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Introduction I am here . . . to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. —Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire I suspect that even today when the most erudite ask what is the nature of anything, they are haunted by the answer, “of earth,” “of water,,” “of air,” or “of fire”—the solid, the flowing, the gaseous, the caloric. —Frederick Woodbridge, Essay on Nature Four-Thought “The world today,” proclaimed writer Henry Beston in the 1920s, “is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.”1 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 result of our historical, cultural, and experiential relationships with earth, fire, air, and water. The ever-threatening pollution of the skies and atmosphere (air); risks to oceans, lakes, rivers, and aquifers (water); conversion of fertile soil and forested land (earth) into fallow deserts and toxic dumps; and overreliance on fossil fuels and high technology (fire) provide compelling reasons for exploring this idea. As inhabitants of an increasingly human-made world—where we live literally inside of artifacts and they reside routinely within our bodies—most of us have forgotten or even foresworn the primacy and place of elemental “four-thought.” We are, in effect, increasingly sheltered from rather than brought into closer contact with the elements, which, in turn, have retreated from the forefront of daily thought and experience. If the current ecological crisis is partly a predicament 1 2 | Elemental Philosophy involving our changing relations to earth, air, fire, and water, it more specifically concerns what we may term the domestication of the elements and environment, a transformation and social taming of other-than-human entities, animals, and locations. This domestication has fostered forms of forgetting, kinds of cultural and philosophical amnesia. The elements often appear dimmed down or diminished as they enter the human domus. Although physically near, they nevertheless remain existentially remote, covered over, or concealed. One task, then, of ecological philosophy is to encourage a renewed understanding of and critical encounter with air, fire, earth, and water and to make us aware of the complex—and sometimes very necessary—mediations that exist between us and the environment, between humans and the more capacious world. It implies the need for elemental anamnesis —recollection or, literally, “loss of forgetfulness.” Put differently, addressing environmental problems necessitates finding our own element and place within an encompassing and abiding manifold. Ecology—the household of nature—and correspondingly an ecological human community provide a fitting theoretical abode for understanding the elements, which in Aristotle’s ancient view are themselves seeking to return to their respective places—endeavoring to find their way home. The tetrad of water, earth, fire, and air, however, need not be construed solely as objective things-in-themselves, unmediated presences or first principles—in short, as simple, indivisible constituents of the material world by way of analogy with the chemist’s periodic table. Rather, through putting ourselves in sustained touch with the perennial elements, we might begin to discover ways in which traditional notions of nature can be amended and perceived cleavages between the natural and cultural realms can be mended, even eclipsed. This goal is facilitated by tracing the terrain of the changing and often submerged idea of the elements historically within the compass of a philosophy of the physical world so as to reveal the ways in which they are culturally “constructed ” by human faculties, philosophies and practices while this process is still “constrained” by what lies beyond, beneath, between, and before us. The ultimate purpose, however, of an inquiry into conceptions of earth, air, fire, and water is not simply to see the manner in which the four elements have been elevated into philosophical ideas—indeed one of the hundred “great ideas” of Western thought according to Mortimer Adler—but to help lead this thinking back to engaged experience and practical environmental action.2 In puzzling perpetually over the origin and meaning of life as well as our place within the world, we ruminate invariably on the elemental composition of...


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