Same Space, Different Place

The recent spread of a new biological menace — the novel virus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) — has completely changed the appearance of our cities for months: during the lockdown period, the virus that caused the Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19, literally transformed the familiar places we were used to, into ghost territories.

Image 1: Places are the result of interdependent physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes, to begin with. One between the many pieces of evidence of how biologically-related processes may affect the overall visible structure of places, altering other constitutive processes of such places, is given by the recent strain of coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. In the background of this image, a deserted Piazza del Duomo, the main square of my birth-place – Milano -, during the lockdown period (9 March-18 May 2020).

Place is any real entity emerging from inorganic, organic, social and symbolic – or intellectual – processes. For example, 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, biological and, obviously, ecological 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 addition of its constituent parts.

This is the quotation of the incipit of Paragraph 2 — ‘Rethinking the Concept of Place’ — in the article What Is Place? What Is Space? , where I introduced my reformed understanding of the concept of place. In that article, I’ve also argued that this fundamental processual structure of place is complemented by other dimensions, which I have called relational, systemic, evolutionary, and choral. The recent pandemic is an occasion for me to come back to that definition and elucidate its meaning, as well as the meaning of the assertion ‘reality is a place (of processes)’, and the related fundamental metaphysical principle ‘everything real is a place’, which I drew on for the article Places Everywhere .

Almost a decade ago, when I began my inquiry into the meaning of sustainability and environmentally-related questions, in parallel, I also kept on pursuing a certain metaphysical interest for spatial/placial and related questions  — What is Space? What is Place? What is Matter? What is Time? —, some of which accompanied me since my first years at the University, Politecnico di Milano.[1] As time passed by, I realized that our common understanding of the concepts of place and space was too narrow to tackle the complex phenomena of reality, according to men’s new understanding of it. Not just narrow, or surpassed, with respect to the new findings of physics — relativity and quantum mechanics, especially; but, also, narrow with respect to men’s new understanding of the working principles of the earth, understood as a great and complex system of interdependent ecosystems (an ‘ecosphere’) — a kind of ecologically-based knowledge that implies a new understanding of the physical and metaphysical concept of boundary, which is a concept related to spatial/placial notions (this is an issue I have briefly dealt with in the post Limit Place Appearance). I thought this fact — the epistemological limit due to the growing gap between our common understanding of spatial/placial concepts and the new scientific and philosophical conceptions of reality — could be a menace not just for the advancement of specific branches of knowledge, as physicists know very well; in the long run, I thought it could be a menace for everybody; from here derived my necessity to keep on inquiring into this subject and, eventually, the creation of this website. Yet, at that time, I couldn’t really imagine that such a metaphorical menace might have materialized so rapidly into the semblance of a virus, which is a simple and complex entity at the same time, a tiny particle which seems to defy the traditional division between living and non-living systems (again, a question of boundaries). Why did I consider that seemingly abstract epistemological issue concerning spatial concepts a menace? The main reason is that spatial concepts are basic concepts to understand and speak about the structure of reality and its variegated multitude of phenomena; included biological phenomena, as the one embodied by the recent SARS-CoV-2 and relative COVID-19 pandemic, which showed the deep entanglement between biological and sociocultural processes.[2] If spatial concepts do not reflect our changing understanding of reality anymore, we cannot address new problems with old spatial concepts: that’s why men redefine the meaning of spatial concepts in epochs of great paradigm changes, like the one we are currently living.[3] This is why it is absolutely necessary to frame the meaning of spatial concepts within a historical perspective (Place and Space: A Philosophical History; Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part One and Part Two) if we aim at rethinking those concepts to comply with the new paradigms of knowledge.

When I first hypothesized that reality was an infinite, systemic nested chain of places (places within places, within places, within places…), the distinction between places and objects also began to shade off, the same way the distinction between living and non-living entities shade off, when we speak of a virus. In that precise moment, I realized that categories, which are a logical consequence of the structure and function of language, are a necessary human attempt to communicate phenomena and events about reality, caught in their essential dimensions — a synthetic approach to grasp the systemic complexity of the phenomena around us. And I began to realize that the difference between places and objects shaded off because behind the names ‘place’, ‘object’, or even ‘body’ and ‘thing’, there was nothing but a complex entanglement of processes (physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes, to begin with — see Table 1 in the paper From Space to Place). Now, ‘the things’ which we have split the universe of processes into, and which we give a name to represent the embodiment of those processes, only partially correspond to the multitude of processes out of which those ‘things’ emerge. We can only grasp and synthesize into crystallized knowledge and language a small part of those processes: this is an intrinsic epistemological limit (a limit of knowledge and/or experience), which is common to any living being. So, it is as if the names we give to things only encompass a certain part — a peak of intensity — of the total field that includes those processes, most of which we are not conscious about. Here, the distinction between matter, field and energy made by Einstein comes to my aid: ‘Can we think of matter and field as two distinct and different realities? Given a small particle of matter, we could picture in a naive way that there is a definite surface of the particle where it ceases to exist and its gravitational field appears. In our picture, the region in which the laws of field are valid is abruptly separated from the region in which matter is present. But what are the physical criterions distinguishing matter and field? Before we learned about the relativity theory we could have tried to answer this question in the following way: matter has mass, whereas field has not. Field represents energy, matter represents mass. But we already know that such an answer is insufficient in view of the further knowledge gained. From the relativity theory, we know that matter represents vast stores of energy and that energy represents matter. We cannot, in this way, distinguish qualitatively between matter and field, since the distinction between mass and energy is not a qualitative one. By far the greatest part of energy is concentrated in matter; but the field surrounding the particle also represents energy, though in an incomparably smaller quantity. We could therefore say: Matter is where the concentration of energy is great, field where the concentration of energy is small. But if this is the case, then the difference between matter and field is a quantitative rather than a qualitative one. There is no sense in regarding matter and field as two qualities quite different from each other…There would be no place, in our new physics, for both field and matter, field being the only reality.’ [4] This is to say that we give names to matter, which represents a part of the field (where the greatest part of the energy is concentrated), which is the concretization of certain underlying processes. Every physical thing — the physicists say — can be reduced to fields; the things we give names to represent a part of those fields: that’s why, in the end, there is always an inescapable gap between names and reality, which is far more extended and complex than the names we give to its constituents. But, given that behind fields there are processes, there is another gap difficult to fill: the gap between process and reality. This fundamental vision, which tries to find a correlation between process and reality, is not new: one of the most successful philosophical attempt to find a correlation between the two was due to the Anglo-American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who extendedly wrote on this subject (I have introduced his thinking in the article The Place of Processes: Nature and Life), setting up a new cosmological vision, also known as process philosophy or philosophy of organism, which my placial/spatial theoretical framework is indebted to.[5] Further, behind this approach, we can still see traces of Plato’s fundamental attempt to close the gap between abstractness and concreteness; and I suspect this is the reason why Whitehead characterized the European philosophical tradition as ‘a series of footnotes to Plato’.[6] With a long trajectory, we are coming back to the argument that interests us most: our common understanding of the variegated phenomena of reality in connection with spatial/placial notions. As I’ve said before, reality can be characterized as an infinite chain of places (this is the term that I use instead of the more technical term ‘field’, used by physicists, which is a place, indeed: a physical state of place, properly), where ‘place’ is just the name-entity that identifies a series of processes; so, all of the entities reality is composed of (which, for the sake of communication, we could also group into four main categories: ‘things’, ‘life’, ‘society’, and ‘thought’) consist of a complex entanglement between physicochemical (things), biological (life), social (society) and symbolic processes (thought), basically. This also means that any place is fundamentally characterized by the relentless and uninterrupted action of those processes (we are looking for a correlation between being — place — and becoming — process). The recent diffusion of the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing but one of the manifold ways to show how biological processes contribute to the creation and/or modification of places; therefore, the conceptualization of place that I have envisioned through the definition above, is just a way to unveil and formalize all of the possible phenomena of reality that ‘come into place’; actually, those phenomena do not simply ‘come into place’ but they truly create or modify any place we might think of. Place is not something that pre-exists as a container of happenings: place is the happening (which has physicochemical, biological, social, and symbolic interdependent dimensions, to begin with).

Place is not something that pre-exists as a container of happenings: place is the happening

Anyone who really cares for the places we live shouldn’t neglect what is now seen as an obvious fact: the systemic interdependence between those equally fundamental and constitutive dimensions of place (physicochemical, biological, social, and symbolic). Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic has made evident how biological processes affect and are affected by that chain of processes, both human and animal-related, which taken together change the appearance of places (therefore, any definition of place should comply with these realities – physicochemical, biological, social, symbolic). Broadly speaking, in the case of the human realm, the interaction at the biological level between men and SARS-CoV-2  affected a superior chain of social and cultural processes, which includes a multitude of derivative processes and systems — political, economic, industrial, technological, educational, recreational, religious, etc., which are all dimensions of the human life, and the respective activities and places. In the case of the animal realm, the appearance of the new coronavirus (at the biological level) also affected the superior chain of animal-related processes, at the social level: e.g., groups of animals began to explore and take control of new territories (ecological niches) left unattended by human activities, because of the lockdown. In these circumstances, we can openly say that biological processes completely changed the appearance of the places we were used to (even if for a brief period, in this specific case). This is what the formula ‘place of processes’ means: each place is always a ‘place of processes’. The appearance and the dynamic of a place is affected by the processes in it (once again, I would stress that that ‘in’ is a constitutive ‘in’, in a metaphysical sense: place appears as the emergence of processes, it is not an ‘in’ that pre-exists independently of those processes or, even less, of physical entities; place is the entity). If we care about place, if we care about reality (reality is the place), we must acknowledge the processes that cause a place to exist as well as the working principles that modify it, continuously. That’s why I say that places are (the emergence of) processes: what we see, what we live in (but also who we are) is nothing but what emerges from the systemic entanglement between physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes, to begin with. If we do not understand that reality is nothing but a chain of nested places and that places are the emergence of interdependent processes that put on the same sympathetic framework all that exists — mind/body, nature/culture, man/animal, place/object, abstract/concrete, etc. (at this regard, I often speak of complementarity, circularity or of mutual immanence between seemingly opposite entities) — we will never close the gap between knowledge, or experience, and reality.[7] Before we indiscriminately start building invisible barriers everywhere trying to divide processes that can hardly be divided, we’d better try to reason on the working principles of places. If we think about the processes that constitute the identity and structure of places, maybe we will realize that the distinction between places and objects (or bodies), is not that clear and defined as we have always thought about. Epistemological and ontological levels of investigation necessarily come into play, whenever we speak about the placial/spatial domain of reality.

Image 2: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milano, March 2020.


[1] As architects know, architecture is considered a discipline of space, since the end of the XIX century  — in this regard, see the Appendix in the article On the Ambiguous Language of Space. When I was a student at the School of Architecture in Milano, I soon focused my attention on this subject with an independent number of studies, ranging from physical to philosophical, from psychological to social and cultural considerations. I think those studies were preliminary and necessary moments that allowed me to reconsider the traditional presuppositions on the concepts of space and place, after many years. With hindsight, I cannot still understand how architects can profess their art-and-science of space, if, especially during the years of their formation, there are few institutionalized moments where the meanings of space and place as such are discussed, beyond their use as unclarified notions; here comes to my mind Newton’s introductory words in the famous Scholium of the Principia: ‘I do not define time, space, place, and motion, as being well known to all‘; more than two centuries passed before Einstein could show that such concepts could have a different meaning and were everything but ‘well known‘. I think there is plenty of leeway for architectural institutions and other professional organizations to work on this specific subject with a transdisciplinary approach.

[2] As I also had the occasion to write in a past article — Back to the Origins of Space and Place —, spatial concepts derive from root-terms that belong to a handful of basic terms common to any primal language; this means placial/spatial concepts and terms are necessary to communicate basic human experiences and phenomena of reality. This is an excerpt from that article:  ‘according to the American linguist Morris Swadesh, among the list of 100 words that are considered to be constitutive of the basic vocabulary of the Proto-Indo-European language, apart from the demonstrative pronouns ‘this’ and ’that’- from which a derivative order of territorial relations may be established on the base of the adverbs of place ‘here’ and ‘there’- the only term we find that can be associated to some of the spatial/placial notions we have analysed so far is the root term *(s)teh2, precisely, whose meaning is related to the notion of position as standing. Interestingly enough that root can be recorded in almost any language belonging to the Proto-Indo-European family and only words like I, You, We, This, That, Foot, Sleep, Water, and Name are considered to be more frequent in use.’ At this regard, see  J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006), 93-98.

[3] The epochal moments that changed our visions of the Cosmos and crystallized the meanings of spatial/placial concepts for centuries can be traced back to Aristotle and Newton, as two symbolic ‘watersheds’. We are currently going towards another redefinition of our ideas of the Cosmos and consequently towards a new redefinition and formalization of spatial/placial concepts: Einstein was the one who started the process of redefinition of spatial concept in the present epoch, in consequence of a somewhat different vision of reality with respect to the past epoch characterized by Newton’s theories. At this specific regard, the British theoretical physicist Julian Barbour affirmed:  ‘Newton is truly a watershed: forward, there is no stopping until you get to Einstein (and no doubt we shall go further; indeed there are unmistakable signs that the caravan is already on the move); backward there is no logical stopping place before Aristotle or even a little earlier’; as I have said elsewhere (see the introduction of Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part One) this image offered by Barbour is consistent with what the American philosopher Edward Casey called ‘a third peripeteia’, concerning the umpteenth reformulation of meanings concerning the concepts of place and space (as the consequence of a new understanding of the working principles of reality), beginning in the epoch after Newton.

[4] In Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (London: The Scientific Book Club, 1938), 256-258.

[5] I’m especially referring to Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality – An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1978). While Whitehead escapes dualism between object and subject correlating the two in the occurrence of processes that realize events, similarly I refer to events as place of processes between subject and object.

[6] Ibid., 39.

[7] Immanuel Kant calls experience ‘The domain of the established and establishable knowledge’. See note [81] in the article What Is a Thing?

Works Cited

Einstein Albert, Infeld Leopold. The Evolution of Physics. London: The Scientific Book Club, 1938.

Mallory, James Patrick and Adams, Douglas Quentin. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality – An Essay in Cosmology. New York: The Free Press, 1978.

Image Credits

Featured Image by Tom Podmore on

Image 01 by Alessandro Calvi Rollino, CC BY-NC-SA.

Image 02, elaboration on a screenshot from the video the Streets of Milan Under Quarantine

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