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An exceptional South African thinker

In 1995 one of the best loved, most down-to-earth and wisest of South Africa’s thinkers, the philosopher Marthinus Versfeld died at an advanced age. If anyone thought that philosophers must of necessity always have their “heads in the clouds” of abstract thought – like the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, who once fell into a well because of being deep in thought (causing a girl who had witnessed this great mirth) – Versfeld was the embodied antithesis of this belief.

Although he was a respected academic scholar (of especially medieval philosophical thought – he wrote a number of texts on St Augustine, and his book on the metaphysics of the father of modern thought, René Descartes, is a major contribution to Descartes scholarship), many people remember him for his earthy wisdom, much of which found its way into published works such as Food for Thought: A Philosopher’s Cookbook, or (in Afrikaans) Klip en klei, Die buitelewe, Tyd en dae, and Die neukery met die appelboom.

The eponymous essay in the latter book (The trouble with the apple tree, in English) is subtitled: “of: Die begrip van die omgewing” (or: The concept of the environment), a little masterpiece of ecological philosophy, which, if I understand things correctly, he originally presented as a talk to a group of foresters who had invited him to address them. I wonder if they knew how privileged they were.

In this little gem Versfeld shows keen awareness, as an eminently historical thinker ought to, that humanity was “entering a new world” at the time (the book appeared in 1985, so the talk was probably not long before that). He even alludes to the changing climate. And tellingly, he reminds us of W.B. Yeats’s remark, that the Fall – usually associated with the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve – really happened when Newton “ate the apple” (a clever twist in the probably apocryphal anecdote, that the thought of universal gravity struck Newton when an apple fell on his head). (The translations from Versfeld’s text are mine.)

Versfeld observes, probably with good reason, that those who are “obsessed with the Enlightenment” would probably find Yeats’s saying obscure, and he therefore sets out to clarify it for their benefit. First he connects another line from Yeats (from the apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming), “Things fall apart” – which probably alluded, for Yeats, to turmoil and degeneration in Europe at the time of its being written, just after the First World War – to the 17th century, in which Descartes lived, and which the latter knew to be “falling apart” (not simply the Church during the Reformation, but the medieval world-picture, too). Small wonder that Descartes looked forward to “a marvellous new science” which, according to him, would make humans “masters and possessors of nature”.

It is this dream of the Enlightenment, formulated with such chilling accuracy by Descartes, that Versfeld focuses on. The “marvellous science” that Descartes anticipated – and did not live to experience because of succumbing to the harsh winter in Sweden (where he had been summoned to teach Queen Christina) – was given decisive impetus by Newton, of course (who ironically valued his belief in, and work on, “occult causes” more highly than his Principia, the Bible of modern mechanistic physics).

Versfeld reminds his readers that this mechanistic science rested on the prior separation of human subject and physical object (which Descartes had accomplished philosophically) – mechanical causes are, after all, unthinkable in a (medieval) natural world pervaded by angels and other spirits as God’s emissaries. This requires, or implies that humans are mere spectators of a process that occurs independently of us, and yet, he points out, enabled by this very mechanistic science, humans do reappear on the natural scene as “homo technicus”, who insists on meddling in the process for the sake of dominating it – didn’t Descartes’s dream entail such domination of nature, after all?

This, according to Versfeld, was what Yeats had in mind by attributing the Fall to Newton’s “apple fever”, and why he (Versfeld), contrary to most people in a world that worships science and technology, believes that poets can predict the future better than scientists can. The reason for his unpopular belief is simple: the vaunted neutrality of Newtonian science ignores the fact that truth always has a personal aspect (ironically acknowledged by Heisenberg’s insight, that even scientists, merely by observing the world, change it), namely that it (even scientific truth) requires someone to assert, or confirm it. (Yes, I know, this raises the debate about: If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one around, does it make a noise?) Feuerbach went further than this, in the process anticipating Kuhn’s highlighting of the social aspect of science via his notion of “scientific paradigms”, by pointing out that truth requires (at least) two, not one person – implicitly a criticism of Descartes solitary “meditations”.

Taking his argument further, Versfeld draws our attention to the implication of Bell’s statement in quantum mechanics (see link), which goes against the grain of mechanistic science, that every particle has an individual existence precisely because each one’s position and behaviour reflect the whole – solitary particles do not have a “life of their own”. Mechanistic Newtonian causality, which presupposes separation, is not enough, says Versfeld; we needed a theory which draws things together in a way “not immediately evident to the senses”. The reappearance of the concept of synchronicity is timely, he argues. This has an ancient lineage, from the ancient Greek “cosmos” or harmonious order, the old Chinese notion of the mutual origin of events, and the Christian idea of “providence” which connects everything, and he might have added the Renaissance belief in the correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm.

This rather long detour, ending with the idea of the interconnectedness of all things, Versfeld confesses, finally brings him to the topic of the environment, which he conceives of metaphorically as a garden, and which picks up the opening theme of apples. Our task as humans in the universe, in fact, is to become gardeners, instead of thinking of it the way mechanistic science suggests, as standing “opposite” us as an aggregate of foreign, neutral objects. We are quite entitled, Versfeld says, to think anthropomorphically – the apples or stones or trees we perceive have always already been “humanised” in the sense that we enter into relationships with them as something to eat, to sit on, or to climb (and not only, as required by money-making “industry”, to be cut down).

In philosophical language, Versfeld says, the “Umwelt” (the surrounding world) is intimately related to the “Mitwelt” (shared world), but this intimate relationship is today (in the time of the triumph of homo technicus) threatened by an act of betrayal in the “Eigenwelt” (the inner world of every person), namely, the refusal to acknowledge the interrelatedness of everything: humans, animals, plants and inorganic things like stones (an interrelatedness which even advanced science confirms).

This betrayal, or refusal, manifests itself as the ecological crisis, and consists in a failure, Versfeld claims, to acknowledge that humans are creative beings first and foremost. The true “Fall”, therefore, which got – or is getting – us thrown out of the garden of creation, is the choice to be blind to the world as a garden, and to choose to dominate it instead. In the process we turn a blind eye to our better, creative selves, and at our peril. This is great wisdom from a humble, but far-sighted thinker.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

18 Comments

  1. Graham Johnson Graham Johnson 20 February 2012

    You write, “In philosophical language, Versfeld says… this intimate relationship is today… threatened by an act of betrayal [by] the refusal to acknowledge the interrelatedness of everything: humans, animals, plants and inorganic things like stones (an interrelatedness which even advanced science confirms).”

    Here, political correctness is the major demon. Coppinger, a DNA researcher, says that, “Although wolves (Canis lupus) and dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are a different species (lupus) than coyotes (Canis latrans), “… there is less mtDNA difference between dogs, wolves, and coyotes than there is between the various ethnic groups of human beings…” In other words, although there may be more genetic variation WITHIN this group than between the froups, there is still sufficient variation BETWEEN the groups to influence look and behaviour, and it can thus be concluded that professional taxonomists are bending their objectivity somewhat to keep things PC.

    You then wrote, “This betrayal, or refusal, manifests itself as the ecological crisis, and consists in a failure, Versfeld claims, to acknowledge that humans are creative beings first and foremost. The true “Fall”, therefore, which got – or is getting – us thrown out of the garden of creation, is the choice to be blind to the world as a garden, and to choose to dominate it instead.”

    And this government turns that blind eye to our better, creative selves in the name of that same PC.

  2. Chris Roux Chris Roux 20 February 2012

    . . . and the point of all this esoteric indulgence to us schooled in other more mundane disciplines such as management, economics, medicine, engineering, physics, biology etc?

    It’s always sad when a nation loses a great citizen, but was there no better way of presenting his life and achievements to millions of us who have not studied philosophy?

  3. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 20 February 2012

    I did not know Versveld, but I did know his third child, the daughter who committed suicide. She was totally lonely – in a Roman Catholic family of about 12 children she felt no-one noticed or loved her.

  4. Loudly Safrican Loudly Safrican 20 February 2012

    I will never forget seeing Versfeld camping in the Cederberg – totally in his element – while his guests – US academics – found being in the nature they expounded on totally foreign.

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 21 February 2012

    I was a child myself when Versveld’s daughter died. We, her friends, felt helpless. I found it bizarre that someone should feel unloved in such a large family.

    But subsequently I have known other women like her mother – who want a permanent toy/doll/baby to play with and shunt aside their children at about the age of three, like a puppy grown into a dog.

    Recently there has been a case of a woman suspected of killing her child, and maybe 2 previous ones, at that age.

    It sickened me then. It still does.

    It is a memory I have been trying to blot out for nearly 50 years.

  6. Bert Bert 21 February 2012

    Graham – Thanks for that contribution – I would never have connected what I wrote with PC.
    Chris – I did not intend this to be ‘esoteric’; on the contrary, I wanted to give readers a taste of Versfeld’s way of thinking, not just an outline of his life. (You’ll find such an outline on Wikipedia in Afrikaans, by the way.)
    Lyndall – I always found it quite strange that Versfeld was Catholic, although being Afrikaans (most Afrikaans people are Protestant, if they belong to a church). It is not that difficult to understand, once one considers his deep knowledge of the Christian Middle Ages, which were dominated by the RCC, however.
    Loudly Safrican – Nature was certainly Versfeld’s ‘element’, one that I share with him. Once one has experienced the rapport between oneself and nature, it is in your blood.

  7. Anna Versfeld Anna Versfeld 21 February 2012

    @ Lyndall Beddy

    How much you judge, and how little you know of my family.

  8. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 21 February 2012

    Anna

    I agree – I know nothing at all, other than what I have written, and speculated,and seen in other families, but it has haunted me for years. I was a friend of Joan van den Ende. I thought we should have guessed something would happen,and told the grown ups. No-one warned children in those days to look for the signs.

  9. Belle Belle 21 February 2012

    Lyndall, it was one of his sons, not a daughter, who committed suicide.

    I spent a weekend (in my youth) with this magnificient man and some of his sons at his primitive plot in the Langkloof, hunting guineafowl, which we ate for supper.

    It was a mind-blowing experience, spending time with this silent man who only spoke when something profound needed expression. And who farted unashamedly when needed.

    His philosophical musings that evening over braaied guineafowl led me to eventually understand that Death does not exist .. that death is smiply a perception (fabrication) of organisms temporarily created from the basic elements of Life (carbon, hydrogen oxygen nitrogent etc) .. elements of Life which never die, which have lived for 14 billion years since the beginning of the universe, and will continue to live forever.

    Apart from his ground-breaking philosophical thoughts Martin Versveld was the first person to comprehensively map out Table Mountain pathways and climbing routes, and publish a book on the edible mushrooms/fungi that grow in the area.

    Than you, Bert Olivier, for this memory.

  10. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 21 February 2012

    Anna

    I am sorry. The mention of your father’s name in print ripped open an old wound and a buried memory.

    We were children – we blamed the grown ups.

    If I had stopped to think I would never have lodged the comment.

  11. Abdi A. Jama Abdi A. Jama 22 February 2012

    At the beginning of treatise, I thought the good professor would bring ‘philosophy’ a bit closer for me to comprehend.

    No success!

    Abdi.

  12. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 22 February 2012

    Belle

    Then who was Cathy Versveld?

  13. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 22 February 2012

    Both Cathy and Joan felt their parent(s) cared more for their students than for their biological children.

    I just listened. It was a concept foreign to me. But later I felt massive guilt.

    I will not come back to this topic.

    I wish I had never started this debate.

  14. Max Max 22 February 2012

    Great piece. Thank you Bert. It makes me think of William Blake’s philosophy, his poetry and his visual art – especially the tight one of the narrow Newton measuring something at his feet – and old Jehovah who Blake called ol’Nobadaddy, portrayed similarly.

  15. Anna Versfeld Anna Versfeld 22 February 2012

    Lyndall, thank you.

  16. Bert Bert 23 February 2012

    Max – An excellent analogy. The bent-over posture in which the figure of Newton is depicted by Blake says in no uncertain terms that, if you think you can ‘measure’ reality like this – in such an uncomfortable, ‘inhuman’ position’ – something has to slip through the cracks of your measuring. That is also what Versfeld is getting at regarding the ‘Enlightenment’. In the final analysis, however, I agree with Derrida (in ‘Structure sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences’, in the book, ‘Writing and Difference’), where he gives BOTH the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on precision of thinking (and measuring) its due under the heading of the ‘engineer’, AND also that kind of (creative) thinking which avails itself of any and every mode of ‘truth-finding’, under the aegis of ‘the bricoleur’ or handyman/tinkerer – a distinction he gets from Levi-Strauss. His point is that we, as humans, cannot give up on either of these countervailing modes of thinking: we must try our best to be ‘engineers’, using instruments and methods that are as precise as possible, knowing full well that, most of the time, we’ll end up being ‘bricoleurs’, because our methods and instruments are subject to time’s erosion. But he emphasises that we are unavoidably BOTH.

  17. Max Max 23 February 2012

    Bert, yes. For me, Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers a kind of balance between the two – the romantic and the rationalist “ways”. Or at least it points towards a productive balance for me. Thanks again.

  18. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 25 February 2012

    That ‘balance’ is desirable, as Bert says, seems self-evident, given human nature, but that there is imbalance at different times in the permanent tension between ‘science/reason’ and ‘religion/spirituality’ is clear. We should reject either one-sided approach and see the apparent conflict between them for what it is, the product of polemics and/or politics.

    There is no ‘irony’ in Newton valuing his work in alchemy and the occult over the laws of his Principia, for the simple reason that he saw them as all of a piece. Newton was not himself declaring war on spirituality. He was trying to understand, as far as he was permitted, the mind of God. He saw that as basically rational but his own as nothing by comparison.

    Blake and Yeats, two mystics, were also ‘reacting’ – many would say over-reacting – in their times. There are, I understand, over 30 volumes in the Smithsonian, cataloguing the changes ushered in by WW1. Hardly surprising WB felt ‘things fall apart’. His mystic grasp of existence, sadly, did not extend to his including in the Oxford Book of Verse the harrowing war poems of Wilfred Owen. Feuerbach can be seen as a philosopher of the Romantic movement, restoring neglected ‘feeling’ as much as Heine or the earlier English Lakeside Poets.
    ..
    The objection to the metaphor of the Fall is that is arrogates to itself the moral ascendancy: from the Beginning, the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden to man and woman.

    We must never stop asking why.

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