelt theory, Zapffe added pessimism to the mixture.
Uexküll plays a significant foundational role in Naess' published dissertation Erkenntnis und Wissenschaftliches Verhalten (Jacob Dybwad, Oslo 1936) as well as in Zapffe's colossal main work (and doctoral dissertation) Om det tragiske [On the tragic] (1941). Interestingly (and fittingly), the Journal of philosophy characterized Naess' 1936 work as "a valuable contribution to a naturalistic, behavioristic description of [...] cognitive ’content,’ and the procedure of science". In Zapffe's work, Uexküll plays the role as the biologist, depicting the worlds of the living and not least the radical difference between the living and the non-living. By using Uexküll's Umwelt theory as a stepping stone, the existentialist philosopher Zapffe makes two basic points:
1) that there is a "brotherhood of suffering" ranging "from the amobea to the dictator", and
2) that humans are unique in having several additional "interest fronts"; not only biological interests but further social, autotelic, and metaphysical interests.
Despite the fact that Uexküll was first of all, in the context of Naess' work, influential at an early stage (and was read by Naess in a slightly simplistic manner), we see here how Zapffe's reading of Uexküll is informing also when we are considering the thoughts Naess was later to develop on the topic of self-development through identification with others. In Zapffe's case, Uexküll's Umwelt theory constitutes a central ingredient in his lifework as such. In order to understand the paradoxical tension between the sympathy/identification with animals on one hand and the explicit anthropocentrism in Zapffe's ethics (where the human experience of wilderness ranks higher than anything else) on the other, we have to start by understanding the biological outlook on which he build his existentialist ecophilosophy.
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