Eugene Victor Walter

Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment



In everyday life, people keep track of places. They talk about how the neighborhood has changed; when that building went up; what it was like in the old days; how it feels to live here now. These comments are spontaneous. They belong to the vital obscurities of life in common – to the lore of places, composed from statement that are always heeded but seldom recorded. The reports continue from one generation to the next, proceeding by observation and reflection, by question and answer, by memory and anecdote.

We recognize different kinds of place change. Cities grow larger or smaller, feel more lively or run down, appear more beautiful or more ugly to the sense. We feel that they get better or worse. We talk bout ruin and renewal, urban decay and restoration, decline and recovery. Jane Jacobs put it tersely as the “death and life” of cities. Nevertheless, civic identity endures despite vast changes of place. We continue to identify Rome, for example, as the “same” place over time – even though we recognize the enormous changes distinguishing the historical cities of Caesar, Petrarch, and Mussolini. No city is what is used to be. The same place does not remain the same. Yet, despite great changes, some places continue to make sense.

In popular writing about architecture and geography, “sense of place” has degenerate into a cliché, often suggesting little more than superficial impressions. Nevertheless, a place with integrity does make senses – it convey meaning. The real “sense” of a place, therefore, is twofold. On the one hand, people feel it; on the other hand, they grasp its meaning. Today, the experience of place is often out of balance. Preoccupations with the logic of space tend to suppress the feeling of place. There is a tendency in modern Western thinking to separate the feelings, symbolic meanings, moral sentiments, and intuitions of a place from the intellectual, rational features. The expressive dimension gets lost in systems of design and management. Places, therefore, tend to lose an old kind of meaning: expressive intelligibility.

In ordinary life, some people still do grasp a place as a whole through a balanced experience of intellect, common sense, feeling, and imagination. Our technical languages, however, do not express the unity and coherence of this holistic experience, which gets factored away by geography, local history, architecture, city planning, sociology, environmental psychology, and so forth. Fragmenting the experience of place in the abstractions of the special disciplines reinforces the split between our methods of feeling and our methods of thinking. It also spoils the human environment, vitiating our ability to build and inhabit good houses, communities, and cities, because the conventional ways of thinking about housing and urban spaces do not grasp the reality of places as wholes.

The integrity of a place suffers when what we learn by ear gets disconnected from what we perceive with the eye – still more when what we imagine seems irrelevant. The imagination makes sense. It is, moreover, an organ of perception – like our eyes, ears, and legs. We get to know a place when we participate in the local imagination. The whole synthesis of located experience – including what we imagine as well as the sights, stories, feelings, and concepts – gives us the sens of a place.

We are threatened today by two kinds of environmental degradation: one is pollution – a menace that we all acknowledge; the other is loss of meaning. For the first time in human history, people are systematically building meaningless places. However, we are a living through the end of an era, experiencing the demise of modern architecture, a revulsion from “futurism,” scepticism about planning, and a reaction against urban renewal programs. As we contemplate the ruins and dislocations of our cities, another way of understanding the built environment and the natural landscape is struggling to emerge. Today, everyone yearns for renewal, but from a holistic perspective, what does the renewal of a city mean? It is not merely physical reconstruction, as many people think – demolishing slums and replacing them with new buildings. Historically, the renewal of a city was experienced as a mental and emotional transformation, an improvement of the spirit, a rebirth of psychic energies.

The purpose of this book is to provide theoretical resources for readers who want to rescue the obvious world from the degradation of feeling and meaning. A growing number of thoughtful and concerned people want to recover an environmental awareness that is not lost but driven underground. They are also looking for new ideas to change the world – but those new ideas, I believe, must include some old perspectives to grasp things whole and entire. We need to recover a way of thinking that ancient people took for granted. The renewal of consciousness implies a restitution of grounded intelligence. We need to experience the world in a radically old way.

When we are very young, the keepers of the obvious world encourage us to erect barriers segregating features of experience. We learn to build a mental life that separates thinking from feeling, and fact from fantasy. We settle reality, imagination, emotion, and reason in separate chambers of the psyche. When we follow fancy, we expect to step out of reality, and when we indulge our feelings, we exclude the intellect. Archaic people sought meaningful ways to fit the two together, “to combine empirical facts with imaginative fancies and to think in rhythm with their feeling and feel in rhythm with their thinking.” They wanted to build bridges in experience. They learned to represent their participation in cosmic processes – to identify the center of energy in themselves with the external energy of which nature is the image. It is possible to recover this integrity of experience and to relearn what ancient people took for granted. To modify a phrase from the work of a forgotten antiquary, we need a “restitution of decayed intelligence.”

In some ways, the diet of the mind resembles the diet of the body. Abstraction refines theory from the grain of experience, but the process may grind up our thoughts until they turn into such highly refined abstractions, so remote from the whole grain of experience, and rendered so thin, that they keep no energy to nourish the mind. William Blake identified this mental grind as the “dark Satanic mill” that transformed factory towns in the nineteenth century.

To reverse this way of thinking, let us return to holistic theory – to the archaic theoria that grasped the whole experience of a place. Originally, theoria meant seeing the sights, seeing for yourself, and getting a worldview, but it involved all the senses and feelings. Disintegrating this whole experience degrades the intangible, nonphysical, human energies of a place, and true renewal depends on some recovery of its integrity. Archaic theoria survives hidden in dimly remembered ways of thinking. Therefore, several chapters in this book explore the language and thinking of ancient Greeks. Alfred North Whitehead observed:

“Greece was the mother of Europe; and it is to Greece that we must look in order to find the origin of our modern ideas… The Greek genius was philosophical, lucid and logical… Their minds were infected with an eager generality. They demanded clear, both ideas, and strict reasoning from them… They were lucid thinkers and bold reasoners.”

The connection between Greek thinking and modern ideas is well known. This book explored the connection of Greek thinking to the archaic past. In philosophy and in drama, some Greek thinkers such as Plato and Sophocles wanted to unite the domain of lucid thought with the older and darker realm of obscure intimations. They wanted a union of sight with insight.

It has been said that the history of Western philosophy is a long series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. The statement is too extreme to take literally, but as a metaphor it suggest that those Greek philosophers clarified many issues that are still important to us. In the course of this inquiry, we shall return to Plato and Aristotle because a metaphysical difference between them on the concept of place expressed for the first time the presuppositions underlying crucial alternatives. We know how Greek language and concepts have shaped our science and technology. However, we are less familiar with the full range and harmony of Greek thought. In Plato’s doctrine of place we may recover an ancient balance of intellect and grounded experience. Nevertheless, Plato’s thinking moved in two directions. The Socratic side of Plato stayed close to the earth, but Plato’s invention of the “problem” was a turning point in the history of expressive intelligibility.

I argue that a place is not a problem but a riddle, and I explore the experiential difference between problems and riddles. Therefore, I do not investigate the modern crisis of places by offering solutions to their problems. Some readers may require more attention to our own era – more examples from the modern world – and in subsequent studies I hope to satisfy that demand. But for now let us explore historical changes in the structure of experience. This book is a theoretical rediscovery as well as a philosophical reinterpretation of the experience and meaning of place.

Our quest for archaic shapes of experience passes through “strange seas of thought,” exploring the lost work of periegetes, antiquaries, and chorographers, where sometimes it is possible to find holistic, integrated theoria. This voyage retronavigates the course of Blake’s enemy, Newton, who made the principal journey – now well charted in the modern mind – from magic to science. In Book 3 of his Prelude, William Wordsworth called the statue of Isaac Newton, beheld on bright nights from his college pillow,

The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

I risk a voyage in the opposite direction, through stranger seas of thought, in the company of readers who are discontented with Newton’s way of experiencing the world. The frame of mind that makes holistic theoria possible is a form of inquiry I call “topistics,” or the study of placeways.

Today, conventional thinking associates the city with problems, and countless books are written about the crisis of urban society. Yet, as the volume of talk and writing about the subject expands, ideas about the city diminish, and we live with an abundance of discussion but a poverty of discourse. A great deals of thinking remains confined to mechanistic, economic, or other abstract models, which may be useful as far as they go, but they scarcely exhaust the many features of urban life, and they are remote from the human experience of cities. Even preservationists, sensitive to the historic meanings of the city, express the need for new theoretical resources. Civic authorities, city planners, and social scientists fail to view the city as a whole – as an order that carries meanings other than the maxims of zoning, amenity, and circulation. If the present trend continues, the city as a symbolic pattern – which is the way the ancients regarder it – may become unthinkable.

The following chapters explore the energies of places, modes of experiencing them, and the meaning of good and bad places. The main point of the entire argument is that our places will not improve until we change our form of topistic experience, and that it is humanly possible to change it. I describe some archaic kinds of grounded experience to suggest what may be recovered. We have not lost, in a mere century or two, a way of living in the world that belongs to the roots of humanity.

Posted: September 2018
Category: Essays