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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.