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—— 1 —— Philosophy’s Forgotten Four The four elements [are] the hormones of the imagination. —Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams Now I a fourfold vision see, / And a fourfold vision is given to me. —William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butts Western philosophy commences as a profound, if protracted, contemplation of the natural environment in an attempt to discern the workings of the world and to reflect on its origin, constitution, and meaning. The first physiologoi, or natural philosophers , speculated not just on the human psyche (soul or mind) but also focused foremost on the vaulting sky, the flickering turns and reversals of fire, the eddies and rhythmic flows of water, and the hidden depth or silent beauty of rock and earth—in short, the four elements. By way of an engagement with the elements as well as living plants and animals, they searched for a hidden arche (ruling principle), an underlying logos (order) and a guiding telos (purpose or goal). Interrogating and building on ideas advanced by the Presocratics in the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e., subsequent philosophers and incipient scientists like Aristotle and Theophrastus were able to provide the underpinnings of later ecological thought by integrating close observation of the natural world with rational explanation and justification.1 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 change, openness to nonhuman otherness, and an ontologically egalitarian orientation . As environmental thinkers seek to “green” philosophy and to “deepen,” “widen” or even “democratize” ecology, it is vital to recall these initial and bold theoretical strides. It is equally imperative to grasp the slow departures from a philosophical perspective rooted in a vision of an intelligible, rational, and beautiful cosmos, 13 14 | Elemental Philosophy the transitions out of myth and stories about animal figures, the increasing breaks with the organic and biological realms, and eventually the attempts to escape or transcend this world altogether. In so doing, we can benefit from an inquiry into how the elements—including matter, motion, and causality—were construed or constructed and ask how social and ecological changes involving deforestation or domestication, for example, altered these notions and allowed transformations of land, sea, sky, and fire power to proceed with little encumbered speed.2 The four elements—water, air, earth, and fire—have exercised an enormous, if often unnoticed, impact on the Occidental imagination. It may be reasonably said that they have helped to organize an influential view of the lifeworld and to frame a compelling picture of the universe. But they also served as the materia prima with which philosophy erected its founding edifices. This four unfolds—sets itself forth—into philosophical and literary history, too, where we can trace its unexpected resonances through the four ancient humors, the Pythagorean tetraktus, alchemical speculation, or the opuses of modern poets such as William Blake, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, to name but a few. Nonetheless, it is an apparent, if at times unfortunate, truth of the human condition that we often only become aware of circumstances, conditions, and objects when they change suddenly, when they fail to function in predictable manners, or when they disappear inexplicably from our circadian rhythms. This is especially the case with things elemental. When a flame leaps out unexpectedly from a campfire and licks the surrounding brush or when lightning fissures a halcyon night sky, we become cognizant of the awesome and transfiguring force of fire. When a pipe bursts in the bathroom or when a river breaks its banks and floods communities, we no longer take the calm course of water for granted. When the atmosphere thins as we ascend a mountain or when the pressure in our ears pops on a plane, we sense quickly the presence of what formerly seemed to be missing entirely in the invisible air. When the ground is cleaved and wrenched open or when an avalanche of rock and snow is launched like a toboggan down a precipitous slope, we stand up and take immediate notice of the stirrings of the seemingly solid, stolid, and stable earth. In order, then, to foreground the four classical elements...


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