Philosophy and place

The connection between philosophy and place is an important one, particularly for biographical sketches of great philosophers: Epicurus in his garden; Diogenes in his barrel; Nietzsche in Sils Maria, and so on. The connection between the two is occasionally more than just aesthetic, as these examples illustrate: a place can also cut to the heart of that philosopher’s beliefs, dialectically being chosen for the purpose of thinking in, but then informing the resulting thoughts.

It occurred to me recently that a handful of prominent philosophers lived, at least for short periods, in purpose-built cabins in (semi-)wilderness areas. Off the top of my head I could think of four:

1. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin in Concord, MA, USA.

Built in 1845 on the land of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau said that he wanted to conduct an experiment in living according to the “essential facts of life”. A replica was constructed in 1985.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s cabin overlooking Lake Eidsvatnet, Norway.

Construction began in 1914 after Wittgenstein visited the nearby village of Skjolden. There, he wrote, “my day passes between logic, whistling, going for walks, and being depressed”. The hut was reconstructed on the original stone foundations in 2019.

3. Martin Heidegger’s cabin in the Black Forest, Germany.

Built in 1922, Heidegger’s cabin sits near the village of Todtnauberg. Heidegger would receive visitors, spend time with his family, and also ruminate alone in the place he called his “work-world”.

4. Arne Næss’ cabin at Tvergastein, Norway.

Built in 1937 (by Næss himself) within the Hallingskarvet National Park, Næss there developed the philosophy of deep ecology. The cabin exemplified, he said, the principle of “simplicity of means and richness of ends”.

Of the four, Wittgenstein’s has to be the most beautiful: the square window grilles, curved roof tiles, and neat proportions courtesy of a second storey are all attractive in themselves. But it’s the dramatic setting that makes it, of course. Nestled in trees and perched overlooking Lake Eidsvatnet, it resides at the very end of the Lustrafjorden, which is itself a branch of Sognefjord: the second-longest fjord in the world. Sognefjord is also Norway’s deepest, and from the end of it that Wittgenstein’s cabin sits one can hike to the magnificent Jotunheimen National Park.

All of this makes it even more intriguing to me that, of the four philosophers listed here, Wittgenstein was the only one whose chosen location didn’t reflect his thinking. Perhaps I’m doing him a disservice, but I don’t get the impression that Wittgenstein cared much for the natural world. Indeed, I suspect that Wittgenstein was driven to build his cabin in Norway out of a desire for solitude rather than a love of nature; he typically found other people difficult, and the appeal of a cabin like this was that he could work in peace.

This assessment is partly based on what I know of his writings. The Tractatus, Logical Investigations and ‘Lecture on Ethics’ are all magnificent, but principally concerned with language, logic, meaning and knowledge: topics that are more reflective of the Cambridge seminar room than the Norwegian cabin. If I remember correctly the more-than-human world features only rarely in his works, and typically does so in the context of comments on animals and language (“if a lion could talk, we would not understand him”, for example).

The other three philosophers were all genuinely interested in the natural world, albeit to greater or lesser degrees. For Heidegger, the ideal setting for his cabin was not remote wilderness, but rather the countryside, as it is there that the ‘open’ of the human world and the self-concealing of the earth most conspicuously interplay. For Heidegger there is no direct access to nature in itself, since it always appears to us mediated by the meaningful world in which we exist. As such, there is for him no such thing as ‘true wilderness’, as this is normally understood. But there are better and worse instances of mediation, and for him the former was exemplified by the Black Forest farmer living slowly and thankfully from the land: “letting beings be”, as Heidegger would put it. He was no farmer, of course, but his hut allowed him to partake, at least to some extent, in the life of a traditional German village.

Thoreau and Næss are different again: each hoped to live in the wilderness, here understood traditionally as the fully non-human world. But Thoreau was, by his own admission, conducting an experiment in how to live: for two years he would reside in a cabin on Emerson’s land and live as simple a life as possible. Thoreau’s immersion in the landscape was deep indeed, but once the experiment was over he returned to live in Emerson’s house while the latter was away on business. As a result the cabin soon fell into disrepair, and all that remains now is a reconstruction according to Thoreau’s original plans.

It is Næss whose cabin represents the most through-going engagement with the non-human world. Built by himself in an actual wilderness location (Jotunheimen), on the side of a mountain (Tvergastein), Næss spent substantial periods of time there working, walking, skiing, collecting samples of flora and documenting the fauna – in short, living. Tvergastein, as he also named the cabin, was a dwelling in the true sense of the word, and it so informed his theory of the ecological self that he named his own personal philosophy ‘Ecosophy T’ – where the ‘T’ stood for Tvergastein. It also inspired, of course, his formulation of the wider deep ecology platform, of which Ecosophy T was simply a personal reflection.

Thus it is Næss who, of the four cabin-philosophers, represents perhaps most intensely the connection between philosopher and place – and this is yet another reason why he deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.

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