Jeffrey Malpas, "The Obscurity of Place"

Malpas' point in this chapter is to point out how the concept of place has been overlooked in the history of philosophy. He begins by pointing out that defining place is very difficult, because it means distinguishing it from other concepts, particularly "space." He begins with the dictionary, which has 5 pages of definitions, which can be distilled into the following:

  • a definite but open space, particularly a bounded, open space within a city or town;

  • a more generalized sense of space, extension, dimensionality, or 'room' (and, understood as identical with a certain conception of space, place may, in this sense, be opposed to time);

  • location or position within some order (whether it be spatial or some other kind of ordering, hierarchical or not);

  • a particular locale or environment that has a character of its own;

  • an abode or that within which something exists or within which it dwells.

Malpas, Place and Experience, 21-22.

This seems inadequate to capture the range of senses of place, though, as well as the interrelations between the senses. The etymology of "space" suggests that dimensionality and locale are important to space, although the "interval" is sometimes included as well. Ancient Greek has two words, chora and topos, which are often translated as "space" and "place", but even there the distinction is far from clear or consistent.

The fact that the distinction is unclear and variable underscores the fact that both terms are embedded in a network of uses. But more importantly, it is worth noticing the waxing and waning of the uses of the two terms through the history of philosophy. Space has been predominant through most of the history of mediaeval and modern philosophy. Many philosophers have been concerned about the nature of space, but few about the nature of place. Place has been seen as secondary to or derivative of space, as a location in a spatial structure, and space has been identified solely as physical.

More recently, though, place has been seen as a subjective or psychological phenomenon. If space was the objective or physical structure, place was the human response to physical surroundings or locations. The problem with this, though, is that it "provides no real explication of the concept of place as such, since it merely conjoins the idea of a part of objective physical space with the notion of some subjective emotional or affective quality or set of qualities and so treats place as derivative of these more basic ideas." (30) The real issue here is emotional responsiveness, not place. Place remains a secondary concept.

In fact, Malpas wants to argue, place is central to the very possibility of human experience at all. We couldn't speak of experience without speaking of place. Heidegger is the first to recognize this.

In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger maintains that humans are essentially characterized by their "being-in" the world. Being-in doesn't refer to physical containment, as if the world exists first and we find ourselves in it. Objects exist in a spatial world, of course. But we as humans exist differently in the world. Our way of being in the world makes the world what it is, but the world gives us the range of options or space to manoever. Place is neither before or after human existence, and humans are not just objects among other objects in the world.

The point is that place is neither merely subjective nor merely objective. This produces the phenomenon that places are "nested":

Places are thus internally differentiated and interconnected in terms of the elements that appear within them, while they also interconnect with other places - thus places are juxtaposed and intersect with one another; places also contain places so that one can move inwards to find other places nested within a place as well as move outwards to a more encompassing locale . . . The 'nesting' of places, for instance, is a significant point of connection between place and memory. (34)

One consequence of the "betweenness" of place is that place is not constituted independently of subjectivity, but subjectivity is given in and through the structure of place. (35) "Place is not founded on subjectivity, but is rather that on which subjectivity is founded. Thus one does not first have a subject that apprehends certain features of the world in terms of the idea of place; instead, the structure of subjectivity is given in and through the structure of place." (35)

Many are inclined to see place as socially contstructed, but Malpas argues that this is not completely true. The social does not exist prior to place, nor is it given expression except in and through place. Place precedes the social, just as it precedes subjectivity. (36) While place may be causally dependent on physicality, it is not reducible to physicality.

Malpas is really arguing for a way of doing philosophy that begins "here, in the midst of things". (39) This requires us to map the region of thought from within the region itself.