Arne Naess’ Empirical Semantics

My friend G. pointed out a problem that is very relevant in verbal communication between people of different backgrounds, and which needs to be addressed if we want to produce useful knowledge interdisciplinarily. In her words:

“Finally another aspect that made me reflect a lot is the problem of definition when communicating with someone that is not involved in an academic discourse. I had the feeling that it is really hard but necessary to ‘translate’ words when speaking with an interlocutor from another cultural background. The easy use of certain categories (community, movement, religion, rituals, spirituality) could put the interlocutor in a condition of insecurity or confusion and maybe take the conversation in a wrong direction. It feels like defining something that for them has no need to be defined in this way but in a simpler one. It is then of course necessary to translate and interpret it all again and now I understand how delicate this process could be.” (G., unpublished document)

This is an evident problem in communications between academics and non-academics, but is also something that happens in a general way in all verbal communication.

In academic and other institutionalized discourses, the problem can reach an extreme level which actually generates more confusion instead of improving clarity. As was remarked by Michael Agar, commenting on methodological innovation in the social sciences:

“My first problem with our topic was the usual academic pathology: When I lift the lid off core concepts in most any academic statement – or government or corporate report for that matter – I gaze down into the ninth circle of semantic hell.” (Agar, n.d., 3)

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher mostly known as a founder of the deep ecology movement, proposed a way to deal with these difficulties in his philosophy of language. Actually, his eco-philosophy and the foundations of deep ecology were developed after his work in the philosophy of language, and are somewhat dependent on it.

He devised a theory of communication and interpretation to account for the way people actually use language to understand each other. His theory is also a tool to improve understanding and communication – much needed in the context of social and ecological movements, as well as in any field of human interaction.

His approach was called “empirical semantics”, and involved the simple practice of asking people what they understand by some word or expression. Actually it is wider than that, and involves asking people what are their world-views and beliefs, and what do they mean by them. He used a methodology of questionnaires to do that, and developed his semantic theory from these empirical studies, applying set theory to semantics. The platform of deep ecology and his own “Ecosophy T” were developed through the use of this technique.

This is a sketch of the idea, as I understood it so far:

When two people communicate, what happens is that the sender of the message has the intention to convey a meaning, and the receiver will interpret the message in his/her own way, depending on her background, previous experience, previous communications, etc.

There are many possible interpretations for any given term, or phrase, or statement. Given the set of all possible interpretations for a term, only a subset of this will correspond to the intended meaning of the sender.

Naess notes that there are many possible “levels” of interpretation for a term / phrase / statement. The lowest level is the most vague, and involves all possible interpretations. Subsequent levels are more “precise”, in that they exclude some of these, and make the meaning of a term more limited. A more precise interpretation thus corresponds to a smaller subset of possible interpretations in relation to a lower level of preciseness.

What is interesting about this view is that he reverses the usual idea that the most precise uses of language are always the most desirable. When you make a word more precise, you are actually excluding other possible interpretations. This is not always a good thing, because sometimes it is desirable to keep the possibilities of interpretation open.

According to Naess, options of interpretation should be “kept open as long as this is heuristically convenient” (Naess, 1977, 171). In fact, it is interesting to keep terms and sentences “purposely open to a variety of interpretations” and to use “vagueness and ambiguity to achieve multiple interpretability” (Naess, 1977, 170) .

While discussing with someone about an ecovillage, for example, a very high initial level of preciseness on the part of a speaker will only alienate the interlocutor, because the interlocutor may have in mind a more open interpretation of certain terms and sentences.

From common experience, we see that when speakers are mutually committed to understanding each other (beyond the individual interest they may have in convincing or persuading each other of the truth of their claims or of the need to act in a certain way), they can work together on forming a common vocabulary. This is a process that happens naturally through continued interaction in a group, when the group gradually forms a common language to account for its shared experience. It also happens naturally between friends, who through prolonged interaction understand each other better with time, developing shared meanings.

Another problem we face is that in a tight economy of attention this becomes increasingly difficult, as people don’t have the time to spend in deeper reading or deeper talking and deeper engagement with others. This is especially the case in the contemporary society of information, in which people’s attention is highly manipulated and under constant pressure from bio-political technologies that turn it into a commodity. But this is a different topic.


Agar, Michael. n.d. “A Method to My Madness: What Counts as Innovation in Social Science?” (draft). (PDF)

Chapman, Siobhan. 2011. “Arne Naess and Empirical Semantics.” Inquiry 54 (1): 18–30.

Radler, Jan. 2011. “Arne Naess’ Meta-Philosophy: From ‘Empirical Semantics’ to ‘Deep Ecology.’” Baltic Journal of European Studies 1 (1): 125–38.

Naess, Arne. 1977. “The Methodology of Normative Systems”, in: Alan Drengson and Bill Devall (eds.), The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010): 167-180.

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