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Elemental Philosophy

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas

David Macauley

Publication Year: 2010

Explores the ancient and perennial notion of the four elements as environmental ideas. Bachelard called them “the hormones of the imagination.” Hegel observed that, “through the four elements we have the elevation of sensuous ideas into thought.” Earth, air, fire, and water are explored as both philosophical ideas and environmental issues associated with their classical and perennial conceptions. David Macauley embarks upon a wide-ranging discussion of their initial appearance in ancient Greek thought as mythic forces or scientific principles to their recent reemergence within contemporary continental philosophy as a means for understanding landscape and language, poetry and place, the body and the body politic. In so doing, he shows the importance of elemental thinking for comprehending and responding to ecological problems. In tracing changing views of the four elements through the history of ideas, Macauley generates a new vocabulary for and a fresh vision of the environment while engaging the elemental world directly with reflections on their various manifestations.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiii

Many projects have a distant catalyst that sets them in motion, providing an origin, if not a guiding trajectory, for their unfolding. This one stretches back to my youth. In retrospect, the elemental world exerted a strong and abiding presence during the course of my development. I grew up along the Susquehanna—the longest river on the east coast of the United States—several miles outside of ...

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pp. xv-xvi

Although his intriguing idea suggests the possibility of appending an appreciative after-thought to the book, I follow the more customary approach of commencing rather than closing on a note of gratitude, if only for the concern that my acknowledgments might be lost in a forest of footnotes. Thanks and thoughts are owed to many individuals who helped to shepherd this work along both directly ...

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pp. 1-10

Beston’s diagnostic remark about our relation with the environment points to the potential significance of taking into consideration—philosophically, geographically, and psychologically— not just individual organisms, distinct species, or identifiable ecosystems but the elemental places, forces, and phenomena of the surrounding and sensuous world as well. Such a perspective suggests that environmental dilemmas are, in part, a ...

Part I: Elemental Encounters and Ideas

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pp. 11-12

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1. Philosophy’s Forgotten Four

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pp. 13-50

In these early historical periods, theories of nature were not yet separated sharply from or supplanted by more human-centered theories of mind, nor was philosophy itself distinguishable clearly from nascent science. This ancient thought remains relevant today not because it is empirically accurate but because it is embedded in a vision of the world much vaster than humanity alone. It also is marked frequently by a generosity of spirit, sensitivity to the subtleties of environmental ...

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Interstice: Stone

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pp. 51-58

Stone, of course, does not speak, let alone refer to itself. Or does it? To speak of it speaking or remaining mute, one must imagine an account of its cryptic language, a dialogue with its inner essence or, alternatively, a story of its elemental silence. The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska provides one such confabulation in “Conversation with a Stone” when the unnamed speaker in her poem—who wants to ...

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2. The Topology of the Elemental Environment

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pp. 59-92

The doxographic tradition of the Greeks records the views of early philosophers on a variety of subjects in an order that was followed regularly: principle, God, universe, earth, sea, rivers, Nile, stars, sun, moon, milky way, meteors, wind, rain, hail, snow, thunder, rainbow, earthquakes, and animals.1 If we survey this curious list, we see the four elements are present repeatedly in both direct and indirect ...

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Interstice: Wood

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pp. 93-100

Wood enters the fiber of our lives in little noticed but significant ways. My grandfather worked regularly with this material. On birthdays and Christmas, he would gift my siblings and me wooden mallets, coasters, and paperweights that he had lathed or carved from rich brown oak, bird’s eye maple, and light-hued poplar. I grew up splitting logs and dried stumps for the fi replace and enjoyed applying ...

Part II. Elemental Theories

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pp. 101-102

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3. The Flowering of Ecological Roots Empedocles’ Elemental Thought

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pp. 103-136

Within this early Greek era, a distinctly important figure who has been widely ignored is Empedocles. Such oversight is especially surprising given how present-day environmental problems are related in a deep manner to our experiential, cultural, and historical understandings of the four elements, which Empedocles, a native of Acragras (Agrigento) in Sicily, first thematized in the fifth century b.c.e. In order ...

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Interstice: Ice and Snow

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pp. 137-142

Perhaps this is so because it seems to refract back not just our physical images but to encourage mental ruminations—our very own reflections—radiating them in return in slightly altered form to their points of origination, enchanting us like a mirror but denying us entrance like an inscrutable stone. As with fire and water, ice possesses a curious coterie of paradoxical qualities. Covering a tenth of the Earth’s land and ...

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4. Plato’s Chora-graphy of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water

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pp. 143-172

The elements, in short, become geometrical and proportional. “Matter” is mathematized within a feminine matrix, the place of its becoming. Plato cordons and connects the elements in a definite relationship with one another and gives them a novel transformational capacity. He transplants Empedocles’ four roots (rhizomata) into his own philosophical framework but endows them with a change in status—above the disorder that exists at the lowest level yet beneath the ...

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Interstice: Cloud

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pp. 173-178

By identifying and cataloging them based on Linnaean notions of classification, Luke Howard was able to momentarily freeze ephemeral entities and bring into existence a new way of perceiving elemental reality. Of the English Quaker and chemist, Goethe wrote, “Howard gives us with his clear mind / The gain of lessons new to all mankind; / That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp / ...

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5. The Place of the Elements and the Elements of Place: Aristotle’s Natural Household

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pp. 179-200

The secret to understanding Aristotle, Santayana once observed, is to see him as a thoroughgoing naturalist given that “everything ideal has a natural basis, and everything natural an ideal development.”1 Indeed, for Aristotle, elemental entities possess natural places and movements; objects of knowledge are apprehended through bodily and earth-bound senses; there is frequent reference to biological ...

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Interstice: Heat and Cold

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pp. 201-208

Hand a stranger a glass of cold water and when someone asks her a few minutes later what she thought of you, she will likely associate subconsciously the coldness with your personality. Touch an individual warmly on the shoulder, and he will probably transfer this warmth to your person and think of you in a more positive light. The poles of hot and cold along with the many gradations in-between—from ...

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6. The Economy and Ecology of the Aristotelian Elements

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pp. 209-242

We have seen how place is integral—indeed essential and indispensable—to understanding the natural household, the human home, and the nonhuman environment, and how it figures in and configures prominently the Aristotelian perspective of the physical world. In order to deepen our analysis and more completely reconstruct and examine Aristotle’s theory of the elements, we now explore the roles and status ...

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Interstice: Light and Shadow

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pp. 243-252

In the beginning, there was darkness. Light entered this undifferentiated night to dramatically dethrone and substantially transform a preexisting uniformity and primordial unity. Shadows, in turn, are offspring of luminosity, kindred alter egos to sensuous things, stalking silhouettes but loyal companions of material objects. Together, light and shadow conspire to disclose a lush palette of phenomena, to ...

Part III. Elemental Worlds

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pp. 253-254

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7. Domestication of the Elements

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pp. 255-282

The capture and creative use of fire is undoubtedly one of the most significant historical events, as well as ongoing actions, to impact and transform the natural and built worlds. No other species actively employs this element to its advantage in quite the same way as humans. In taming the flame and interiorizing it within our households and communities, we domesticated ourselves, birthing in the ...

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Interstice: Night

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pp. 283-292

I woke up suddenly in a cold sweat on the cement floor of a dank basement in an old Victorian house in Minneapolis. Bathed in utter blackness and drowning in the impenetrable depth of night, I was sequestered deep inside something without an apparent outside. Palpable fear and panic set in. I was disoriented, lost even to myself, unsure if I was truly alive and yet so nervously awake as to be able to ...

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8. In Touch With the Sensuous World: The Reclamation of the Elemental in Continental Philosophy

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pp. 293-326

With the growing recognition of the widespread disturbance and disruption of the environment, the notion of the elements that first appeared in Presocratic thought as Thales’ water, Anaximenes’ air, Heraclitus’ fire, and Empedocles’ rhizomata have resurfaced in transfigured form and returned quietly to the philosophical fore. Continental philosophy of the twentieth and twenty-first century has begun, in ...

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Interstice: Space

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pp. 327-332

In November 1961, a poem entitled “Space Prober” was inscribed on the instrument panel of a satellite launched from Cape Kennedy into the Earth’s orbit. It read: “And now ‘tis man who dares assault the sky . . . / And as we come to claim our promised place / Aim only to repay the good you gave / And warm with human love the chill of space.”1 Tethered by gravity at 600 miles altitude, this satellite ...

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9. Revaluing Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: Elemental Beauty, Ecological Duty, and Environmental Policy

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pp. 333-356

We have explored and attempted to reanimate the earliest Western understandings of the elements and to suggest that environmental implications exist for a critical reclamation of such a perennial and pervasive idea. We have looked closely at ancient theories of earth, air, fire, and water, examined their domestication and transformation, and discussed the philosophical reappearance of elemental ideas ...


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pp. 357-418


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pp. 419-433

E-ISBN-13: 9781438432465
E-ISBN-10: 1438432461
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438432458
Print-ISBN-10: 1438432453

Page Count: 449
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1