Place Kicks Us Back, Space…

Diesel pre fall 2015 Campaign (elaborated image).

… does not. Heidegger’s introductive paragraph of the book What Is a Thing? — which is the extended subject of the forthcoming article — is particularly appropriate for a further clarification concerning the concepts of place and space (or, at least, it is appropriate for a clarification concerning my proposal for rethinking those concepts). As the title of the book suggests, Heidegger’s focus is on the concept of the thing, and given that things are intimately connected to (the concepts of) place and space, we may gain some insights on those concepts from analysing the concept of the thing. Very briefly, Heidegger says that there are ‘various ways of questioning about the Thing’,[1] that is, we can distinguish three different meanings: there can be (i) things like buildings, rocks, flowers, or, in general, inanimate and animate physical bodies. These are the entities that Heidegger also calls ‘present-at-hand’, that is entities that we can have a physical connection with, things that we perceive, see, touch, hold and use for some purpose or scope (this is the particular case of things that Heidegger also calls ready-to-hand).[2] Heidegger calls this sense concerning the thing ‘the narrower or limited meaning of thing’.[3] Then, there is (ii) a wider sense that can also be attributed to the thing: in fact, along with (i) the things present-at-hand, Heidegger says that, ‘in the wider meaning of the term, the “thing” is every affair or transaction, something that is in this or that condition, the things that happen in the world – occurrences, events’ .[4] Few lines later, Heidegger says that this wider meaning of the thing includes ‘whatever is named but which includes also plans, decision, reflections, loyalties, actions, historical things…’.[4b] The characterization of the meaning of the thing as ‘whatever is named’ introduces another distinction between the thing and the word which names the thing: the thing-chair I’m sitting on, at this moment, is either a physical thing (a thing present-at-hand) and a word which names that thing; therefore, according to this perspective, the thing is also an abstract entity in the sense of linguistic tool which represents the thing present-at-hand. In this case, the thing may also have a more general or universal sense, which includes any chair we might think of. It is through such a universal and more abstract sense of the thing that we can understand each other by means of verbal or written communication, which can be deferred in time with respect to the actual and present existence of the thing. Thereafter, Heidegger says that there is (iii) a third way of understanding the word thing, or, in Heidegger’s own words: ‘there is still another use of this word [thing] in the widest possible sense […]; all these [that is the things with meanings ‘i’ and ‘ii’] and anything else that is a something (ein Etwas) and not nothing’.[5] Those things which are not approachable through experience, like God, faith, the number five, or the signs > <, or, even, the words ‘and’, ‘either/or’ are other examples given by Heidegger to understand the meaning of things in the widest possible sense.

Image 1: Three different meanings of the thing according to M. Heidegger.

Heidegger notes that the proposed distinction is still uncertain,[6] therefore open to different interpretations. I believe this is especially true with respect to the distinction between meanings (ii) and (iii) which is sometimes a blurred  distinction in the realm of more abstract meanings concerning the thing. In spite of that, I believe the main point of the distinction proposed by Heidegger is easier to handle if we give it the following interpretation: to use an expression that I have instrumentally introduced in a previous article, some of the things belonging to the meanings (ii) and (iii) certainly do not kick us back, in the sense that we cannot see, hold, touch or feel if ‘plans, decisions, reflections…’ or even God, the number five, the signs ‘> <’, the word ‘and’ are actually hot, warm, cold, soft, hard, green or yellow…[7] that is, we cannot directly and physically hold, touch and see (or even smell and taste) those ‘things’. Conversely, things of the kind (i) kick us back. Without entering the question of how sensation and cognition is structured, I really feel and see the soft fabric of the red chair I’m sitting on at this moment, as well as I feel pain or I feel the reaction (pressure) that the stone that I have vigorously kicked away exerted on me. That’s why it can be said that things of this kind kick us back: specifically, we have to recall the famous episode of Dr Samuel Johnson, an English literate of the XVIII century, who, during a discussion concerning the difficulty to refute the non-existence of the material world outside of perception (namely, Berkeley’s subjective idealism), kicked a big stone so that his foot rebounded, thereby exclaiming ‘I refute it, thus’.[8] Actually, the expression derived from that episode – ‘reality kicks back’- was about the attempt to find a way to refute Berkeley’s idealism (as a matter of fact, kicking a stone cannot prove the independent existence of that stone as a kind of reality in itself, but, again, it proves that all the senses participate in the chain of events between the object-stone and the subject that kicks that stone), but given that we are interested in the correlation between the object (-thing) and the subject, we adapt that expression to our scopes. As an anticipation concerning the next article, Heidegger’s intention in the book What Is a Thing? is to discuss the first meaning of the thing: the thing in the ‘narrower sense’, or the thing ‘present-at-hand’, that is, the thing as a concrete entity, or, as I have just said, the thing that kicks us back.

Now, to come back to the meanings of place and space that I have introduced in this virtual site, we could ask: given the distinction made by Heidegger, which group do place and space belong to? Do place and space kick us back or not? To begin with, I maintain that while place can be understood either as a concrete entity (a concrete thing) and a word that describes that concrete entity, conversely, space can only be understood as an abstract entity (an abstract thing), and, of course, as a word which names the abstract entity. Taking for granted that, by way of communication, we are immersed in a linguistic domain which fills the gap or enacts the correlation between concrete things and abstract things, then, we can say that place is concrete, while space is abstract. Place kicks us back, space does not.

To say that a person, or any physical entity — a wasp, dust particles, etc. — moves within the space comprised between the floor and the ceiling is a convenient expression to understand a certain situation or event. As a matter of fact, that person, or that physical entity is always moving in/through a place (i.e. the room, which is the name-thing that defines an ensemble of things present-at-hand) or from a place to another place (i.e. the door and the sofa, which are the names that define things present-at-hand). Then, no physical entity can move in space, or through space, actually, since concrete physical entities are things (i) present-at-hand which always move or exist between other concrete things that are themselves present-at-hand. Strictly speaking, it is logically inconsistent to say that they move (or exist) between things that are not present-at-hand, or are abstract. Unless we intend those things with figurative intent: we know they are abstract but, for the sake of communication, we treat them as if they were concrete. I have no objection at this regard — I have no objection regarding the figurative use of the thing-space, after all this is a possibility offered by the human language — even though there can be risky omissions by merging things belonging to different realms, especially for those figures who deal with notions like space and place professionally (architects, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, social scientists, artists, politicians, etc.). If we underestimate or neglect the fact that a concrete thing cannot move within an abstract domain or in-between abstract things, we are committing a logical fallacy. However, the real question concerning the concrete reality of place and/or space can ultimately be reduced to the following one: how can we maintain that place is concrete and space is abstract, if they are both words which name things, to begin with (either these things belong to the group ‘i’, ‘ii’ or ‘iii’)? Isn’t it a matter of convention to say that place is concrete (or that it generically refers to an entity present-at-hand) and space is abstract? Why cannot I say that space is concrete like Newton, and many others have said after him (and, in some cases, before him)? After all, this is still the prevailing view. Of course, we can say that. Of course, it is a matter of convention to attribute a certain name to a certain thing.  However, these ‘words’ which name the thing — I mean place and space, while the named thing is the continuum that keeps reality together and ordered as a kind of supportive background that allows things to exist and be located, see the article Place, Space, and the Fabric of Reality — have long histories behind them and I believe we must know those histories to fully understand and appreciate the meanings and the changes concerning those meanings – this is, after all, my intent with the past articles (Back to the Origins of Space and Place, Place and Space: A Philosophical History, Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part I and II), and the articles that I will post down the road. If we can trace the histories of the two concepts – space and place – back to the origins, I believe we are in a better position to assign an appropriate domain and meaning to those words (and say, with me, that place is concrete, while space is abstract). If we consider the history of those words — the history of space and place — the risk to commit a fallacy (to misplace the concrete for the abstract or vice-versa) is lower. Once history has established that an entity is abstract, and a name has been given to that entity, any revision of meaning should consider that historical fact as a basic fact; however, this does not imply that we cannot propose revisions for those meanings or, better, extensions of the original meanings (this is after all what I’m trying to do, especially for that which concerns the traditional meaning of place). I’m saying that those who deal with space and place professionally have to deal with the history of those concepts, and cannot accept them passively according to the traditional use or convention.

I want to briefly come back to the way I understand place and space with respect to the distinction made by Heidegger, concerning the thing. I have said that if we refer to that distinction, we can put place into group (i) – the group of things that kick us back: in fact, for me, place — I mean the named thing — is the really existent physical continuum that keeps reality together and ordered, which is another expression for the background of things and happenings, or, as I have also said elsewhere, the arena of things (see my definition of place in the article What Is Place? What Is Space? and also the article Place, Space, and the Fabric of Reality, for more detailed argumentation). Of course, place is also the word which names the thing. Yet, besides that general and common sense of place, I have also said that place is the positive and particular concretization of any process into matter (materialization has as its intrinsic correlate localization): both senses of place [9] — one, more general, which we could call the ‘background sense’, and the other, more particular, which we could call the ‘figure sense’ — converge towards the characterization of place as a (i) concrete thing or entity. Conversely, space, apart from being a word, is the ideal/abstract domain where (abstract) things are located, or, more straightforwardly, it is the arena of thought — I have said in the previous articles. What is characteristic of this abstract, ideal or cognitive domain is that, except from the mind that created it, space can exist independently of any concrete/abstract thing or happening: we can imagine a space where there is no thing (apart from space itself: a void container). At first, this ideal domain has been formalized as a fully-fledged geometrical entity (therefore, an abstract entity), after a very long historical debate: in fact, in the origin, space — the Greek stadion or spadion — was characterized as a mono-dimensional extension or distance (that is a thing-entity which extends in-between the broader and the widest possible sense of the thing given by Heidegger – do you remember stadion/spadion was the distance which a yoke of oxen could drag, and a man could steer the plough without a rest? See the article Back to the Origins of Space and Place). Following the very long debate after which the word space has been adopted to formalize the ‘background space’ for geometrical entities, the step was short before it could be misplaced for the actual background for the things present-at-hand (therefore, a thing belonging to group of the things ‘i’ present-at hand, instead of an abstract thing as it should be, and as it was in the origin); it was Newton who took that step.[10] The misplaced application of the concept of space in the domain of concrete things generated what, for different but related circumstances (i.e. the concept of simple location), the Anglo American philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead named ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’:[11] in our case, an abstract entity – space — misplaced for a concrete entity — place or the actual continuum that keeps things related and ordered. Apart from the logical inconsistency I have hinted at before, that conception of space (technically, absolute space) had also intrinsic physical limits that Einstein exposed more accurately and before than others: he understood that ‘time’ was necessary to define that overarching order between things (a relational order according to Einstein) more precisely and realistically than Newton did,  thus he merged space with time into a new entity — spacetime —, but this move was not enough to revert the original error, since the cosmic order is One, that is: it is simultaneously spatial/placial, temporal and material (it is the scope of contemporary physics research to work out this incongruity). Before this quite-recent attempt of revision, the concept of space defined by Newton was successfully adopted by almost any discipline: from physics to philosophy, from psychology to geography, from sociology to architecture, etc., until it became a… commonplace (there is an unprescindable sense of irony, here). This (understanding of) space had – and still has – within itself an inherent logical flaw: the inappropriate merging of orders (the concrete and the abstract) that cannot merge but which are correlated. From the attempt to correct this flaw, which is widely diffused and has more or less direct consequences on the daily life of people ever since Newton has written that concept in stone, aroused many instances of revision in different fields of knowledge: the one devised by Einstein is probably the most known and illuminating example. Taken together, all of those instances of revision (see the final parts of Casey’s and Barbour’s books, which I have dealt with in the articles Place and Space: A Philosophical History and Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part I) are influencing, and will influence in future the way people conceive space, place and the concept of the material thing as well. With my present work, as an architect interested in this theoretical debate, I’m joining those who work for rethinking the concepts of space and place.

An objection that can be done to my proposal for rethinking the concepts of space and place regards the apparent contrast between my reforming vision of place (and space) and the constant appeal I make to history, more specifically to Aristotle, who must be credited as the one who put the spatial/placial question on the table, more straightforwardly than others. Specifically, Aristotle openly defined what place (topos) was: ‘the first unchangeable limit (peras) of that which surrounds’.[12]  As I like to say, and analogously to what Newton did for the concept of space many centuries later, Aristotle has written the concept of place in stone; the debate on place (and space) that followed that definition was fostered by the critical reaction to that definition. In my constant research for the original source of meaning for space and place, Aristotle was certainly a starting point other than a constant reference; it was by reading some pieces of Aristotle and the interpretations that historians and philosophers gave to the thinking of Aristotle that I began to discern between place and space critically and philosophically. Limiting ourselves to the concepts of place and space, I understood that Aristotle especially had the concept of place (topos) at his dialectical disposal, since, as we know, the ancient Greeks had no understanding of space, and no words for it, compared to the modern way of understanding that concept (I mean space as the self-autonomous container/background for any thing or any process, completely detached from things or processes); in fact, apart from topos-as-place, other ancient Greek placial/spatial terms like chōra and kenon had quite different shades of meaning with respect to what we usually call space. In spite of that (and in spite of the fact that I have credited Aristotle for being the first philosophers who formalized this debate), in the premises, my position is quite different, if not opposite, than that of Aristotle: in fact, while Aristotle’s starting point concerning the definition of place (in book 4 of the Physics), was the denial of place as ‘either the matter, or the shape’[13] of things (this fact meaning that if an entity is neither matter nor shape, it is hard to believe that such entity can be physical, therefore, if we stick to this Aristotelian premise, I believe we couldn’t include Aristotle’s entity topos-as-place within Heidegger’s category of physical things), from an opposite perspective, I say that place is physical, to begin with — and this is my premise;[14] therefore, for me, place certainly belongs to the Heideggerian category of (i) concrete things, or things present-at-hand. There seems to be a ‘substantial’ distinction between Aristotle’s fundamental definition of place and my proposal for rethinking the same concept (independently of any difference or coincidence, I believe that no proposed solution to the enigma of place and space can escape Aristotle’s confrontation). However, what at a first sight may appear as an almost irreconcilable difference between the same two concepts, if we carefully consider the question, I believe there are also points of contact: on the one side, Aristotle says that place cannot be ‘either the matter, or the shape’ of a thing, but, on the other side, he also says that all things are in place (‘every body perceptible by sense is in place’),[15] thereby, giving rise to what I consider a positive circularity between the concrete and the abstract (and, for the case of the spatial/placial debate, this correlation between different realms is even more explicit in Plato’s choral model — choral, from chōra, in the sense that it is pervasive of both physical/concrete and ideal/abstract aspects);[16] in fact, Aristotle’s constant appeal to physicality for place-based questions (i.e. the relation between place, material entities and motion) implies place belonging to the realm of physical things (were it not for the fact that Aristotle makes his case for place in the book entitled Physike akroasis – Hearkening to Nature — as Casey observed).[17]  This double fold of place, this fundamental ambiguity, or positive circularity, as I’d prefer to say, is something that also belongs to the definition of place I have proposed. Leaving aside the abstract sense of place derived from being a word which names a thing in the Heideggerian sense, I believe place is also abstract given that, as I have showed in the past articles (see especially What Is Place? What Is Space?, The Τόπος of a Thing, and Place, Space, and the Fabric of Reality), it is construed upon different layers from more physical to more abstract, ideal or symbolic.

Apart from this circularity or complementarity between concrete and abstract aspects that characterizes the way I understand place, and which has some points of contact with Aristotle’s (and Plato’s) placial/spatial understanding of reality, there is another important sense of ‘my’ thing-place that is elaborated following Aristotle’s definition — a sense which characterizes the very meaning of place, as well as the meaning of the thing: I’m referring to the ‘limiting’ function of boundaries, and, after them, the possibility of existence for things and places as separated entities from other things and places. To put it bluntly, either in the case of Aristotle’s definition or in the case of my proposal, I believe place has a fundamental ontological value: we could say that the original capacity of place to surrounding and containing things (in the Aristotelian sense) has a fundamental ontological value (which, according to me, also calls to our minds Plato’s notion ‘chōra’, even if the surrounding and containing aspects are replaced by a ‘nurturing’ factor; in any case such notions — topos and chōra — are intrinsically connected with the existence of things). But what Aristotle simply calls place, I also call thing: the limit (peras) that determines the Aristotelian place of the thing, for me, cannot be severed from the thing itself (if not for figurative and communication scopes, as — I think — Aristotle also thought),[18] since that ‘limit’ gives definition to a region of particular processes concretized into matter or substance; in other words, that limit as thing/place allows the concretization (revelation, appearance in the original Greek sense of the term  —phaínomai — that’s why both things and places are phenomena) of something against nothing or, better, of something against something other. Without that limit, there is no place for the thing, because without that limit there is no thing at all. That’s why I think that my definition of place is closer to Aristotle than it may formally appear, at a first sight.

Such ontological value pertaining to Aristotle’s model of place has been pointed out several times by Casey, in his book — The Fate of Place; this value allows me to make the case for another important clarification concerning the concept of place. Aristotle’s model is an active and relational containing (and/or sustaining) model that can be misplaced for a passive container model, if we merely stick to his famous definition without considering it part of a wider cosmological and, above of all, physical model. That’s why I prefer to call Aristotle’s model of place a containing/sustaining model rather than simply a container model; the difference is in the subtle but important discriminant concerning the active role that place has (not only ontologically-containing but also physically-sustaining) with respect to the things (and/or the processes) that it locates. For me, the active form or verb — in the expression ‘containing model’ — offers the idea of the active agency that place has in Aristotle’s theory, more directly and less ambiguously than a passive form or name — ‘container model’. As we have already seen in the chapter dedicated to Aristotle’s theory of place and motion by Barbour (which I have dealt with in the article Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part I), for Aristotle, place has some active power to exert on things, given that such things move according to it (heavy things as well as light things have their natural places and move according to them). In Aristotle’s model, any localized entity is already charged with attributes for the very fact that place has some power to exert on that entity (as we have said: ontologically containing and physically sustaining). Were it not like that, were it not for the ontological value that place has, we would always confront with a perfect no-thing and not with things detached from their places/spaces as in Newton’s model. Place — topos — and placialization are notions that are intrinsically imbued with creation, with the existence of things (the same holds for the other spatial/placial notion chōra); conversely, this ontologically-containing value (a nurturing value in Plato’s model) does not apply to space, (which originates as a neutral concept, detached from and without any agency on the thing); that’s why I’m loath to translate topos and chōra for space. It is the interpretation of place (topos) as a container model (rather than a containing model), devoid of any active power, which may have led scholars to misplacing the Aristotelian topos for space, and to misplace place for space, spoiling it from its original and characteristic active agency (somehow ambiguously, I often read, from social scientists or psychologists especially, that when space is charged with values it becomes a place; I disagree the ambiguous linguistic use of these spatial/placial terms: space cannot turn into place, unless we are gifted with the divine power of hypostatization; however, I understand the historical passages and reasons that have led to adopt this phrasal mode of expression, which is now common and almost universally accepted). I close here this brief excursion into Aristotle’s concept of place, which I have taken as an example for inquiring into some possible criticism concerning the conception of place I’m arguing for in this website.

I believe it would be interesting to repeat the same expedient I have used with respect to Aristotle’s concept of place (topos) in its confrontation with the Heideggerian case for concrete and abstract things, and to extend it to the concepts of place and/or space devised by Plato, Descartes, Newton and Einstein. I have specifically mentioned these authors since they are, for me, pivotal authors for inquiring into the meanings of place and/or space.  Then, the question we should answer to is the following: are their concepts of place and/or space abstract or concrete? Or, to stick to the title of this article: do their concepts of place and/or space kick (us) back, or not? Again, this would give me the opportunity to confront their conceptions with my reformed proposal concerning those concepts, and hopefully to give you further clarification regarding the intent of my proposal (the following brief and specific excursion into such pivotal authors does not exhaust the necessity of future articles that illustrate their works more in detail).

As concerns Plato, if Aristotle’s theory was focused on the concept ‘topos’, which, for a number of reasons, I prefer to translate for place rather than space (this is also the prevailing view), Plato’s spatial/placial theory, exposed in the Timeus, was focused on another concept — chōra —,which is a difficult concept to translate into a single modern spatial/placial term: my initial temptation is to resist any translation, even if it is commonly  translated for ‘space’, more often than ‘place’ or ‘region’. ‘Space’ is also the term used by E. Casey to translate ‘chōra’ when he had to introduce Plato’s work in The Fate of Place.[19] Apart from the specific reason I mentioned above, the generic reason why I’m  hesitating to translate chōra for space (or even place, or region), is that we lose very important shades of meaning with a plain translation into a single modern word (for additional information on the meaning of the ancient term chōra see the article Back to the Origins of Space and Place); I’m also sure that the same argument could be used with respect to the Aristotelian topos-as-place,  even if in one case — chōra — the author himself (Plato) says this is a difficult notion to understand, something to be ‘apprehendedby a sort of bastard reasoning’,[20] while in the other case — topos — the author (Aristotle) gives an explicit definition, which has the merit of reducing — but not eliminating — the number of possible interpretations. Chōra is a rich term, with shades of meaning that span from more concrete to more abstract, from place to space we also could say: it is a matrix for creation, however ‘although it takes on material qualities, it is not itself composed of matter’;[21] it is place-providing, even if ‘it has no place of its own’;[22] it is the necessary ‘where’ for demiurgic creation, which ‘consists in the configuration and specification of things in particular places within a pre-given (and already regionalized) Space’.[23] I think chōra may represent a sort of third realm (that’s why it is a notion to be apprehended by a sort of bastard reasoning): the encounter between the actual and the ideal, between being and becoming, and ultimately, between place and space — a sort of Yin-Yang unity. That’s why I would say that, from the very beginning, the nature of chōra devised by Plato is able to accept the concrete and the abstract as the result of a seamless principle of processuality that is construed through correlated phases, as when the potentiality of a tree (abstract thing) contained within a seed, develops into an actual tree (concrete thing). This is exactly the function of chōra: the ground (space? Place?) where the possible becomes actual, where becoming and being meet to renovate their reciprocal belongingness, thereby encompassing the realm of existence of any thing (both the abstract and the concrete, the ideal and the actual). Therefore, were we to define chōra with respect to the scheme of concrete and abstract things (or — to stick to Heidegger’s distinction — the narrower and the widest sense), I would say that chōra encompasses both the concrete and the abstract sense of the thing. Then, from a different perspective (more articulated), the spatial/placial/concrete/abstract sense that we have found in Aristotle’s topos is even more present in Plato’s chōra, which is permeated by both concrete and abstract aspects even if, strictly speaking, we could also say that, in itself, chōra is neither concrete nor abstract. Then, we ask: does chōra kick us back or not? According to the aspect we are focusing our attention on, chōra may or may not kick us back. It is as if by the fact of being a name (a more abstract characterization of the thing, according to the Heideggerian distinction) chōra, at the same time, may include the possibility of becoming a concrete paricular thing (in the form of materialized process, that is, as a material entity in a particular place — i —) or may exclude it, preserving the status of possibility and universality, which can be intrinsic in any abstract thing.

One millennium and a half later, from another different perspective — enriched by countless debates that tried to eviscerate the spatial/placial question — the fundamental (positive) ambiguity that is traceable to Plato, before than Aristotle, is somehow preserved in the work of Descartes. Yet, this time, ambiguity is only one step away from obscurity or, more literally, con-fusion. With Descartes, we have to face another order of difficulties: the richness of senses contained in Plato’s and Aristotle’s single notions — chōra and topos — is now split into different words and concepts: to recover those ancient senses (and values), Descartes needs to confront with space, place, and matter as completely autonomous notions. After more than one millennium, the official language of learned men turned from Greek to Latin and now, at the dawn of the modern era, from Latin into regional languages (so Galileo writes in Italian, Descartes in French, Newton in English, even if, at that time, Latin was still the language common to scholars from different countries); the spatial/placial sense as well as the concrete/abstract reciprocal belongingness that is included in those ancient Greek notions — chōra and topos — is now a dichotomy if not a trichotomy marked by the clean division between material and placial/spatial terms and concepts (matter, or substance,  place and space, properly). To solve the dilemma of place and space Descartes disappointed almost everyone’s expectations, delivering us one of the most controversial definitions in his Principle-X included in his Principles of Philosophy: ‘There is no real distinction between space, or internal place, and the corporeal substance contained in it; the only difference lies in the way in which we are accustomed to conceive of them’.[24] He is saying that space, place, and matter are fundamentally One, or the same entity. They only differ in degree, not in substance; we decide the degree of that difference, that is to say: their difference is merely conceptual. I’m not that far from Descartes’s view, quite the contrary: after all, in my writings about place and space, from the very beginning, I’ve said that things (that is, matter) and places are not different (their difference is conceptual, a mode of communication rather than a different mode of being, see the articles Places Everywhere, What Is Place? What Is Space?, The Τόπος of a Thing); and I’ve also said that space inherits them all, provided we think of space as a conceptual tool (an idea) rather than a concrete entity-thing: space, the arena of thought – I have said, which can also be seen as the reciprocal counterpart of place, the arena of things: one is abstract the other concrete, and both are necessary to recompose reality into a fundamental unit. But I suspect this explicit ‘different’ nature that space has for me with respect to place and the corporeal substance is also traceable to Descartes, provided we go beyond that ambiguous — or obscure, for many — definition; in fact, Descartes is the real inventor of the first-ever formalized abstract space: geometrical space. This brand-new entity, without any doubt, belongs to the group of abstract things, if we refer to Heidegger’s distinction. I believe this fact puts space on a different perspective with respect to place and the corporeal thing, and I’m sure Descartes also realized that difference. That’s why I’m quite confident in saying that Descartes’s place kicks us back, while Descartes’s space, being an abstract entity (a geometrical entity to begin with), does not. Again, the fact that he relies on a formal definition and the way he has formulated that definition to clarify the nature of space and place (he puts focus on the epistemological side of the question by saying that ‘the only difference lies in the way in which we are accustomed to conceive of them’ ) implies that he is aware of the symbolic charge of the language (not differently from Plato and Aristotle, I would add); then he certainly recognized the value of place, matter, and space as nominal entities to come back to Heidegger’s distinction concerning the wider or widest meaning of the thing.

Now, as for Newton, I will be direct: there is no possibility to interpret his concepts differently from what he has delivered us so neatly and clearly, in the Principia (see the article Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part I dedicated to the presentation of Barbour’s book The Discovery of Dynamics). There is an evident break with respect to the past, here: space and place are unambiguously concrete things (place is a derivative notion from space; place has lost any power that it had in the past: that power has been ‘usurped’ by space). Or to say it another way: Newton’s concepts of space and place kick us back. Were it not like that, he wouldn’t have been able to formulate his Laws of Motion; as we have already seen in the aforementioned articles, in Newton’s theorization, everything hinges around the concept of (absolute) space, which is the concrete entity with respect to which we can consider the motion of physical bodies.

The final, pivotal author I mentioned, is Einstein. Here, the spatial (but also placial and material) question is so rich, complicate and still open to different interpretations that it explicitly deserves a follow-up piece that I will base on Ludwik Kostro’s book Einstein and the Ether. Apart from the ether named in the title of that book (a new, updated or ‘reformed’ kind of ether, which perfectly fits the research thread that permeates the intentions of this website), the entities under investigation are absolute and relative space, physical space, time, spacetime, of course, fields and (often in the background, sometimes in the foreground) matter and place, which, in a way or another, are all implicated in the concept of the (‘new’) ether, and which sometimes are thought of as concrete things, sometimes as abstract things or concepts, if we refer to Heidegger’s schematization. We will see Einstein changing his view on spatial/placial issues, according to the three main phases of his life, which coincided with his theories: Special Relativity, General Relativity, and his final attempt to formulate the Unified Field Theory. To conclude this article, as a kind of anticipation, I can already say that the spatial/placial entity Einstein was thinking about in the final part of his academic career — the new ether — would have certainly kicked us back.


[1] ‘Various Ways of Questioning About the Thing’ is the title of Section A, in Heidegger’s book What Is a Thing?   Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? (South Bend: Gateway Editions Ltd., 1967), 1.

[2] As far as I can see the question posited by Heidegger concerning the difference between the entities present-at-hand and those ready-to-hand, I would point out ‘immediacy’ as the main character that differentiates the two categories: both entities are real and concrete, but while I’m directly engaged with the things ready-to-hand by using them for a certain scope (the black keyboards I’m typing the keys on, the red chair I’m sitting at… while I’m writing these notes), I cannot say the same for those entities that are present-at-hand but are out of my immediate reach or out of my immediate intentionality and interest while I’m writing these notes (the building outside the window, the scissors on the sofa…). Heidegger specially deals with the question of the things present-at-hand and ready-to-hand throughout Being and Time.

As concerns the presentation of the different ways through which inquiring into the nature of the things in the book What Is a Thing? – which is our main interest – Heidegger generically refers to things like ‘a piece of wood, a rock, a knife, a watch, a ball, a javelin, […] a huge building, or a depot, or a giant spruce’, that is ‘that which can be touched, reached, or seen’, as things ‘present-at-hand’ Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? (South Bend: Gateway Editions Ltd., 1967), 4, 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[4b] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 5, 6.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] I have already introduced the expression concerning reality that kicks us back, in the article Place, Space, and the Fabric of Reality – note [3].

[8] The episode I refer to is also narrated by David Deutsch in the book The Fabric of Reality David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality; The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 88.

[9] These senses of place, one more general, the other particular, have a correspondence in Aristotle: in fact, the Stagirite, introducing his case for place (topos) speaks about the two basic aspects of place: topos koinos (common place) and topos idios (special place). See Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 54.

[10] ‘After… the word space was adopted to formalize (iii) the “background space” for geometrical entities, the step was short before it could be misplaced for…’ a concrete entity; actually, this is a simplification – which, after all, is based on a kernel of truth – since there were many intersecting other than parallel histories and facts that determined the difference between abstract and concrete conceptions of space. It is the scope of this website to tell some of those histories.

[11] The proposition Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness – which gives a name to the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete – was first introduced by Alfred Whitehead in the book Science and the Modern World; Alfred N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Pelican Mentor Books, 1948), 52,54, 59.

For a highly readable account on The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness with some examples and a brief overview of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy see also: Thompson Edward H. III, “The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness: Its Importance for Critical and Creative Inquiry”, Interchange (Vol. 28/2 & 3, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997).

[12] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place, 55.

[13] Ibid., 54.

[14] By the formula ‘to begin with’ applied to place in propositions like ‘place is physical, to begin with’, I want to point out that place is, first of all, physical. Yet, this does not mean that it is exclusively physical: as I have shown in a previous article – What Is Place? What Is Space? – my understanding of place is processual and historical, or evolutionary, other than ‘choral’: this means that the sense of place is construed upon different layers from more physical to more abstract. The two polar domains place may belong to – the physical and the ideal – are correlated.

[15] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place, 51.

[16] As an attribute derived from the Platonic term chōra, Edward Casey uses the technical word choric. Conversely, I have used the more common term choral, whose sense – ‘collective’ – for me also preserves some legacy with the old Platonic notion.

[17] Ibid., 53.

[18] Even if Aristotle makes a distinction between place and the thing (a conceptual distinction – I would say), he is aware of their ‘reciprocal belongingness’, as Casey says reporting the following statement by Aristotle: ‘Just as every body is in a place, so in every place there is a body’, in Edward Casey, The Fate of Place, 58.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Ibid., 37.

[21] Ibid., 32.

[22] Ibid., 33.

[23] Ibid., 35; ‘Chōra translated both as “region” and as “space” by Cornford, connotes occupied place’, Casey also says, page 34.

[24] René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. I, trans.; trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff & D. Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 227. As for internal place – locus internus – this corresponds to the volume of the body, or the place/space occupied by the body itself, while external place – locus externus – analogously to what Aristotle said, was the external surface containing the body.

Works Cited

Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. I, translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff & D. Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Deutsch, David. The Fabric of Reality; The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.,

—. What is a Thing? South Bend: Gateway Editions Ltd., 1976.

Thompson, Edward H. III. “The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness: Its Importance for Critical and Creative Inquiry”, Interchange, Vol. 28/2 & 3, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor Books, 1948.