Whitehead’s concerns were primarily motivated by his background in science, so most of his explicit work was not about place as about space. This is a distinction that we are not used to making, which in many ways is a disservice to our experience of the world. Edward Casey wrote a detailed phenomenological analysis on the nature of “place” and its history in western thought, The Fate of Place. At 500+ pages, this is not a book that I’m going to summarize here.ii But Casey reminds us that the world as we live in it is not a system of coordinates. This latter is “space” as it is abstracted from concrete experience to form an idealized system of characters that can be employed in scientific reasoning. This is the world as highlighted in scientific abstractions from extension. But it is not the whole story by any means of the world as felt. And place is something we feel.
Whitehead used the word “feeling” to characterize the primary mode of relatedness to the world for any “thing” in process of coming to be, what Whitehead called an “actual entity,” and what Randy Auxier and I characterized as a “quantum of explanation.” Whitehead chose to use the term “feeling” because it moves the mind away from a more “cognitivist” view of relatedness. These feelings can be teased out in abstractive thought, but they are not primarily composed or comprised of such thought. Thus an electron “feels” its world, its field of electromagnetic influences, not because it has a “mind” to “think” about such things, but because feeling is the basic mode of relatedness and an electron is nothing if not a field of relations. Actually, nothing is anything if not a field of relations. This is what a process metaphysics means, and it is why “feeling,” in the Whiteheadian sense, is so important.
We also feel extensive relations, even and even especially when we attend more to those feelings that do not abstract into mathematical idealizations. (But make no mistake, mathematicians feel these abstracted relations intensely, which is the only reason they are able to compose them into higher forms of articulate thought and expression.) The feeling of place is densely infused with extensive relations, relations of encompassing and enfolding, of “hereness,” etc. Its just that those extensive relations don’t translate into abstract points, lines, or other mathematically geometric forms that are the stuff of space and the grist of science. Sometimes that sense of place can take on an aura or shadow of person or intention, and then it creeps into the sense of the uncanny. (See here and here.)
But that is not an essential component of the feeling of place.iii Rather, there is – and here I struggle for words, because the feeling is almost ineffable – of “centeredness” (?), of, well, “hereness,” a “fullness” of being situated. Regardless of what I can say, it is one of those things that I know when I’m feeling it, and when I am not. Thus, I felt it in Prescott and Taos; I felt it on my trips to the tropics (hence my day dreams of cabanas and rum drinks.) I definitely do NOT feel it where I live in the Midwest, and I miss that feeling. It is like an open wound in my soul, but instead of seeping blood it simply exhales a kind of vacuum. (Notice the appeal to metaphor in the preceding. We do not have words for the experience of place, nor for its absence.) Yet I do not “hate” where I live. In fact, I cannot but wonder if one can ever truly hate a locale in the absence of the fullness of a sense of place to which so strong an emotion can direct itself.
And the feeling of place is not something limited to, or principally based upon, that of nature. Human contributions are often essential as well. Thus, the sense of place in Prescott, AZ would be fundamentally diminished without The Palace saloon and the history of the Earp brothers. My mythical tropical beach somewhere loses most of its charm without that equally mythic cabana; it simply becomes another stretch of hot sand in the humid air. The uncanny often stands upon a long and seldom well documented history of tormented souls whose echoes and hauntings are the very anchor which holds the sense of place in just this locale. Whitehead himself understood the feeling of place and its connection to human history.
This shows up in his obviously deliberate choice to speak of “feeling” as the primary mode of relatedness, even in his most analytical and abstract works of speculative philosophy. But Whitehead also knew what it meant to feel a sense of place. The man had an intense, refined, and personal sense of the aesthetic as well. His autobiographical essays of wandering the Kentish countryside as a young boy are lyrical with their swelling sense of place altogether infused with centuries of human history. (Whitehead was what we now call “home-schooled” for much of his childhood. His parents thought him too sensitive and delicate for the rough and tumble world of the English public school system. When they did finally send him off to public school, he became captain of the school rugby team. So much for “delicate.”)
Whitehead is one of those thinkers whom Edward Casey appeals to as someone trying to recover the sense of place in western philosophy.iv It is precisely because of Whitehead’s sense of feeling (which led to his critiques of 17th Century thinker’s infatuation with space above all else, in SMW and elsewhere), that it is clear he grasps the distinction, even as he does not use the contrastive term of “place” to make it wholly concrete. But for Whitehead, “space” is not a primitive notion, rather it (along with “time”) are emergents from more basic relational fundaments – that are felt – that give us “nature” as science understands it. But place is always concrete, whereas space is abstract. And for Whitehead, the direction of explanation is always from the concrete to the abstract, not the other way around.v
Me? I just long for a tropical cabana and a rum drink, space to set out my tablet and keyboard, and a feeling of home – of place – to practice my craft and spend my days.
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i Anthropogenic (human caused) Global Warming – I refuse to cop out and use the weaker term “climate change.” Human beings are causing the global climate to warm precipitously – AGW. Stop soft-pedaling the facts just because willfully stupid half-wits can’t tell the difference between “my back yard warming” and GLOBAL warming.
ii See, however, the excellent discussion here: https://rethinkingspaceandplace.com/2019/09/12/place-and-space-a-philosophical-history/
iii The feeling of place is, I would argue (but not here) a necessary, but far from sufficient, component in the feeling of the uncanny.
iv See note ii above.
v See Auxier and Herstein, The Quantum of Explanation, pp.’s … oh, just read the whole book.