University of Helsinki, Faculty of Science Previous Contents Next

5.3 To be in place

'To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell' (Heidegger 1971: 147). Therefore, dwelling is the way how one is on the earth. Heidegger (1971: 145) says that dwelling is attained only by means of building. It does not mean only the building of dwelling houses but all building. Everything that one builds is built to sustain one's dwelling.

Heidegger's way to approach place underwent a notable change during his philosophical career. In his early philosophy he referred to place only in other contexts like 'work world', or 'politics'. In the middle period of his career he took a less instrumental interpretation of place but gave to it and to other related terms like 'region' a more central position only in his later period. Even then, however, he did not give it such a fundamental role in his ontology like the one given for instance by Archytas. He reaches it indirectly (Casey 1997: 244).

One of the central themes in Heidegger's philosophy is 'to-be-in'. To-be-in is to belong to one's environment; or in other words, to be interested in the beings of one's surroundings. In his later work he uses a more concrete word--'dwelling' (Wohnen)--for the same subject. Dwelling for Heidegger is a kind of poetry. It is due to the worldliness of humans that we are able to encounter things, and the poetry of encountering them is a concrete and non-theoretical way of understanding reached by subordinating oneself to the Being (Vycinas 1961: 32).

Heidegger exemplifies the relationship of human and one's environment by studying the way one deals with surrounding entities in one's everyday life. The kind of dealing that is closest to humans has its own kind of knowledge about the entities concerned. It is not theoretical knowledge but phenomenological. Knowing about entities that get used or produced is knowing about their Being (Heidegger 1962: 95). The ontological mode of Being of these close entities--or equipments--is readiness-to-hand (Heidegger 1962: 101). There is another mode of Being, too, i.e. present-at-hand. However, as David E. Cooper (1999: 59) notes, Heidegger does not mean that world contains two kinds of entity. Everything is proximally encountered as ready-to-hand.

Jean-Paul Sartre speaks about 'situation'. According to him, situation is an ambiguous phenomenon. It is a necessary condition of human liberty since one is never free but in a situation. On the other hand, however, situation never exists without human liberty. Therefore, human beings are always necessarily free and necessarily in a situation. Sartre mentions various manners in which situation becomes manifest. These are my place, my body, my past, my position, and my relation to other human beings (Sartre 1943: 527).

John O'Neill brings out an analogy between Sartre's 'situation' and an act of a theatre play. This means that it is not only placial but also a temporal phenomenon. Events in a situation have an intentional history, and this is what makes them meaningful. This is opposed to what O'Neill calls 'Humean history' being just a causal chain of events (O'Neill 1998: 317). On the other hand, as situation manifests itself in 'place' (place), Sartre (1943: 538) insists that one never simply is in place. Place either helps or prevents one to achieve one's aims. To be in place is thus to be far from, or near to.

What Sartre adds to the equipmental readiness-to-hand of Heidegger is the negativity as a property of situations. For instance, if one goes to a café in order to meet a friend there but the friend is not there, his absence is a real property of that café. Like equipmental and sign-like (not discussed here) characters that Heidegger attributes to things, negativity is a profoundly human aspect of the world. Since they are also all essential aspects of the world, it means that the world is fundamentally human (Cooper 1999: 59, 62-63).

Edmunds V. Bunkse (1990: 103) criticizes Heidegger's stance as abstract and disembodied. Therefore he does not find it suitable for any practical purposes. According to him, this kind of detachedness does not serve as a theoretical foundation for humanistic geography. What he argues instead is that geographical thinking should be part of broader speculations about the world around us. This was, he says, the situation in the 19th century--especially in the work of Alexander von Humboldt.

Louise Sundararajan (1997) has a similar argument against Heidegger's concept of 'dwelling'. She says that in the framework of Heidegger, 'poetry has superseded the body as our vital connection to the earth'. Sundararajan argues that marginalisation of nature in this way leads to disembodied view of dwelling. What she proposes instead is a habitat theory that expands the Heideggerian concept and makes it part of a continuum that connects human world with nature.

Bunkse's plea for a mode of humanism that was associated with geographical thinking before it was institutionalised into a distinct discipline ressembles, however, Heidegger's seeking of the original character of Being in the ancient writings of the Greek philosophers (see e.g. Heidegger 1984). What Bunkse calls 'particularity' is a serious challenge for humanistically oriented geography (see Bunkse 1990: 106). This shall be discussed in the next chapter.

University of Helsinki, Faculty of Science Previous Contents Next