What Is Place? What Is Space?

What is Place? Photo: Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto

The traditional and well-established meaning of a concept crystallized into a specific word should be the starting point for any investigation that aims at questioning that concept. In this article, I will list all of the different entries and the different senses that the noun place and the noun space have according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Immediately after that presentation, I will give a synthetic definition of the renewed senses of place and space I would like to speak about in this blog, inviting the reader to go through the pages of the forthcoming articles to find a complete sense and explanations for my choice; reasons that cannot be conveyed by a synthetic definition only. Apart from the well-established meaning of place and space formalized through the pages of popular dictionaries, if we really want to put those concepts under thorough investigation, I also believe it is extremely important to trace back the intersecting histories of the two words by analysing their etymology; by way of a linguistic analysis, not only can we fully appreciate the general sense of each term, but we can also appreciate the different connotations and the possible mutual dependency between them. I will devote many forthcoming articles to trace back the variegated and intersecting histories of the two concepts. Since those histories are rich, complex, and interesting, they require more specific information – and more space – if compared to the exclusive linguistic perspective that is usually offered by dictionaries.

1. The Senses of Place According to the Oxford English Dictionary

With respect to the noun ‘place’, the Oxford English Dictionary says that the senses are ‘very numerous and difficult to arrange’. What follows, in this paragraph, is an abridged literal reproduction of the senses of the noun ‘place’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary. [1]

Place (pleis), substantive:

I) An open space in a city; a square, a market place. 1a) Used in Old English to render Latin 1b) In modern use, forming the second element in the name of a group of houses (and hence of a street) in a town or city, now or formerly possessing some of the characters (positive or negative) of a square, chiefly that of not being properly a street. Often used in the name of a small area … (e.g. Ely Place in London.)

II) A material space. 2a) Space; extension in two (or three) directions; ‘room’. Archaic to offer place, to make way, give way, give place: see 23. 2b) In generalized sense: Space, extension (chiefly rhetorical, and in antithesis to time). 3a) A particular part of space, of defined or undefined extent, but of definite situation (Latin locus, Old English stow). Sometimes applied to a region or part of the earth’s surface. 3b) The portion of space actually occupied by a person or thing; the position of a body in space, or with reference to other bodies; locality; situation. 3c) short for ‘place of battle’, ‘field’ (Obsolete). 3d) to leave or win place: to lose or gain ground, to retreat or advance (Obsolete). 3e) Colloquial phrase – all over the place: disordered, irregular, muddled. 4) A piece or plot of land (Obsolete). 5a) A portion of space in which people dwell together; a general designation for a city, town, village, hamlet, etc. 5b) A residence, dwelling, house; a seat, mansion, palace; formerly sometimes, a religious house, a convent; also specifically the chief residence on an estate; a manor-house; a country-house with its surroundings. Also place-house (see 29). 5c) A fortress, citadel, ‘strong place’; a fortified city. Obsolete. 5d) A building, apartment, or spot devoted to a specified purpose. (Usually with specification, as place of amusement, of resort, bathing-place, etc.). 5e) slang. A lavatory. 6a) A particular part or spot in a body or surface. 6b) Chess. A square on the board (obsolete, rare). 7a) A particular part, page, or other point in a book or writing. 7b) A (short) passage in a book or writing, separately considered, or bearing upon some particular subject; a text, extract (obsolete). 7c) A subject, a topic: especially in Logic and Rhetoric: LOCUS. 8) In technical uses: 8a) Astronomy. The apparent position of a heavenly body on a celestial sphere. 8b) Geometry = LOCUS. 8c) Falconry. The point or pitch attained by a falcon or similar bird of prey before swooping down on its quarry (obsolete). 8d) Mining. A drift or level driven from side to side of a wide lode as a beginning of a slide.

III) Position in some scale, order, or series. 9a) Position or standing in the social scale, or in any order of estimation of merit; rank, station, whether high or low. 9b) High rank or position; dignity (obsolete). 9c) Racing, etc.: A position among the placed competitors. 9d) Phrases: to know one’s place: to know how to behave in a manner befitting one’s rank, situation, etc.; it is not my place: outside my duties or customary rights; to put (someone) in his, her etc., place: to remind someone of his or her rank or situation; to rebuff or rebuke. 10) Arithmetic. The position of a figure in a series, in decimal or similar notation, as indicating its value or denomination: in plural with numeral, often used merely to express the number of figures, especially after the decimal point in a decimal fraction. 11) A step or point in the order of progression. Mostly with ordinal numeral or its equivalent (first, next, last, etc.) preceded by in: in the first place = firstly, first in order; etc.

IV) Position or situation with reference to its occupation or occupant. 12a) A proper, appropriate, or natural place (for the person or thing in question to be in or occupy); sometimes in an ideal or imaginary region. (See also 19c, d.). 12b) figurative. A fitting time, point in order of events; occasion, opportunity 12c) figurative. ‘Room’; reasonable occasion or ground. 12d) Phrase – a place for everything and everything in its place. 13a) The space which one person occupies by usage, allotment, or right; a seat or accommodation engaged in a public building, conveyance, or the like, a space at table; seat, station, quarters. 13b) With possessive or of: The space previously or customarily occupied by some other person or thing; room, stead, lieu; often in phrases in (the) place of, instead of, in the room or lieu of, in exchange or substitution for; to take the place of, to be substituted for, to stand instead of. 13c) Phrase – a place in the sun. 14a) An office, employment, situation; sometimes, specifically, a government appointment, an office in the service of the crown state. (confront 14b) 14b) Without a or plural: Official position, especially of a minister of state: = OFFICE 14c) The duties of any office or position; (one’s) duty or business. Hence to perform one’s place (obsolete)

V) Phrases.

*With other substantives: 15a) place of arms: an open space for the assembling of troops 15b) A strongly fortified city or fortress, used as an arsenal or magazine, or as a place of retreat; also a tent at the head of each company where the arms were stored (obsolete). 16) place of worship: a place where religious worship is performed; specifically, a building (or part of one) appropriated to assemblies or meetings for religious worship: a general term comprehending churches, chapels, meeting-houses, synagogues, and other places in which people assemble to worship God. 17) One’s heart (lies) in the right place; to have a soft place in one’s heart for, to regard affectionately, be well-disposed towards, be fond of.

**With propositions: 18) from place to place. From one place to another, and so on in succession 19a) in place, etc. Before or without moving away; on the spot; then and there, immediately. So in the place, on or upon the place. Obsolete. 19b) In presence, present, at hand, on the spot. So upon the place. Obsolete. 19c) In its original or proper position; in position; in situ; specifically in Geology; in Mining, applied to a vein or lode situated between fixed rocks. 19d) figurative. In his or its proper or fitting position; in one’s element, at home; in harmony, timely. (The opposite of out of place, 20). 19e) in (some one’s) place: in (his) position, or circumstances; situated as (he) is. 19f) in (the) place of, instead of: see 13b in the first, second, next, etc. place: see 11). 20) out of place. Out of, or not situated in the natural or appropriate position; misplaced. Figuratively: unsuitable, unseasonable.

***With verbs: 21a) come in place. To come to be, come forth, originate, turn up; to come into notice, appear; to appear, present itself for consideration. Also become in (to, etc.) place. Obsolete.  21b) To occur, take place. 21c) To come into a position (to do something). 22) find place. To find room, to dwell or exist, to have being (in something). 23) give place. To make room, make a way, get out of the way; to yield to, give way to; to be succeeded by. 24a) have place. To have room to exist; to have being or existence (in, among, etc. something); to exist; to be situated, have lodgement. 24b) To have or to take precedence (also to have the place): = 27c. Obsolete. 25) hold place. To obtain regard, to prevail; = 27b. (see also 9.)  26a) make place. To make room or space for; to give a position, station, or office to. Obsolete. 26b) to make places (Change-ringing): said of two bells which shift their position in successive changes so as to make room, as it were, for another bell which is struck successively before, between and after them. 27a) to take place. To take effect, to succeed; to be accomplished or realized. 27b) To find acceptance; to have weight or influence. Obsolete. 27c) To take precedence of; to go before (Cf. 9). Obsolete. 27d) To take up or have a position; to be present. 27e) To come into existence, come to pass, happen; to occur (in place or time). 27f) to take the place of: see 13b.

VI. 28) Short for PLACE BRICK.

VII. 29) attributive, verbal and in combination as in: place-description, -disease, -illustration, -name, hence place-namer, –naming; place-ordering, place-ordered; (sense 2b) place-logic, -time; (sense 9c) place-getter; (sense 14) place-broker, -monger, -mongering, -seeker, seeking; place-begging, -loving, -proud, -seeking; place act; place-being;  place betting; place-bill; place-book; place-card; place horse; place-house; placelike; place-making; place-mat; place-money; place-setting; place-skating; place-value; place-woman

Place (plas), substantive. In France, or occasionally in other countries, a square. Frequently used in proper names.

Place (pleis) verb – past tense and participle placed (pleist): 1a) transitive, to put or set in a particular place, position, or situation; to station; to posit; figurative to set in some condition, or relation to other things. Often a mere synonym of put, set. 1b) To put or set (a number of things) in the proper relative places, i.e. in order or position; to arrange, dispose, adjust. 1c) Cricket, Baseball, and other ball games. To control and guide (the ball) in making a stroke or hit. 2a) To appoint (a person) to a place or post; to put in office; specifically, to induct a pastorate. 2b) To find a place or situation for; to arrange for the employment, living, or marriage of; to settle. Sometimes construed with forth (obsolete), out. 3) To put (a thing) into a suitable or desirable place for some purpose. Specifically 3a) To put out (money, funds) at interest; to invest. Often with out. 3b) To put into the hands of a particular (selected) person or firm (an order for something to be supplied). 3c) To dispose of to a customer. 3d) To arrange for the performance or publication of: a play, literary production, or the like. 4) figurative To put, set, fix, repose (faith, confidence, esteem, etc.) in or on a particular person or thing. 5) To determine or indicate the place of; to assign a place to. 5a) To assign or refer to a particular locality or set of circumstances; to locate. 5b) To assign a certain rank or station to; to rank, class. 5c) To fix the chronological position of; to date; to fix, determine (a date). 5d) Racing. To state the place or position of (a horse, etc.) among the competitors when passing the winning post, which is usually done officially of the first three only; to be placed, to obtain a place among the first three. 5e) To determine who or what a particular person (or thing) is; to assign to a particular class or category; to determine the importance of; to identify or recognize. Origin U.S.  5f) intransitive, Racing, Athletics, etc. To achieve a certain place or position (in a race, etc.); to be placed, specifically among the first three (U.S. the first two). Also transferred sense. 6) to assign, attribute, impute, ascribe. 6a) To hold (a quality or attribute) to reside or consist in something. 6b) to refer (a fact or circumstance) to something as a cause; to ‘put down’ to. Obsolete. 7) Football (Rugby). To get (a goal) from a place-kick.

2. Rethinking the Concept of Place

Now, I will just give the definition of the renewed sense of place that I wish to speak about in this blog, leaving the reader the possibility to discover the reasons for such change and the full implications of such definition in the forthcoming articles. This is the way I understand the concept of place:

I-R. a) Place is any real entity emerging from inorganic, organic, social and symbolic – or intellectual – processes.

Place is any real entity emerging from inorganic, organic, social and symbolic – or intellectual – processes.

E.g.: a photon is the place of physical processes; a carbon atom is the place of chemical processes; an amoeba is the place of biological processes; a termite’s nest is the place of social processes; New York City is a place of symbolic processes (these latter kinds of processes – which I also call intellectual processes – are highly abstract processes, distinctive of the humankind only: while animals are able to modify and construct places that respond to their biological and social needs – a termite’s nest, a beehive etc. – only men modify and create places to satisfy their symbolic needs and aspirations). Higher-order processes emerge from, and include, processes of lower order. Therefore, New York City is also the place of sociocultural processes, other than the place of those basic processes – physicochemical and biological processes – out of which sociocultural processes emerge). This means that everything real is a place: a place of processes. Otherwise stated: reality is a place, a complex place – or system -, where the whole is greater than the simple addiction of its constituent parts.

What is peculiar with such definition is that the traditional distinction between that which occupies some place – that is matter – and that which is occupied – that is place (or space, according to substantivalist interpretations) – should be interpreted with respect to the constraints of language (which is a symbolic process of knowledge): actually, I believe the distinction between place and matter is first and foremost conceptual. Even if this definition is not precisely consonant with Aristotle’s fundamental definition of place (Aristotle rejects the identification between matter and place, even if place is definitely related to – and defined by – visible matter) I take Aristotle’s main character of place – its boundedness – as a mode to understand reality, as that which is bounded against that which is unbounded, or limitless.[2] Ultimately, I understand place as that which keeps reality together and ordered (not just the actual with the actual, but also the actual with the ideal) and I believe this fact reconnects to the classical Greek vision according to which

a boundary is not that at which something stops, but that from which something begins its essential unfolding

as Martin Heidegger acutely observed.[3] We can only encounter the world of objects, or of other subjects, as something bounded – a place – even if, from such obliged standpoint, we can also reason about that which is unbounded (to put it differently: reality-as-place is the concrete ground out of which the abstract also emerges). This fact implies that intertwined dimensions are active anytime we speak of place, or places: ontological dimensions, to begin with, but also phenomenological, and epistemological dimensions, whenever human beings participate in the event-place.[4] Some important implications derive from this perspective.

First, as the very definition suggests, place has a fundamental processual structure or dimension: it can be understood as a happening, or event. In fact, place is the continuously actualized where in which and out of which past, present and future dimensions – which come close to each other in the form of duration – appropriate matter to define the concrete existence of any entity-as-place. According to the processes involved, different entities may emerge (physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic entities, to begin with). Then, in its basic state, place encompasses within itself, as a single structure, the spatial, the temporal and the material; while in its most advanced state, it may also embrace the immaterial.

Second: no independent background – call it place, space, spacetime, void, ether, etc. – really exists; but most of all no background exists out of the actual entities that emerge from their corresponding processes so that each actual entity is the background for other entities and vice versa (relational understanding of reality-as-place, or of place-as-reality, which is the same, in the end). Such entities are places.

Third: it is out of the relational behaviour of entities acting at the different levels of reality (physicochemical, biological, social and – if we also consider man – cultural and symbolic – or intellectual – levels) that a multilevel ontology can be hypothesized; this fact implies the need for a systemic understanding of the different processes, or events, through which reality-as-systemic place unfolds; it obviously implies the rejection of any ultimate reductionist, mechanistic and deterministic explanation of reality down to physical processes only. Then, reality is a complex system of places within places, within places, within places…

Fourth: as a direct consequence of the preceding points, since actual entities are places and reality is a place as well (reality is the encompassing realm where entities are ‘implaced’) [5], then place – and reality as well – should be thought of as the historical result of concrescent and entangled physicochemical, biological, social, and symbolic – or intellectual – evolutionary forces (evolutionary understanding of reality-as-place).[6] In agreement with the aforementioned systemic understanding of reality, no priority of symbolic (or intellectual) dimensions over physical dimensions – or vice versa – can be assigned to place. The elucidation of place as a direct subject of investigation presupposes the analyses of the correlation between the various dimensions of place.

Finally – and we reconnect to the first point – since it is only from the bounded character of place that the possibility of reasoning about the limitless, or the unbounded, emerges (otherwise said, it is only from the actual standpoint of concrete places that abstraction originates, and, for this reason, space can be imagined), then place as concrete and actual mode of existence also contains within itself that which is abstract and potential – or ideal – as its counterpart; therefore, a place gathers within its boundaries both material and immaterial dimensions. Drawing on this possibility, the concept of space and the concept of place, separated from matter, originated as abstract modes of understanding reality; such abstract modes are complementary to concrete modes (complementary or choral understanding of reality-as-place). This takes us to the possibility of envisioning the following extended meaning of place:

I-R. b) In an extended sense, place is any aspect of reality, which is conceived of as the realm of existence emerging from that which is concrete or from the correlation between the concrete and the abstract (that is, from the correlation between the object and the modes through which the subject knows the object). This also means that reality is the place comprised between the actual and the potential, or ideal; and when I say ‘comprised between’ I mean something emerging from two extremes understood as active epicentres in mutual relation for the emergence of a new, encompassing level.[7] This sense of place, which I’m going to elucidate in the following items (and which – I believe – has some similarities to the Platonic notion of chōra – that’s why I have spoken of ‘choral understanding of reality’), states that reality primarily emerges from the encounter between the object and the subject. Since objects – inorganic entities – and subjects – subjects are at least biological entities – are the place of processes, that which may result from their encounter (ecological, social and symbolic entities) is a place as well, and this reconnects to def. I-R. a. To state it differently: I understand place as the middle region where ‘the material [Matter] and the mental [Mind] are inextricably intertangled’.[8] Since the perspective of place-as-reality I argue for is historical – evolutionary I have said, properly – before the biological mind could intervene on nature, place existed in more basic natural forms or states. And, I believe, places still exist in such basic forms or states – exclusively material states – whenever a mind is absent.

The careful reader has already understood that the renewed sense of place I wish to speak about is somehow mentioned in the definitions 21a), 21b), 21c), 22), 23), 24a), 27a), 27d), and clearly in 27e) of the Oxford English Dictionary. This means that place should be preferably conceived of as active ‘implacement’, with the remarkable difference that it is that which occurs or appears that creates place and places (otherwise stated: the entity-as-matter, concretized after certain processes, is at the same time figure and background, and no place exists out of any concrete entity to which place is referred; then the traditional perspective is turned upside-down). Moreover, with the renewed sense of place that I’m thinking of, I also want to cast some light on the generic definition of place as that which really ‘comes in place’ (21a), ‘takes place’ (21b), ‘have place’ (24a), etc… this fact implying that any discourse on place is inevitably interlaced with a certain pragmatic view on the reality of facts, happenings, events, or processes out of which entities emerge (physical, chemical, biological, social, cultural and symbolic entities, to begin with). This makes the renewed sense of place I wish to speak about a working concept to be explored from many different perspectives: from physics to philosophy, from biology to ecology, from social sciences to art and architecture or even politics and religion. But most of all, the processual, relational, systemic, evolutionary, and choral dimensions that I attribute to the renewed sense of place – and of reality – oblige us to consider the hybrid territories where those disciplines encounter and overlap each other, thereby obliging us to rethink the traditional boundaries and divisions into which we have categorized knowledge.

RSAP_003_01_Term Space_96dpi
Image 1: Entry ‘space’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989.

3. The Senses of Space According to the Oxford English Dictionary

What follows, in this paragraph, is an abridged literal reproduction of the senses of the noun ‘space’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary. [9]

Space (speis), substantive:

I) Denoting time or duration. 1a) Without article: lapse or extent of time between two definite points, events, etc. Chiefly with adjectives, as little, long, short, small. 1b) Delay, deferment. Obsolete. 1c) in space, after a time or while. Obsolete. 2) Time, leisure, or opportunity for doing something. Chiefly to have (or give) space. Obsolete. 2a) Construed with to (usually with infinitive). 2b) Without construction. 2c) Coupled with other substantives denoting time, ability, etc.; especially in time and space, space and time. 3) With the (that, etc.): 3a) The amount or extent of time comprised or contained in a specified period. Constructed with of, or with preceding genitive. 3b) The amount of time already specified or indicated, or otherwise determined. 3c) in the mean space, meantime, meanwhile. Obsolete. 4a) With a and plural. A period or interval of time. 4b) With of (frequently a space of time). 4c) In the adverbial phrase (for) a space. 4d) A period of delay. Obsolete. 4e) A spell of writing or narration. Obsolete.

II). Denoting area or extension

*Without article in a generalized sense: 5a) Linear distance; interval between two or more points or objects. 5b) Proper place or relationship. Obsolete. 6a) Superficial extent or area; also, extent in three dimensions. 6b) Extent or area sufficient fo some purpose; room. Also construed with to with infinitive.  6c) Extent or room in a letter, periodical, book, etc., available for, or occupied by, written or printed matter. 6d) on space, paid according to the extent occupied by accepted contributions (origin U.S.). 6e) Room in a newspaper, periodical, etc., or on some other medium, which may be acquired for a specific purpose, especially advertising. 7) Metaphysics. Continuous, unbounded, or unlimited extension in every direction regarded as void of matter, or without reference to this. Frequently coupled with time. 8) Astronomy, etc. 8a) The immeasurable expanse in which the solar and stellar systems, nebulae, etc., are situated; the stellar depths. 8b) In the phrase into space. Also figuratively. 8c) In more limited sense: Extension in all directions, especially from a given point.

**In particularized or limited senses: 9a) A certain stretch, extent, or area of ground, surface, sky, etc.; an expanse. 9b) Construed with of (ground, sea, etc.). 9c) With possessive pronoun. The place where on takes up a position, residence, etc. Obsolete. 9d) elliptical, in plural (Confront sense 8). 9e) = living space (chiefly North American). 10a) A more or less limited area or extent; a small portion of space (in sense 6a or 8c). 10b) A part or portion marked off in some way; a division, section. 10c) A void or empty place or part. 10d) A portion of a page (in a newspaper, etc.) available for specific purpose, especially advertising; a period or interval of broadcasting time available to or occupied by a particular programme or advertising slot. Especially in injunction: watch this space!  Compare sense 6e above. 11a) An interval; a length of way; a distance. 11b) Construed with of (the precise distance). 11c) from space to space at (regular) intervals. 11d) A short distance. 12) Course, custom, procedure. Obsolete; rare. 13) The dimensional extent occupied by a body or lying within certain limits. 14) Music. One or other of the degrees or intervals between the lines of a staff. 15a) An interval or blank between words, or lines, in printed or written matter. 15b) Typography. One or other of certain small pieces of cast metal, of various thickness and shorter than a type, used to separate words (or letter in a word), and also justify the line. 15c) Telecommunications. An interval between consecutive marks in a mark-space signalling system such as telegraphy. 16) In specific uses. 17) Math. An instance of any various mathematical concepts, usually regarded as a set of points having some specified structure; compare metric space, topological space, vector space.

III) attributive and (in) combination. 18) Simple attributive. 18a) In the sense of ‘used for spacing (in printing, typing, etc.)’, as space-band, -bar, -gauge, -key, -line, -rule; also ‘used for holding spaces’, as space-barge, -box, -paper. 18b) relating to space as a general concept or relation, as space-consciousness, continuum, -effect, -element, -harmony, -image, music, -occupancy, -perception, -relation, -sensation, -sense, -symmetry, -value, ect. 18c) In applied mathematics, as space-centrode, -coordinate, -derivative, -integral, -inversion, -locus, -path, -point, etc. 18d) origin U.S. In the sense ‘paid by, or calculated upon the extent of space occupied’, as space-artist, -writer; space-bill, rate, writing; relating to the purchase of (advertising, etc.) space, as space-buyer, salesman.  18e) In sense 8a, outer space regarded as a field for human activity (many of these formations are modelled on analogous uses of air, air-): space agency, biology, bus, conquest, -crew, doctor, exploration, explorer, journey, law, lifeboat, liner, museum, navigation, etc. 18f) Applied to sprays, designed to produce droplets that will remain suspended in the air for a long period. 19) (in) combination: 19a) with adjectives and participial adjectives, as space-based, -cramped, -dependent, –embosomed, -spanned, -spread, -thick. 19b) with participial adjectives, as space-devouring, -filling, -occupying, -penetrating, -travelling, -wasting, etc. Also with (formally identical) verbal substantives. 19c) In adjectival phrases, as space-to-ground. 20) Special combinations, e.g.: space age; space colony; space frame; space industry; space lattice; space programme; space vehicle; spacewalk; space warp, etc.

Space, substantive, Scottish, obsolete, rare: A species or kind (of money, etc.)

Space (speis), verb. Also spase, to space, etc: 1) transitive: to pave or lay. Obsolete. 2) To limit or bound in respect of space; to make of a certain extent. 3a) To divide into spaces or sections. Also construed with by or with. Obsolete, rare. 3b) dialect, To measure (ground, etc.) by pacing. 4a) To set or place, to arrange or put, at determinate intervals or distances. 4b) Similarly with out. 4c) reflexive (Also with out). 4d) Intransitive, with out. To experience a drug-induced state of euphoria; to become disoriented by the use of narcotic stimulus. 5) Typography: 5a) with out: to extend to a required length by inserting additional space between the words (or lines). 5b) To separate (words, letters, or lines) by means of a space or spaces. 6) Intransitive: to walk, ramble, or roam. Obsolete.

4. Rethinking the Concept of Space

As regards the renewed sense of the concept of space I want to speak about in this blog, there is no need to speculate on a new definition, as in the case of the concept of place, since it will suffice to take an explicit position on the traditional senses of the term. Despite that, there are a couple of important points I need to highlight from the beginning. First, since I believe concepts of place and space are historically and semantically related, I consider them as if they were circularly related to describing the whole of reality as a unique realm emerging from the mutuality between that which is actual or concrete (place) and that which is ideal or abstract (space); then, we cannot fully understand the meaning of one concept without elucidating the sense of the other (this is traceable to paragraph 2, where I’ve spoken of ‘choral understanding’ of reality). Since I understand place as a notion whose meaning reports to the realm of that which is actual, I reject any sense of space which is not figurative or metaphorical, that is: I reject space as physical, I reject the notion ‘physical space’; I reject space interpreted as the actual continuum of reality containing all of the events and physical bodies, since such meaning directly refers to the realm of that which is concrete. Therefore, for me, ‘the arena of things’ is a place, not space. This takes us directly to the second point: space – the modern concept of space denoting a three-dimensional extent (or even a tetra-dimensional extent if we refer to its development into the notion of spacetime) – is an ideal entity of mathematical origin and its reference to the actual continuum where events happen can only be accepted in a figurative, ideal or conceptual sense. Accordingly, place and space – one concrete, the other abstract, or ideal – are correlated concepts through which we can have cognizance of the placial and spatial characters of reality, which I understand as the realm emerging from the mutuality between that which is concrete, or actual, and that which is abstract, ideal, or potential and possible. Then, if I say that space is the dimensionality that is intrinsic to place (to any place) – this is the way I would personally define space at this moment – we should interpret that attribution as an a posteriori or conceptual attribution (therefore an attribution that fulfils a linguistic or symbolic function, which we should elucidate at epistemological level), and we do not have to intend space as the hypothetical pre-existing extensive character of reality that precedes place or things; for me, place is the origin of all things, or the first principlearchē (ἀρχή) -, as the ancient Greeks would have said.

place is the origin of all things, or the first principle

To begin with, space has the analogous nominal function that the term dimension or the term extension may have: in fact, this is precisely the original – etymological – sense of the term space, deriving from the Greek stadion, or better spadion, which, in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, defined a distance that became a well-known standard of length (for an extended argumentation on this question, see the next article – Back to the Origins of Space and Place). Besides the etymological origins, it is necessary to know the philosophical and the scientific histories of the two concepts to understand how space transformed itself into such an ambiguous and complex notion, which is commonly understood as a three-dimensional notion (or tetra-dimensional, when coupled to time), and whose meaning goes far beyond the original character of simple dimensional extension associated to the Greek stadion,  a unit of measurement, that is a distance properly (diastēma).

To put it briefly: the term space may denote either a spatial or temporal extension – this is the way we are used to considering space and these are the senses listed by the OED -, but, to me, that extension – expressed through the noun ‘space’ – is always an ideal, figurative, or conceptual extension (this question is still controversial and I wish to elucidate it in this blog), abstracted from the only reality that we know, which is a whole, encompassing place. Then space is not a concrete entity, but is an ideal, or abstract, entity; this is the reason why our bodies, or any concrete body or object, do not stand in space – or they do not occupy space, actually – but they always stand in place, and they occupy (concrete) places. Ultimately, things and bodies are themselves places! Then, it’s just a mere question of a linguistic convention to say that space is absolute, relative or whatever we like. Given its fundamental ideal status, we can say that space is either absolute or relative, that it has three, eleven or an infinite number of dimensions: everything hinges around the particular model through which a theorist uses the notion of space to explaining peculiar phenomena of the world. Then, for Newton, space is necessarily absolute; for Leibniz, is relative; for Descartes’s geometry it is intrinsically three-dimensional; for the string theorist, and according to the particular school, it may have 6, 9, 11 or an infinite number of dimensions. That’s fine. But any theoretical model – any spatial model -, to prove its validity and viability in explaining actual phenomena, must always return to the actuality of facts, events or happenings: that is, it must always return to the concept of place. In the end, the real problem is to establish the real nature of place – the concrete, to begin with – and its connection with space – the abstract, or ideal; in this way, we come back to where we started with the concept of place: the interconnection of ontological and epistemological dimensions of reality. Without accessing those preliminary dimensions, I believe any theory of space (or place) is flawed ab origine, independently of the specific character of that theory (physical, mathematical, philosophical, biological, social, architectural, etc.).

Given the ideal status of space (and of the notions that are derivative or related to space), I reject the usual phraseology of the physicist who says that the trajectory of a planet around its sun is caused by the warping of the spacetime structure as if spacetime were an actual entity instead of an abstract entity, an ideal manifold as it should be considered. How something immaterial, such as an idea, can have a direct effect on actual physical processes, is not clear to me. However, to avoid any misunderstanding, it should be clear that the real issue is whether a substantivalist interpretation of the concept of space can be more fruitful than other interpretations with respect to the possibility of explaining the complex phenomena of reality; the question is not settled yet, and it offers different points of views, which deserve equal attention and consideration. In this blog, I will take a definite position on that question, but I just want to say that to answer that question, many different perspectives should be considered, not just the perspective of the physicist or the philosopher. Reality is currently understood as a complex system, which cannot be reduced to physical processes only; accordingly, the modes we think about the concepts of space and place should take into consideration this new ‘Weltanschauung’.

Of course, my perplexities are not just directed to the traditional expressions used by many physicists; by the same token, I always become suspicious every time I read or hear someone speaking of ‘physical space’; either you are a physicist, a philosopher, a social scientist or an architect, it is the same: my position is that space is not physical. To say that ‘bodies cross, traverse, or exist in space’ – this is a mantra for architects since at least one century – is to reduce a complex phenomenon – the relation between body and place – to a minimal source of information (abstract dimensional information). We lose a great deal of information if we speak of space rather than of place when we refer to actual processes and phenomena: this is, after all, a danger behind the modes of abstraction. ‘Physical space’ is just a figurative expression, an ambiguous expression (an unwarranted oxymoron), which, in my opinion, covers up complex epistemological and ontological questions. We take for granted ‘physical space’ in our talks and discourses on, perception, psychology, phenomenology, physics, philosophy, geography, sociology, anthropology, art, architecture, etc., without even questioning the epistemological and ontological issues that are implicated with such an ambiguous expression, where that which is actual meets the ideal and vice-versa.

5. Modern Modes of Thought and the Senses of Place and Space

As an architect, I have experienced first-hand that the plain adoption of the senses of space as if they pertain to the realm of actual phenomena – that is, space conceived of as the arena of things and events, or, even, space the container where actual bodies exist, move in or roam through – exposes our thinking to different kind of fallacies. In general, fallacies of thinking are a menace to our existence, since concepts – expressed through language – ultimately determine our pragmatic approach and behaviours with respect to reality, or, to put it differently, they determine the way we act upon reality, the way we transform it. If we misplace the abstract for the concrete – if we misplace space for place – or, conversely, if we blindly take the Archytian belief (and, to a certain extent, the Aristotelian belief) that ‘everything is in place but place is in nothing’ [10], or, again, if we use those concepts interchangeably across different domains without properly taking into account the epistemological and ontological range of those concepts, I believe we fail to understand the different, yet reciprocal or correlated characters of reality (one concrete, the other abstract), which are expressed through those concepts. Ultimately, this fact can blow upon us in many different ways.

Architecture – my discipline -, just like other disciplines, intrinsically exists across that which is concrete and that which is abstract; it is especially touched by these questions on the senses of place and space that I’m going to consider through the pages of this blog. By focusing on space only, architects miss the point of the discipline; and they also miss the point if they mistake space for a part of place, or if they do not elucidate the relation between space and place, considering them as separated entities, or if they use them as unclarified notions [11]. Despite any reduction of reality to ultimate forms of knowledge, and despite any misleading disciplinary expectation, if we really want our efforts to be directed towards overcoming the many difficult challenges in the dawning of a New Era [12] – I mean cultural, technological, economic, political, social, religious and environmental challenges in primis -, everybody, not just architects, should try to expose the circularity between place and space, that is, the circularity between that which is actual and that which is ideal (or even possible) as different yet complementary parts of one and the same encompassing reality, which is, first and foremost, a place.

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Image 2: Between Mind and Matter: risks behind the fallacious interpretation of the concepts of space and place at the dawning of a New Era.


[1] The Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), Volume XI, 937- 942.

[2] In Physics (212a 20-21) Aristotle defines place – ‘topos’ in Greek – ‘the innermost motionless boundary of the container’ (W.D. Ross, Aristotle’s Physics. A Revised Text with Introduction and Commentary, p. 376), or, in Edward Casey’s words: ‘the first unchangeable limit – ‘peras’ in Greek – of that which surrounds’ (Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place, p. 55). I rely on a revised interpretation of Aristotle’s definition of place to give complementary ontological and epistemological foundations to reality-as-place: then, for me, an entity becomes actual as soon as a boundary, or limit, is formed. It is because of such funding boundary (the meeting point of ontological and epistemological interrelated dimensions) that reality emerges as place under the guise of matter, that is: place-and-matter appears all at once, since – out of any epistemological distinction – they are ultimately the same. Therefore, somewhat differently from Aristotle, I take the split between matter and place a linguistic, conceptual, or epistemological division primarily, rather than an actual distinction. By saying that reality is a place (of processes in which and out of which entities exist and emerge), I’m trying to find a way to overcome the original dualism that afflicted Western thinking since its beginning.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), 356. This is the extended quotation: ‘A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its essential unfolding’.

[4] Ultimately, it is the immanent, gathering quality of place that enables us to speak of ontological, epistemological and phenomenological dimensions explicitly; this position, inevitably modern, separates us from past theories of place and space.

[5] I will often use the terms ‘implaced’, instead of emplaced or even placed, and ‘implacement’, instead of emplacement or even placement, since – as Edward Casey acutely observed – the prefix ‘im’ stresses the action of ‘getting in’ or ‘getting into’, which is adequate to describe the active agency that I ascribe to the correlation between matter and place: from an ontological perspective, it is the emergence of matter that creates its own place as well as – from a correlate epistemological perspective – it is place that allows the appearance/existence of matter within its boundary. The prefix ‘im’ is the linguistic signal of the active process that is intrinsic to the creation of matter-as-place, or to use Edward Casey’s words ‘it carries connotations of immanence that are appropriate to the inhabitation of places’. See, Edward S. Casey, Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), xiii, 315. See also the note 10 in the article – Preliminary Notes.

[6] The systems emerging from the actualization of their respective processes are organized according to an evolutionary order with each higher system ‘more recent and more Dynamic than the lower ones’ — see Table 1, in the article From Space to Place. The phrase in italics is taken from Robert M. Pirsig, American novelist and philosopher, to whom I’m indebted for having offered me, with his works, a first accessible glimpse into a novel theoretical framework through which seeing the phenomena of the world. In, Robert M. Pirsig, “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values”, in Einstein meets Magritte: An Interdisciplinary Reflection, eds. D. Aerts, J. Brokaert and E. Mathijs (Dorrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, 1999), 92.

[7] The term ‘reality’ comes from ‘res’, a Latin word, which means ‘thing’. Now, according to Aristotle ‘actuality’ and ‘potentiality’ are modalities through which a substance can be; substance is the logical and metaphysical premise for a thing to be, and I interpret the ‘potential’ state of things as an ‘ideal’ or even ‘possible’ state, or realm, which has a reciprocal character with respect to that which is ‘actual’. We are moving in between a series of dyadic relations: the encounter between the concrete and the abstract, or, otherwise said, between the actual and the ideal, or, again, between the bounded (topos) and the unbounded or limitless (apeiron), and, in the end, the encounter between the object and the subject, allow us to have a full grasp of the reality of any entities that emerge from certain processes (entities are the place of processes).

[8] This is a quotation from Edward Casey’s book The Fate of Place (p. 181). The quotation is relative to the alternative view of Leibniz with respect to the Cartesian dualism between Matter and Mind. Even if Leibniz concurred to the adumbration of concept of place reducing it to position, situs or even point (for a more extended treatment of the argument, see my article ‘Place and Space: A Philosophical History, in which I examine Casey’s book) in his philosophy, and especially in the Monadology, there are vast possibilities for the concept of place to regain its ancient power, animation and dynamism (the reference is to the ‘power’ that the concept of place had in the ancient past with thinkers like Aristotle, Archytas, or the Neo-Platonists Iamblicus, Proclus, and Simplicius): in fact, as Casey underlines, the organic body of the monad is intimately tied to place and this opens up the possibility of ‘a middle region were the material and the mental are inextricably intertangled’. This argument will be the subject of many forthcoming articles where I will try to elucidate the legacy that my understanding of place has with respect to different thinkers that, in the past or even in more recent times, elaborated theories of place and/or space. In the same page in which Casey speaks about the philosophy of Leibniz and its possible influence with respect to Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism, we also read: ‘in its role as mediatrix and carried to a biological limit, place would become something like a bioregion, or ecological niche’. I see a concordance between this conceptualization of place Casey speaks about and the way I understand place: specifically, according to my definition of place, such ‘bioregion’ would be the emergent place of physicochemical and biological processes, primarily.

[9] The Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), Volume XVI, 87-92.

[10] For the extended explanation of what could be termed  ‘Archytian axiom‘ – ‘everything is in place but place is in nothing’ – I redirect you to Casey’s The Fate of Place (4, 43, 52, 82, 204, 289, 336), and to the articles The Τόπος of a Thing and Body, Place, Existence.

[11] I have taken the expression ‘unclarified notions’ from Edward Casey, who used it with specific reference to the concept of place, for which, in the present historical moment – Casey says -, there is a ‘burgeoning interest’ within different contexts – especially in architecture, anthropology and ecology – but such interest ‘leaves place itself an unclarified notion’. I believe the same can be said of space (at least this is certainly true within my direct field of competence – architecture), that’s why I’ve used the plural form ‘unclarified notions’. Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), xii.

[12] Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen, declared the Anthropocene to be the dawn of a new human-influenced geologic Era following the Holocene; see: J. Paul Crutzen, “The Anthropocene“, in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, eds. Ehlers and Krafft (New York: Springer, 2006). Scientists are currently collecting data to propose a start date for the new Era, which should be comprised between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the nuclear tests in 1945. Regardless of this peculiar, technical, issue, questions of space and place are deeply entangled with the development of the scientific mind and this, in turn, is what ultimately changed our modes of thought and behaviours (ecological, social, political, economic, technological, cultural, intellectual, religious, etc.) with respect to our ancestors. That’s why concepts of space and place have such capital importance: behind their conceptualization, we may find an unexpected way to think about what we are, where do we come from, and most of all, where we’re going.

Works Cited

Casey, Edward S. Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

—. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Crutzen, J. Paul. “The Anthropocene“, in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, edited by Ehlers and Krafft. New York: Springer, 2006.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Volume XI, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Volume XVI, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Pirsig Robert M. “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values”. In Einstein meets Magritte: An Interdisciplinary Reflection, edited by D. Aerts,  J. Brokaert and E. Mathijs. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, 1999.

Ross, William David. Aristotle’s Physics. A Revised Text with Introduction and Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936.