Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas

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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. Author 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 fresh vision of the environment while engaging the elemental world directly with reflections on their various manifestations.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“…Macauley’s immense book Elemental Philosophy, is an homage to a different and seemingly unfamiliar sensibility in which earth, air, fire and water … animate human thought and action. It is, at times, a beautiful, informative and transformative meditation on how to interpret and live with the natural world … Macauley lovingly infuses the text with elements beyond and between the four, and provides readers with an opportunity to look anew at the connections among the elements themselves and our own lives intertwined with them. These interstices are gems.” — Essays in Philosophy

“Macauley enriches his text by including passages from appropriate poems … [and] demonstrates a thorough knowledge of ancient philosophy.” — Philosophy in Review

“Stimulating and provocative … An inspiring addition to the book is a series of ‘interstices’—shorter meditations on various manifestations of the elements, like stone, wood, ice, and cloud, among others.” — CHOICE

“Freighted with erudition yet buoyant with spirited wordplay, Macauley’s intellectual history of the four elements is a delightful tour de force of environmental philosophy.” — Seven Pillars House of Wisdom

“The book is a multidisciplinary achievement which attests to the author’s thorough acquaintance with, inter alia, ancient Greek cosmology, contemporary environmental philosophy, and literary and artistic traditions.” — Environmental Values

“…a very serious book of philosophy. It’s also wonderfully comprehensive, impressively resourceful and superbly imaginative—yet down-to-earth—in bringing the loftiest philosophical thoughts about earth, air, fire, and water together with the excrement, breezes, stoves, and water fountains we live with.” — Carlin Romano, Chronicle of Higher Education

“A stunning piece of grounded philosophy. A perception-changing book that begins with elemental things and grows into a profound meditation on humans in nature.” — David W. Orr, author of Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse

“One might suppose, in these days of quarks and black holes, that ancient Greek reflections on the elements of their landscape—fire, air, earth, and water—were too elementary to be worth recalling. Not so. David Macauley demonstrates their surprising relevance. Earth, air, water—even fire (energy, global warming)—are still central to the world agenda: sustaining life in a millennium of ecological crisis. From that day to this, wise philosophers keep their thoughts in touch with the sensuous, elemental Earth.” — Holmes Rolston III, author of Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World

“With his voluminous knowledge and deep understanding of the history of philosophy, David Macauley brings the classical elements to life by showing their renewed relevance to the pressing problems of our age. His knowledge is immense, and his nuance for interconnections is tremendous. This is a great work of philosophy.” — David Rothenberg, author of Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound

“This highly original study pursues the migration of philosophical thought on and through the elemental environmental ideas of earth, air, fire, and water across the length of its twenty-five hundred year history, from Empedocles to the present day. But this is no inquiry merely into the history of these ancient ideas, but rather testimony to their continuing fecundity in living experience. They give sensuous specificity to the pallid idea of “nature” and concretize environmental abstractions. Rich with broad learning and illustrative detail evoking the many kinds of wonder—sensuous, poetic, cognitive, scientific, reverential—in experiencing the elements, Macauley’s writing projects a wide landscape for exploring the many strata of meaning in environmental experience.” — Arnold Berleant, author of Sensibility and Sense: The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World

“David Macauley’s Elemental Philosophy is a wonderfully well-written tour de force. It combines close analysis of ancient philosophical sources with contemporary materials of astonishing intellectual breadth. This interdisciplinary work possesses theoretical rigor, cosmopolitan scope, and literary sophistication. It will appeal to general readers who may relish, as I have, this powerful invitation for philosophical regrounding and lyrical reflection about basic elemental principles that are critical to living wisely and well on planet earth today.” — Eric W. Orts, University of Pennsylvania

“After industrialization, knowledge became fragmented and people lost touch with the material realities of the places in which they lived. David Macauley blends ancient Greek precepts with twenty-first century circumstances: earth, air, fire, and water call upon us from across the millennia to reanimate humanity’s connection to our home planet.” — David Spanagel, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Product Details

Meet the Author

David Macauley is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Penn State University, Brandywine. He is the editor of Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology.

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Table of Contents



Introduction 1

Four-Thought 1

Sheltering the Elements 3

Plan of the Work 6

Part I Elemental Encounters and Ideas 11

Chapter 1 Philosophy's Forgotten Four 13

Earth 14

Air 25

Fire 36

Water 43

Interstice: Stone 51

Chapter 2 The Topology of the Elemental Environment 59

Elementary Letters 60

Elemental Places 63

Elements as Archetypes 66

Elemental Opposition 67

Elemental Substances 69

Chemical Elements 72

Cultural Comparisons 74

The Frame of the Four 81

Social Construction of the Elements 84

Intertice: Wood 93

Part II Elemental Theories 101

Chapter 3 The Flowering of Ecological Roots: Empedocles' Elemental Thought 103

Four-Play 103

The Problem of the Poems 104

Square Roots and Radical Rhizomes 106

Empedocles' Elemental Cosmology 110

Ecological and Political Equality 113

Organic Unity 115

Environmental Action 117

Anticipation of Evolution 119

Animal Empathy 120

Environmental Roots 122

Ecological Ethos 122

Crafting Nature 124

Purity and Pollution 126

The Rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari 131

Interstice: Ice and Snow 137

Chapter 4 Plato's Chora-graphy of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water 143

The ABC of Everything 143

A Probable Physics 144

Derivation of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water 145

The Corpus of an Ecological Cosmos 147

Second Beginnings and Constrained Construction 148

Removing the Spell of the Elements 150

Elemental Recycling 153

Forms of the Four? 155

Elements Emplaced: Chora-graphy in the Matrix 156

Construction and Structure of the Primary Bodies 160

War and Play of the Elements 163

Dispatching the Stoicheia; Elemental S/endings 165

Husserl and the Mathematization of Nature 168

Postscript to Plato: Whitehead's Philosophical Footnotes 170

Interstice: Cloud 173

Chapter 5 The Place of the Elements and the Elements of Place: Aristotle's Natural Household 179

Four Accounts of Five Elements 179

A Dictionary of Elemental Definitions 182

The Ancient Generation Gap 183

Pondering Weight 186

The Place of the Elements 188

The Elements of Place 192

Homecoming and Inhabitation 194

Interstice: Heat and Cold 201

Chapter 6 The Economy and Ecology of the Aristotelian Elements 209

Hot, Cold, Wet, and Dry 209

Converting the Contraries 213

Compounding the Quartet 216

Prime Matter as Persisting Problem 218

Extra Terrestrials: The Fifth Element 225

Elemental Contact: Beholding Tangible Bodies 228

In Touch with the Environment 233

The Soul and the External World 234

Aristotle and Ecology 238

Interstice: Light and Shadow 243

Part III Elemental Worlds 253

Chapter 7 Domestication of the Elements 255

Outside-In 255

Plumbing Philosophy 257

Watercraft and Landscape Aesthetics 260

From Waterways to Waterworks 264

Bottled Water 267

Fire and Water 270

Eclipse of the Atmosphere 271

Escape from Earth 273

End of the Elements? 275

Interstice: Night 283

Chapter 8 In Touch with the Sensuous World: The Reclamation of the Elemental in Continental Philosophy 293

Elemental Reveries: Bachelard's Poetics 295

Elemental Dwelling: Heidegger's Fourfold 300

Elemental Flesh: Merleau-Ponty's Re-membering 308

Elemental Sensibility: Levinas on Enjoyment 310

Elemental Imperatives: Lingis and Our Sensuous Surroundings 312

Elemental Passions: Irigaray on Breath and Body 316

Elemental Landscapes: Casey on Place 319

Elemental Nature: Sallis on Imagination 321

From Elements to the Elemental 324

Interstice: Space 327

Chapter 9 Revaluing Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: Elemental Beauty, Ecological Duty, and Environmental Policy 333

Elemental Ethics 334

Elemental Aesthetics 338

Environmental Action 345

Bewildering Order 352

Notes 357

Index 419

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    I really enjoyed this book. Lots of interesting ideas. I especially like the meditations on clouds, stone, wood, night, ice, light, outer space and shadows.

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  • Posted February 27, 2011

    Highly recommended!

    I am enthusiastically recommending this book to all considering! Elemental Philosophy excels at unearthing richness and insight into what is normally passed over without consideration. The elements are not stale philosophical has-beens (as I would have been tempted to think before reading this book), they are very much alive and ripe for picking. This book not only harks back to the ancients, but manages to reproduce the ebullience of their thought - rather than concern itself with the hair-splitting and logic chopping that has gained so much popularity in contemporary philosophical discussions, this book takes aim at wisdom, and reads more like a meditation. One aspect I found particularly delightful while reading was the style - David Macauley's prose is a lyrical tour de force, and that alone would be reason enough to read it! Provocative as it is inspiring, this book rewards careful consideration with penetrating insight into those primordial aspects of life: the elements.

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