the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2011 December 9


Aristotelianism can describe either a body of work, that of Aristotle himself, or a general “philosophy” (using the word so in the Greek context is unavoidably ironic). We can look directly to Aristotle to understand his conception of place; whether we can possibly succeed is questionable. To consider Aristotelianism as a philosophy we must actually look beyond, for, like its counterpart Platonism, it is not entirely dependent on its namesake. This latter is the more interesting subject, and thus probably the intended subject, so I will address the former first.

A place for Aristotle is primarily a location, as might be defined anachronistically by a set of coordinates, but with an extent. He describes in the Physics a three-dimensional area as a place; it is not clear (to me, anyway) whether the place is the volume of that spatial configuration, or the bordering surface of that volume, but he does make clear that a place is defined in otherwise-void space. He also sees places as defined by their occupants; a physical object, having a shape, defines a place by virtue of being in a particular location and orientation. There is a place in which the object is, and when it has moved or been moved, the same place is where the object was. It is a three-dimensional configuration of the same shape and orientation as the thing that had defined it.

As a Greek, Aristotle is not surprisingly interested in the appropriateness of a place, and a believer that each thing has its appropriate place. The concept of hubris is comparable; to the ancient Greeks, individuals had appropriate social stations, and it was an act of dangerous “pride” to presume to move outside of (above) that station. Of such hubris were original tragedies made.1 The notion of physical appropriateness in Aristotle is inherited in part from Plato, who imagines objects as sorting themselves by properties. Aristotle’s sorting is specifically applicable on one dimension, elevation, but is generally of the same sort. In any case, the grouping of like with like is one element of things having appropriate places.

Given this conception, and emphasizing (see ‘Region and place) that ‘place’ as it appears in Aristotle is a gloss of some Greek tradition which cannot be conveyed with our own word, many modern uses of ‘place’ can certainly be non-Aristotelian. Even if we allow an extension into two or one dimensions (that is, that we might wish to locate a place only relative to a surface, and not to space), there are locations that are not defined by their physical occupation — that exist whether anything ever holds the place or not. And then, to geography as a field, Agnew identifies a tradition for ‘place’ that incorporates not just location but also “locale” (roughly equivalent to milieu or environment) and “sense of place”. Yi-Fu Tuan (1991) notably emphasizes this last element, that a place exists when it is experienced and understood by individuals, especially culturally; it is, above all, created by these individuals, and its existence is solidified when it is named. Elsewhere (1980), he finds sense of place to be possible only with the awareness that comes with modernity, and only when the modern individual has the ability to separate itself from the place; prior to this, the individual is “rooted” in the place, unaware of its own existence apart from the place or of the possibility of any other life. So indeed, the usage of ‘place’ as the word appears in translations of Aristotle is much narrower than either the vernacular or the scholarly usage of ‘place’ in modern English.

If we take Aristotelianism, as contrasted with Platonism, as a metaphysical standpoint, we get a superficially-similar answer but with dramatically-different import. Platonism2 posits a conceptual realm, generally linked to the gloss ‘forms’. The forms are the ultimate realities of which the experiential world is a mere reflection. The notion has been caricatured beyond recognition, but in my own assessment, the ancient Greeks were at the beginning of the development of the language of abstraction, and Plato was beyond his time. I do not see that Plato really intended the forms to be special material versions of everyday objects existing in some inaccessible parallel universe. He was simply describing the existence of abstract concepts in the only language that was available to him (metaphor, as any modern or even post-modern could tell you).

Though Aristotle himself was struggling towards abstraction, Aristotelianism was a reaction to the perceived nonsensical otherworldliness of Platonism. Aristotelianism is empirical, concrete, a posteriori. It recognizes that the material world as we experience it is the basis for all our understandings, and that we are largely limited by it, but not limited in an oppressive way. Rather, we are liberated by the recognition, by embracing our material reality and avoiding the fantastical, inaccessible, incomprehensible “forms”. (The language of oppression is anachronistic, of course, but later medieval “Platonism” would underlie Christian exhortations to forego material pleasure for an afterworldly reward — oppressive enough.)

Can a place be abstract, then? Or must it be tied to the material world, to our own experience, and limited thereby? This itself has two possible meanings. I think it is almost self-evident, as I write this, that we have successfully abstracted concepts of place, so that when we use the term ‘place’, it has an actual meaning, and is no longer just a recitation of individual places that we happen to know. In other words, we have understood what these places all have in common, and grasp the commonality without constant reference to the original examples. That is an epistemological question, but settled enough in my own mind. Yes, there is at least one, actually many, abstractions for ‘place’, Platonic forms even, as Aristotelianism is meant to reject.

But are there abstract places? Again, I think Platonism has it right. First, there are categories of places; when we speak of “cities”, we are abstracting from examples to get an idea of what a city is in general. That is not to discount our dependence on experience to start the process, but in the end we know something besides the direct things we have experienced. We could, for instance, describe characteristics of a city that we had not yet experienced, because we can consider features that all cities (that we know) have in common and draw logical conclusions about what these features must necessitate. (For example, we may never see a city’s sanitary sewers, but we can infer their existence from the presence and physiology of humans, and the absence of human waste.)

But we can go a step beyond. The sense of place that exists when, as Tuan has it, we apply a label to a place, is only a sense of an abstraction. We can’t know everything about a place. We know certain things, and to us, those things we know are that place. This seems to be Tuan’s point; if so, it is a very non-Aristotelian one. The place is defined not by what it actually is, but by what we think it is. It is based in experience, yes, but it lives in our memories and has an independent life, and can well be in contrast with physical reality. We can be wholly sentimental about the place of our childhood, only to discover as adults some unfortunate or unpleasant fact. “This is not the place we grew up in.”, we might tell ourselves. But the reality on the ground hasn’t changed; the place we grew up in never existed outside of our own perceptions and imaginations. It was a form of home. And while Platonic forms are generally taken to represent truth, we needn’t read Plato as reverent about the forms. Forms are true because, as concepts, they are eternal and unchanging. It is almost axiomatic in Plato that the forms are never perfectly realized in the material world.


1. This contrasts with Shakespearean tragedies, in which the operative issue is deception and ignorance (curiously, the same issue at the heart of many Shakespearean comedies), and modern “tragedies”, which are moments of sadness — the Greeks would have been baffled at the description of the death of a teenager as “tragic”.

2. I am disregarding here the even-later “Platonic” traditions — Gnosticism and the like — in favor of the immediate extension of Plato’s own ideas.


John Agnew. ‘Space : place’, p81-96 in Cloke and Johnston, eds.
Aristotle. ‘Physics — Place’, 208a25-13a10 in Jonathan Barnes, ed., ‘The complete works’. Princeton University Press, 1984.
—————. ‘The elements all have natural motion’, s300a20-02a09 in ‘On the heavens’. (W.K.C. Guthrie, tr.) Harvard University, 1986.
Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston, eds. ‘Spaces of geographical thought: deconstructing human geography’s binaries’. Sage, 2005.
Plato. ‘Four stages of cognition’, s509b-511d in ‘The republic’. Oxford University, 1945.
—————. ‘The inferiority of the written to the spoken word’, p95-9 in ‘Phaedrus’. Penguin, 1973.
—————. ‘Timaeus’. (Desmond Lee, tr.) Penguin, 1977.
Yi-Fu Tuan. (1980) ‘Rootedness versus sense of place’, p3-8 in Landscape, v24 n1 (1980).
—————. (1991) ‘Language and the making of place: a narrative-descriptive approach’, p684-96 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v81 n4 (1991).


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