Academic journal article Humanitas

Lost in Place? on the Virtues and Vices of Edward Casey's Anti-Modernism

Academic journal article Humanitas

Lost in Place? on the Virtues and Vices of Edward Casey's Anti-Modernism

Article excerpt

1. Introductory

1.0 To raise the question of place today is to return to the issue of modernity. (1) While one can certainly imagine all sorts of reasons why philosophers have traditionally busied themselves with investigation of place and its cognates (locality, site, etc.), in the past two centuries to embrace place has meant to resist the "abstract" character of modern life. Investigation of the place world almost invariably derives from a certain kind of advocacy: that is, the philosopher, sociologist, anthropologist or geographer reflects in order to ally herself with place--as opposed to space or time. Under the banner of topos, a battle is fought, the battle against the leveling and universalizing tendencies of modern life. And this makes sense given that historical development in the early modern arts and sciences which led to the positing of infinite and homogeneous space/time as axes for natural events and human experience. To be modern is to give up the "sense of place" associated with the late medieval hierarchical world in favor of a space and time conceived to be populated by infinite numbers of entirely exchangeable loci. Defending the concrete and particular as opposed to the abstract and general of this Newtonian universe, the place-thinker becomes a foot soldier in the army of the anti-modern.

But why should place in particular provide an emblem for this struggle? After all, the history of thought has suggested a number of alternative philosophical "sites" for resistance to the leveling effects of modernization--particularity, the sensuous, "the thing," the person and the id to name but a few. Place, however, plays a bit differently than do the other candidates; for it uniquely engages the problematics of knowledge and critique. Place has something about it of a universal precondition for human experience. The pre-Socratic philosopher Archytas captured this sense when (as Simplicius reports it) he said that place "is the first of all things, since all existing things are either in place or not without place." (2) While places may indeed be particular, place itself, the concept of place, retains something of the universal, something of that which invites knowing.

This relationship between place and its concept explains the peculiar attraction of place for anti-modern philosophers: it presents a phenomenon of enticing concreteness, but one that also promises philosophical access through its conceptual organization--an access markedly clearer than that offered by such philosophically recalcitrant entries as the "sensuous particular." But just for this reason, such access demands inquiry into that relationship between individual and concept assumed with "place," and with this imperative there appears on the horizon a set of themes which will be seen to profoundly trouble phenomenological inquiry into place. The very virtue of place for philosophical investigation of the concrete--that it mediates between concepts and instances or universals and particulars--also means that it opens the question as to the nature of this mediation.

2. Reading Casey on Place

2.0 The recent work of Edward S. Casey, two magisterial volumes of phenomenologically oriented observation of the "place world" and history of the concept of place, certainly is intended to belong within the tradition of place studies as rejection of modernity. Situating himself within this "science"--a tradition that includes investigations within geography, sociology and architecture as well as academic philosophy--Casey writes of the context for his own work:

    In the past three centuries in the West--the period of 'modernity'--
    place has come to be not only neglected but actively suppressed.
    Owing to the triumph of the natural and social sciences in this same
    period, any serious talk of place has been regarded as regressive or
    trivial. (3)

In Getting Back into Place and The Fate of Place, (4) Casey attempts to reverse this long trend, hoping that a deepened understanding of the role played in our lives by place might renew attention to place and the care of places. …

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