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—— 2 —— The Topology of the Elemental Environment He sang how in the mighty Void, the seeds of Earth and Air and of Ocean, and of Fire—that pure thing—range themselves together; and how from these principles all the Elements arose, systematically cohering in the tender globe of the World. —Vergil, Sixth Eclogue One dreams in front of his fire, and the imagination discovers that the fire is the motive force for a world. One dreams in front of a spring and the imagination discovers that water is the blood of the earth, that the earth has living depths. —Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie 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 ways: water as sea, rivers, Nile, and rain; earth as earth itself and earthquakes; air as wind and possibly as rainbow or thunder; and, finally, fire as stars and sun. In a subtle manner, these ancient references point to the formative and enduring influence of the elemental world on philosophical thought. Speaking broadly, we can identify a number of related and often overlapping frameworks of meaning for the concept of “element,” including, but not limited to, substances, places, archetypes, letters, opposites, and chemicals. Most of these senses of the term convey the idea of something fundamental, ultimate, or basic—that is, elemental. As we sketch out a typology or topology of types—an “archetopology” so to speak—it is important to recognize that “elements” are not necessarily singular or univocal entities.2 Like the notion of “nature,” elements have been understood through a host of very different approaches. Indeed, there is a 59 60 | Elemental Philosophy polysemous, promiscuous, and even polymorphous quality to their appearances or representations, especially when we consider them historically and take into account their re-emergence in recent Continental philosophy, where we discover notions of elemental flesh, elemental landscape, elemental imperatives, elemental reveries, elemental passions, and elemental sensibility. Many of the particular meanings of element, too, possess an implicit or explicit tie to the ambient environment with which they are associated deeply, one that is explored more fully as we proceed. After locating some of the fundamental forms in which the elements express themselves, we look, in turn, at several non-Greek or non-Western perspectives so as to gain a sense of the way in which other cultures have incorporated elemental experiences and thought into their philosophies, religions, and stories, focusing on ancient and perennial views within China, India, and Japan, among other locales. We then inquire into some of the reasons why the elements typically appear as four in number, connecting such explanations with the physical environment and body. Finally, it is argued that the elements are socially mediated and constructed through institutional, linguistic, and political practices or beliefs, including those related to marriage, the emotions, war, sex, community structures, and morality. Elementary Letters If part of the grand task of philosophy is “to preserve the force of the most elemental words” as Heidegger boldly claims, then surely some of the most fundamental terms, ideas, and concepts concern the elements themselves, the constituents of the physical realm and the regions basic to the lifeworld.3 Human linguistic patterns, vocabulary, and thought processes are related intimately to the manifestations of water, air, earth, and fire. In Greek, the word stoicheion—translated into Latin as elementum—is based on a comparison of physical principles with letters of the alphabet and may have referred originally to what is placed in a row or line.4 Aristotle thus comments on the numerous ways in which letters can be rearranged to form words and texts so as to show the seemingly infinite power of these units. These stoicheia or letters are the elements that compose the great “Book of Nature,” as it was called regularly, or literally spell the cosmos from qualitatively distinct components. In Plato’s dialogues, the stoicheia retain some of the multivalent senses of both letters and elements, implying an attenuated connection between written discourse and theories of world-construction evident especially in the Timaeus. The early Greeks, however, were not the only people to fall under the mesmerizing spell of the elements. English vocabulary...


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