Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space
In the twentieth century, century of Freud and Heidegger, World Wars and nuclear races, the fashion in philosophical history was not to paint a progress, an arrow arranging itself in forward flight amongst the confusion of events, a piece of the universal history, that to which both the reader and the writer served as goals; but rather, to trace some disaster, some lost moment, some irreversible waste, under the sign of forgetting, with both the reader and writer undergoing a cure. Whether forgetting a childhood trauma or childhood sexuality or the barbarism it took to build the monuments of civilization or being itself – these histories were accounts of what, at best, could be construed as the negative externality of progress, and at worst, as the exposure of its grift.
In several books and numerous articles, Edward Casey has tried to revive a history of place – a history that is “virtually unknown.” He is wary of the Heideggerian model, but at the same time, he traces a thematic that falls within its orbit.
“Yet this rich tradition of place-talk has been bypassed or forgotten for the most part, mainly because place has been subordinated to other terms taken as putative absolutes: most notably Space and Time. Beginning with Philoponus in the sixth century A.D. and reaching an apogee in fourteenth century theology and above all in seventeenth century physics, place has been assimilated to space. The latter, regarded as infinite extension, has become a cosmic and extracosmich Moloch that consumes every corpuscle of place to be found within its greedy reach. As a result, place came to be considered a mere “modification” of space (in Locke’s revealing term) – a modification that aptly can be called a site, that is, leveled down, monotonous space for building and other human enterprises. (The Fate of Place, x)
In Plato’s Timaeus, place and space are distinguished as topos and chora – although this distinction, it has been said, doesn’t correspond to our place and space schemata. Chora sometimes seems to be place, too; certainly that is what it seems to mean in other Greek texts, and, sometimes, in the Timaeus. Chora, the receptacle, the container, has been associated by some scholars with choris, which means ‘independently’, or, as a noun, means “widow or one bereaved’. (Malpas, 25). It would be convenient if Plato simply made the topos/chora distinction on lines that correspond to our own modern understanding of space and place, and that it was overturned by Aristotle and the tradition afterwards. However, that is not what happened. The binaries don’t come to us on the wings of textbooks, 0/1 for our amusement and edification, but are difficult fliers, birds that sometimes do and sometimes don’t flock together. Among which there are not a few mockingbirds.
Aristotle wrote appreciatively in the Physics IV that Plato was the first to try to tell what place is, and he follows Plato to a certain extent. Place doesn’t seem to be a form, in the Platonic sense, nor is it a body. “We can readily see that place cannot be either form or material.” Aristotle gives five reasons for this, which show the distance between Aristotle’s place and our place – although our place is a divided house, and perhaps it is not just the great tradition, science in the house, but a host of little traditions to, a popular psychology of place.
If, then, we look at the question in this way the place of a thing is its form. But, if we regard the place as the extension of the magnitude, it is the matter. For this is different from the magnitude: it is what is contained and defined by the form, as by a bounding plane. Matter or the indeterminate is of this nature; when the boundary and attributes of a sphere are taken away, nothing but the matter is left.
This is why Plato in the Timaeus says that matter and space are the same; for the 'participant' and space are identical. (It is true, indeed, that the account he gives there of the 'participant' is different from what he says in his so-called 'unwritten teaching'. Nevertheless, he did identify place and space.) I mention Plato because, while all hold place to be something, he alone tried to say what it is.
In view of these facts we should naturally expect to find difficulty in determining what place is, if indeed it is one of these two things, matter or form. They demand a very close scrutiny, especially as it is not easy to recognize them apart.
But it is at any rate not difficult to see that place cannot be either of them. (1) Form and Material cannot be dissociated from that to which they belong, whereas the place can be separated. As we pointed out, where air was, water in turn comes to be, the one replacing the other; and similarly with other bodies. Hence the place of a thing is neither a part nor a state of it, but is separable from it. (2)For place is supposed to be something like a vessel-the vessel being a transportable place. But the vessel is no part of the thing.
In so far then as it is separable from the thing, it is not the form: qua containing, it is different from the matter.
Also it is held that what is anywhere is both itself something and that there is a different thing outside it. (Plato of course, if we may digress, ought to tell us why the form and the numbers are not in place, if 'what participates' is place-whether what participates is the Great and the Small or the matter, as he called it in writing in the Timaeus.)
(3) Further, how could a body be carried to its own place, if place was the matter or the form? It is impossible that what has no reference to motion or the distinction of up and down can be place. So place must be looked for among things which have these characteristics.
(4) If the place is in the thing (it must be if it is either shape or matter) place will have a place: for both the form and the indeterminate undergo change and motion along with the thing, and are not always in the same place, but are where the thing is. Hence the place will have a place.
(5) Further, when water is produced from air, the place has been destroyed, for the resulting body is not in the same place. What sort of destruction then is that?" - translation by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye
Aristotle’s notion that there is an “own” place formed a flaw in the fabric of this argument that unraveled it for Philopunus. Edward Grant has summarized Philoponus’ anti-Aristotelian argument like this: “In Philoponus’ cosmos, bodies move in an absolutely immobile, three-dimensional void space. When a body movies, it leaves behind successive parts of that void equal to itself and occupies other parts equal to itself. Although bodies occupy and then depart from successive parts of an absolute void space, the latter remains immobile. By virtue of its absolute immobility, then, no part opf the void space can be transported anywhere to occupy another part of void space…”
“Not only did he [Philoponus] distinguish between material and immaterial dimensions, and thus destroy the basis of one of Aristotle’s most powerful arguments against the exitence of vacuum, but his conception of vacuum as three dimensional extension always filled with body and never existent per se was accepted in some form the Italian natural philosophers of the sixteenth century, some of whom filled their separate, empty space with light (Patrizi) or ether (Bruno).” (21) The counterpart to the Italian humanists in Britain were the natural philosophers, working in the Baconian vein. Among them, Casey has spotted William Gilbert (who wrote the famous treatise on the magnet) for a remark in one of his works that could serve as a slogan for expulsion of place from the order of the sciences: “locus nihil est, non existit, vim non habet…” place is nothing, doesn’t exist, has no strength (vim) (Casey 1998:135)
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