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3.2 Concept of place

The concept of 'place' as approached by a strictly scientific manner could be reduced to a mere spatial concept. It would thus mean 'a location in space'. This is for instance basically the meaning that Georg Henrik von Wright (1983) gives to it in his 'logic of place'. He investigates the differencies between modal concepts in temporal and spatial systems of formal logic, and founds his system of spatial logic on modal concepts of 'nearby', 'somewhere', and 'somewhere else' (von Wright 1983: 134). Ramon Jansana (1994) has developed von Wright's system later by adding to it the aspect of distance. Study of 'place' in logic resembles closely the use of 'place' in geographical studies where the geographical information system (GIS) is used. In Finnish, GIS is even translated as 'paikkatietojärjestelmä' meaning 'system of place data'!

The logical aspects of place were examined already by the early Greek philosophers. In his essay about the 'Anaximander fragment'--probably the oldest remaining piece of Western thinking--Martin Heidegger (1984: 16) reminds us of the importance of examining early philosophical thinking. According to him, to translate an early fragment into another language one has to first translate oneself into what the fragment says (Heidegger 1984: 19). We have to think again of what has already been thought by the early thinker. The oldest known theorising about 'place' is the treatise of Archytas of Tarentum, a Pythagorean thinker who lived in the Fourth Century BC. Like of the treatise of Anaximander, only fragments of it have survived. The fragments were written down by Simplicius who also saved the 'Anaximander fragment' for latecomers (Casey 1993: 14).

The main idea in the remaining fragments of Archytas' treatise is the logical conclusion that place is prior to all things. This follows from the assertion that 'to be is to be in place'. Nothing exists if it does not exist in place. From this follows that 'place' itself is nothing. If it was something, it would have to be in a place that would have to be in a place and so on ad infinitum. Archytas' ideas are also repeated by Aristotle in his Physics (Casey 1993: 14). According to Edward S. Casey (1993: 16), however, the views of Archytas and Aristotle differ in that while Aristotle takes place as a container of things, Archytas stresses that a thing constitutes its own place: the limit-of-being of a thing is the place that it constitutes since the unlimited is nothing.

Roberto Casati and Achille C. Varzi (1999: 117-119), on the other hand, speak about 'place' as a region in space having an address. This space is occupied by an extensional entity--a remark that closely reminds one of Archytas' notion of a thing constituting its own place. Casati and Varzi search for a way to combine mereology--the study of parts and wholes--and topology--the study of limits and continuity--into one system called mereotopology. To attain this they eliminate all the spatial expressions that include a viewpoint like 'here', or 'behind the Empire State Building'. They do not actually deny the possibility of validity of that kind of expressions but their stance is rather methodological: one can get a more simple system without them (Casati & Varzi 1999: 4-5, 119).

At the beginning of this study I cited Kenneth C. Davis (1993: 16) who says that 'geography asks humanity's oldest, most fundamental questions' (see Chapter 1). Place as an ontological category reaching from size of atoms or their parts into that of the whole universe--the view of Archytas--does not answer Davis' questions. Neither does a mereotopological answer satisfy someone asking 'where am I?' In geography one is interested in medium-sized places--places of human scale. More particularly, geography is interested in places that are situated on the surface of the Earth--hence the name 'geography'.

In the Oxford Dictionary of Geography (Mayhew 1997: 327), the entry for 'place' is: 'A particular point on the earth's surface; an identifiable location for a situation imbued with human values.' Place is thus not just a location, but a particular one. What makes it particular is that it is 'imbued with human values'. The notion of place being a 'point' is also interesting. If so, 'place' would not be an areal concept at all since point has no areal extent (see Chapter 3.4).

In ordinary language 'place' has a somewhat wider meaning than it has on the field of geography. Webster's Dictionary of the English Language (Webster's 1989: 1099) gives fifty-two different definitions for the entry. Apart from the meanings that the concept has in the field of geography these include different kinds of meanings related to one's position in a society or other kinds of circumstances. Examples are given like 'if I were in your place', 'it is not your place to offer criticism', or 'in the first place'. Also, when something happens it is said that it 'takes place'. Although some differences occur between different languages, these uses are not characteristics only to the use of 'place' in English. 'Lieu' in French, for instance, or 'paikka' in Finnish have some of the same meanings. As this is not a linguistic study, however, I will not present a comparison of the uses of 'place' in different languages.

It thus seems that 'place' is not used only to refer to spatial locations, but also to locate people inside society. It is possible that 'position in society' is the primary meaning of 'place' since it is less abstract than 'location in space' (Grene 1968: 173, cit. Tuan 1974: 233). As one's position in society often has emphasis on one's location in space, these two meanings have intermingled with each other in the span of time.

'Place' is a concept that is so deeply entrenched in culture that it is impossible to give any straightforward definition of it. Due to its fundamental status in ontology, it is a rather basic concept used for defining other concepts. To understand its meaning, however, it is revealing to study its relation with other concepts close to it. 'Landscape' is one of the most important ones.

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