Brian Kemple

InHuman Places

April 18, 2018

Who is not, from one hour to the next, one day to another, beset by worry about being in the right place at the right time? It’s a common truism that we cannot “be two places at once.” What someone typically intends by saying this is, as with all bromides, tritely true: I cannot be busy in the boudoir and the office at one and the same time; nor splayed on my couch, glutting my gullet with a family-size bag of potato chips and bathing in the day-long glow of my TV, whilst simultaneously at the gym, buffing up and shedding those same, couch-fed calories. By the strictest reference of the term, being in one place demands exclusion of all others.

“Place,” however, is a term of relativity and analogical valence at once. On the relative hand, I can and in fact always am in a multitude of places. I may be writing this in my kitchen, which is in my apartment’s first floor, which is –of course— in my apartment, which is in its complex, town, region, state, country, etc.— all of which are distinct as places. They may be somewhat arbitrary places, existing as such only insofar as they have been cognitively and/or intersubjectively denoted to have the boundaries they do—you’ll find no physical marker that actually delineates Boston from Cambridge, or Miami from West Palm Beach, but only, at best, objects [1] that have received a conventional and symbolic denomination as serving that function—but they are places, nonetheless; innermost boundaries of that-which-contains, as Aristotle taught us.

On the analogical hand, we often talk about the “place” of someone’s attention; someone can be physically present —meaning bodily in this place— while mentally absent —that is, cognitively or attentionally, elsewhere. This analogical use of the term, which allows someone to “be” two places at once but in different regards, positions us to see how the construal of a physical place, both in itself and in its regard to the person, enters it into the limitless web of infinite semiosis so that—seen from the purview of our analogical hand—we may grasp how the organisation of a particular place can make it “more” than the sum of its parts.

Enabling both the capacity for an extrinsic denomination and the analogical valence of “place” is a singularly human way of relating to the environment. Without entering into all its complexities (i.e., a defence of what exactly it is and why exactly it exists), this species-specific human distinction can be described as the difference between merely being able to use signs—an ability common to all animals—and being able to recognise that we use signs, a recognition exclusive to humans that we call semiotic awareness[2] This difference allows us to see the objects to which we are related in the environment as more than just objects for our use [3] and, moreover, that they may be used in ways having nothing to do with their own intrinsic properties, but rather according to the context of an almost paradoxically non-utilitarian planning.

The beaver might see wooden planks as suitable or not for his dam; but he will never see them as “rustic”. The dam is in-itself functionally useful to the beaver, but there is no intrinsic usefulness to things being “rustic” (and arguably, no use whatsoever for things being “rustic modern”). A human may—perhaps forgivably—like such styles, and be pleased by their appearance—by the aesthetic aura that they conjure—but this magic, the magic of style, is again specifically human and exclusively post-linguistic.  The “feel” of a style requires more than the assembly of its parts —it requires a specifically human, linguistically-perfused Welt.

We go directly for the German Welt and not the English “world” because of the as-yet unfairly niche work of nineteenth century theoretical biologist Jakob von Uexküll; to whom we owe the term Umwelt (um- being a prefix to mean “around” or “surrounding”) to describe the species-specific way in which an environment captivates the cognitive life of an animal. An environment is more than merely the totality of physical or even sensible surroundings in which an animal exists. There are many things in an animal’s physical surroundings which are not part of its environment, perhaps because they are not sensed by it, or maybe just because they are entirely irrelevant to the animal’s life; but likewise, the physical, sensible presence of the physical surrounds is less than what exists within the animal’s environment, the Umwelt.

In other words, there are no rocks and trees and birds and bees in the animal Umwelt, but objects to sun upon, or to climb, or to eat, or to shun; signs of warmth, of safety, of nourishment, of pain (perchance of honey). There are objects to pursue, objects to avoid, and objects to ignore; but there are no things-in-themselves. There is no Path; only the beetle-path for the beetle, the snake-path for the snake, the rabbit-path for the rabbit. Despite the indeterminacy of the environmental possibilities, the animal follows a determination not of its own choosing. This is the Welt of the animal; the Umwelt that has its horizons established by the trajectory of the chreod which roots the animal Innenwelt[4]

This sense of the “world,” the Welt, was appropriated by Martin Heidegger, who used it extensively in describing the cognitive lives of human beings. But human beings are, yet again, somewhat unique in this regard. The non-human animal, Heidegger asserts, is “poor in world”; but because of our species-specific human semiotic awareness, anything which can be made cognitively present to us is also capable of being made relevant to us, even if it lacks any intrinsic relevance. The non-human animal might be mistaken about something in its surroundings—what it takes to be a harmless pile of leaves may harbour a camouflaged snake—but it can never make its surroundings into something other than what they physically provide.

Human beings, on the contrary, do this quite often—proprietarily, even. The sun, which itself (as in-itself) seems barely to register, if at all, for any creature but the human, becomes worshipped as a god. The moon is considered an egg, or a mother. A rock may become not only a weapon, but a symbol. A woman may be not just a mate, but a wife. A man may be not only a father, but a dad. What an object is for us is more than what it is in its specifically objective dimensions; it is a thing, in itself, in its own right, and therefore capable of being more to us, in our cognisance, than it is for us, in its usefulness. We find some fulfilment of our living purpose in discovering what things are, in understanding them, in fitting them into a context of meaning; and as such, even the most seemingly meaningless presence in our lives lies open to the possibility of relevance. Unlike the impoverished non-human alloanimal, we have not merely a richness, but an excess of world.

In brief, the way in which we interpret what is present to us, correctly or incorrectly, adds to its meaning beyond its reference to our practical purposes. Both what is “natural”—having its own internal principle of existence, independently of what we think or do to it—and what we have made for ourselves, can be augmented, for better or worse, by what and how we think of it.

This is why a place can be rustic or modern, classical or baroque, sacred or profane. While socially and indeed even culturally constituted, these augmentative stylistic predicates may be fictitious, but they are nevertheless quite real—as real as their effects, at least, and for that reason, as worthy of understanding.

And so we come to place, properly speaking. As we alluded to earlier, Aristotle defined “place” as the innermost boundary of that-which-contains. Thus we can stagger places, one inside another. But is that all a place is/can be? From the strictly physical point of view, yes. But we are not strictly physical beings, and our Welt is even less confined to the physical than that of other animals. The surroundings of our Welt make it more than just an Umwelt.

My mentor and dearly-departed friend, John Deely, attempted to appropriate Husserl’s term Lebenswelt for the specifically-human world; but I think, in many applications, my own neologism of Bildendwelt is more fitting. I’ve taken this term from the statement by Heidegger in Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik (originally delivered as a lecture in the winter semester of 1929-30; 401 German/287 English) where he elaborates the thesis that “Humans are world-forming,” i.e., “der Mensch ist weltbindend”; the “-bindend” having as its root the word Bildung, meaning—among some other senses (including “education”, and the root of the root, Bild, including both “image” and “form”)—“culture.” [5] This term, therefore, brings to light something of the species-specifically different “world” belonging to human beings, permeated as it is not only by objects of use but by beings of meaning, [6] and not only beings of meaning but beings of culturally-constituted meaning: that is, not only beings which are presenced on the basis of some subjectively-constituted and cognition-independent reality, but also those which are presenced inter-and-suprasubjectively through the cognitive and linguistically-communicative acts of human beings that we ascribe to culture. This is not thus merely a cultural-world, but a culturing-world.

The Bildendwelt of human experience transforms how we experience nearly everything: from food to communication, entertainment to education, sex to prayer. So too our experience of place; and indeed place itself, is a key determinant of the Bildendwelt’s pattern. Let us examine three such places to demonstrate this cultural augmentation.

i) The office

An office is many and different places, especially today; it is the place perhaps of the boss, the co-worker, of a soul-draining beige or hysteric, googleplexiglass coloratura. But it is fundamentally the place of work, which may be labour –or fulfilment. It may be a cubicle farm of personal debasement; or a sanctuary for near-spiritual travail.

As a graduate student-adjunct at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, I shared an office with a good friend. We had a desk and a table, and took turns using the desk and the nice chair (provided by myself, of course, and not the university). It was a tiny hole in what had once been a house, and I believe it may have been the laundry room. As a physical locus for work, it was less-than-ideal (or, perhaps more accurately, it sucked, hard); but because of the company —a couple of fellow graduate-adjunct student-colleagues also had an office across the hall—the place was nevertheless halfway decent.

It was also a symbol: of the travesty that is liberal arts education in the United States, where we four graduate-adjuncts each typically taught two or more courses per semester for a pittance, while expected to complete our dissertations in a timely fashion; of the neglect that the administration (with their lavish salaries and fine offices) had towards those striving to educate, both themselves and others; and of the triumph of our efforts despite this neglect. The physical place was the university’s table scraps; the psychological place was, despite this, one of great achievement.

My office today is eclectic, with a large glass desk more than twice the size I had in that probable laundry room, with shelves full of books. It is approximately ten times larger than the adjunct closet; it is, at times, a bit messy, but only to the degree that functional chaos characterises my work process. And yet it is solitary, alone, and a place which symbolises an intellectual isolation in which academic community is sustained through internet alone. The proximate place is superior; the contextual place, inferior. It is my office as a private individual, not as a part of a greater whole; and so it is inevitably bound up with the successes and failures of myself-as-individual, rather than with the overall successes and failures of an institution or a group.

In brief, the feel of an office—what makes it a place in the Welt, regardless of style—follows from the entire context of one’s work. The nicest office in which one conducts solitary endeavours at a great remove from the shared purpose of others cannot but feel somehow lonely; the smallest task, in isolation, makes one feel like Atlas. At the same time, the darkest, dankest quarters in a shoddy and forgotten corner can be a place of ennobling and purposive productivity, where a terrible burden can be shouldered with ease.

ii) The bar

It is a legitimate (and deliberately unanswered) question as to whether, in the past decade, I have spent more time in my offices or in my bars. I like to consider the latter “philosophy in the field.” At any rate, bars are sought for social purpose: even the alcoholic who goes to escape, is escaping some aspect of society. Others go to have fun, or to be seen; or to be seen having fun, or to have fun being seen; or any of a countless number of socially-driven reasons, not the least of which are seduction, alcohol-saturated decisions, and their fait accompli.

But someone does not just go to any bar for any purpose. For the note of success, few would visit the local beer-only watering hole, the Texas-style icehouse with its misshapen outdoor ceiling fans and splintery picnic tables, or a spew-festooned college hangout on the west side of downtown Boston. Likewise, a low-key specialty cocktail lounge is a poor place if seeking rowdy, rambunctious or back-slapping crowds.

For this, among other reasons, I now spend far less time in bars: few and far between do they seem today (perhaps because of my age) for anyone who simply wants to be, either alone or with friends. One must be somehow: loutish, boisterous, sharp, nerdy, academic, identifiable, else one does not quite “fit in,” and the consciousness of such a subtle ostracism forces one to be a different how: an outsider. While being an outsider might serve one’s philosophical field work as an independent observer, it hardly provides the sought-after lived experience.

At its best, the bar is a place to which one goes to diffuse diurnal tensions by means of the Welt. At its worst, and far more commonly, it is a place one goes to be consumed by the Welt.

iii) The church

Conversely, the church—or, perhaps, for some, the Church—is where one goes for self-abnegation; for the attempted transfiguration of the Welt beyond itself into the sacred. Or so, at least, it ought to be.

There is a ludicrous discontinuity in the casual church, as well as in the cavalier attitude towards its attendance. I do not mean by this that one needs to be formal by worldly standards of formality, but rather that one needs to be serious in order really to be, as a complete and whole human being, in a church; else the point is quite missed. This necessity of seriousness stands regardless of belief; for there, in the place that is the church, stands the whole question of cosmic comedy or tragedy—if the church cannot transfigure the Welt, then it is the charnel of hope.

If it can, however, then surrender, dissipation, and abnegation are the only way forward. The medievals understood this well and demonstrated it frequently in their architecture. Everything points above, beyond, past the human, past what our worldly grasp can attain, and it does so often through death. If the church is not where we bury hope, it is where we bury the self to be born into something not just else, but more.

If a church is any place at all and more than merely an arrangement of materials, it must thus be analogical; not only sacred because of an extrinsic denomination or a conventional label, but because it is in truth more-than-one-place. It is, as Loos might have had it, both a monument and a tomb. (The contemporary church forgets this, and not guilelessly. We have ushered many things the medievals knew into Vergessenheit; not the least of which is that life is only ever begotten by death.)

In the Bildendwelt which is coming to prevail today among the “learned”—dominated as it is by a new scientism and an idiot faith in human control—death is the enemy rather than the destiny of humanity; and so it is little wonder the intensity of Christian faith wanes; and that churches are no longer tombs but social clubs; no longer places to be serious in, but comfortable and casual; not a place for life and death, but for analeptic mediocrity.

To be human is to be in a place, always, and often in many—not just in their staggered relativity, but analogically, as well. One can be in a successful place, and another in a fun one, and both can be within the same physical locale.

Where we are in the “world” is not necessarily the same as where we are in the Welt; and too little attention to this distinction may result in our being in all the wrong places at all the wrong times. We may live in a world which does not grow the way a culture does, or ought to, but that captivates instead; and it may be that this is how we forfeit the humanity of our places.

[1] Contrary to its ordinary abuse, the term “object” here signifies not what is independent of our awareness (as when one speaks of “scientific objectivity”), but rather some-thing precisely insofar as it is related to our awareness—this being the original intent behind the Latin age invention of the term, formed through the preposition ob-, “against”, and the verb iacere, “to throw”; such that the obiectum is that which is thrown against (a similar etymology being available in the German Gegenstand).

[2] An assertion not without controversy, but one I have defended at length in The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology: Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue (forthcoming, 2018/2019, Mouton de Gruyter). The species-specifically human exclusivity of this recognition is furthermore a point which John Deely elaborated and defended extensively. See 1982: Introducing Semiotics, 1994: The Human Use of Signs, 2002: What Distinguishes Human Understanding, and 2010: Semiotic Animal for prime examples.

[3] A banal term which, for its very ordinariness, must never be taken lightly. “Use” for semiosic life (in both the broad categories of phyto- and zoösemiosis) is uncontroversial linear praxis, but for the human animal in its specifically metasemiosic (or semiotically aware) existence, praxis never operates in severance from theoria, however thin the tissue of their connection; and vice versa.

[4] The Innenwelt is the projective structure of intrinsic and otherwise acquired properties belonging to a living, cognitively capable being which allow its objectivization of the physical surroundings. This is not just the genotype nor its proximate result, but also the dynamically-habitual facultative properties of both cognitive and cathectic affect. Not incidentally, the constitution of the Innenwelt grounds the presence of any “extrinsic” Welt and determines the relation between the animal and its possibilities for praxis —and, in the human case, theoria as well.

[5] This etymological richness being the chief reason—more so even than Heidegger’s usage—for the coining of the term Bildendwelt.

[6] The laconic elaboration “meaning”, too, has a prominent analogical valence; by it, we intend the importance of something (“why is this trinket meaningful?”), the referentiality of something, (“what does the program mean for you?”), or the intelligibility of something (“what is the meaning of ‘humanity’?”).  Reference is the sine qua non of the others’ possibility (and thus every being considered with regards to meaning is also already an object); but, though it cannot be argued here, for human beings the intelligibility is of final importance. It is in this sense that we speak of beings of meaning. This argument is a theme of The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology.

Brian Kemple is the author of Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2017) and The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology: Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, forthcoming), and distinguished by being the only student ever to complete a dissertation under the direction of John Deely. He received his PhD in Philosophy with the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston TX, in 2016.