Elemental Philosophy

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas

By David Macauley

Subjects: Environmental Philosophy, Phenomenology, Ecology, Philosophy, Ancient Greek Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Environmental Philosophy and Ethics
Paperback : 9781438432441, 449 pages, July 2011
Hardcover : 9781438432458, 449 pages, September 2010

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Table of contents

Sheltering the Elements
Plan of the Work
Part I: Elemental Encounters and Ideas

1. Philosophy’s Forgotten Four
Interstice: Stone
2. The Topology of the Elemental Environment
Elementary Letters
Elemental Places
Elements as Archetypes
Elemental Opposition
Elemental Substances
Chemical Elements
Cultural Comparisons
The Frame of the Four
Social Construction of the Elements
Interstice: Wood
Part II: Elemental Theories
3. The Flowering of Ecological Roots: Empedocles’ Elemental Thought
The Problem of the Poems
Square Roots and Radical Rhizomes
Empedocles’ Elemental Cosmology
Ecological and Political Equality
Organic Unity
Environmental Action
Anticipation of Evolution
Animal Empathy
Environmental Roots
Ecological Ethos
Crafting Nature
Purity and Pollution
The Rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari
Interstice: Ice and Snow
4. Plato’s Chora-graphy of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water
The ABC of Everything
A Probable Physics
Derivation of Earth, Air, Fire, and Waterspan
The Corpus of an Ecological Cosmoscla
Second Beginnings and Constrained Constructionss
Removing the Spell of the Elements
Elemental Recycling
Forms of the Four?
Elements Emplaced: Chora-graphy in the Matrix
Construction and Structure of the Primary Bodies
War and Play of the Elements
Dispatching the Stoicheia: Elemental S/endings
Husserl and the Mathematization of Nature
Postscript to Plato: Whitehead’s Philosophical Footnotes
Interstice: Cloud
5. The Place of the Elements and the Elements of Place: Aristotle’s Natural Household
Four Accounts of Five Elements
A Dictionary of Elemental Definitions
The Ancient Generation Gap
Pondering Weight
The Place of the Elements
The Elements of Place
Homecoming and Inhabitation
Interstice: Heat and Cold
6. The Economy and Ecology of the Aristotelian Elements
Hot, Cold, Wet, and Dry
Converting the Contraries
Compounding the Quartet
Prime Matter as Persisting Problem
Extra Terrestrials: The Fifth Element
Elemental Contact: Beholding Tangible Bodies
In Touch with the Environment
The Soul and the External World
Aristotle and Ecology
Interstice: Light and Shadow
Part III: Elemental Worlds
7. Domestication of the Elements
Plumbing Philosophy
Watercraft and Landscape Aesthetics
From Waterways to Waterworks
Bottled Water
Fire and Water
Eclipse of the Atmosphere
Escape from Earth
End of the Elements?
Interstice: Night
8. In Touch With the Sensuous World: The Reclamation of the Elemental in Continental Philosophy
Elemental Reveries: Bachelard’s Poetics
Elemental Dwelling: Heidegger’s Fourfold
Elemental Flesh: Merleau-Ponty’s Re-membering
Elemental Sensibility: Levinas on Enjoyment
Elemental Imperatives: Lingis and Our Sensuous Surroundings
Elemental Passions: Irigaray on Breath and Body
Elemental Landscapes: Casey on Place
Elemental Nature: Sallis on Imagination
From Elements to the Elemental
Interstice: Space
9. Revaluing Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: Elemental Beauty, Ecological Duty, and Environmental Policy
Elemental Ethics
Elemental Aesthetics
Environmental Action
Bewildering Order

Explores the ancient and perennial notion of the four elements as environmental ideas.


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

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.


"...David Macauley tries to combat our overly simplistic view of nature by recovering a nuanced understanding of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water … a thoughtful, serious, and engaging work." — Environmental Ethics

"…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