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A Place for Thinking": An Essay by Jeff Malpas (Keywords: Solitude; Place; Descartes; Finitude)

White house on hill

One of the best-known images in philosophy is that which appears in René Descartes’ account of the attempt to secure the foundations for thinking through an intense process of self-examination undertaken from within the confines of a small stove-heated room – Descartes calls the latter a poêle (literally, an oven). The image is used by Descartes to set the scene for his Meditations on First Philosophy from 1641, but it is also an image that is taken from Descartes’ own life. “At the time I was in Germany”, he writes in the Discourse, “the onset of winter detained me in quarters where, finding no conversation to divert me and fortunately having no cares or passions to trouble me, I stayed all day shut up alone in a stove-heated room, where I was completely free to converse with myself about my own thoughts”.

The setting for the Meditations reinforces the “meditational” character indicated by the title of the work – it is as if Descartes, or the work’s unnamed thinker, has retreated from the world in the manner of the religious devotee who looks to attain a closer relation to God through separation from the world, and many commentators have noted the echoes of spiritual and devotional practice. What is also notable, however, is the way the setting Descartes uses for his inquiry mirrors, in spatial or topological terms (terms connected to place as well as space), the idea of thinking that appears in his work as an activity that is essentially interiorized and solitary. The confines of the poêle are thus an analogue for the confines of the mind, thinking appearing as something that occurs within those confines – within the space or place established by them.

Even if the explicit connection between thinking and the space or place of thinking that appears in Descartes is a little unusual (although it certainly appears elsewhere), the view of thinking that it expresses is not. Hannah Arendt, for example, also presents thinking as similarly interiorized and solitary: “All thinking, strictly speaking”, she writes, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and myself”, and although she adds that “this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the world of my fellow-men because they are represented in the self with whom I lead the dialogue of thought”, it is nonetheless a dialogue that is presented as occurring internally to the life of the mind and apart from others.

The idea of thinking as interiorized and solitary undoubtedly captures something important about the nature of thinking. The question is not whether thinking is, in some sense, interiorized or solitary, but whether it is interiorized or solitary in the way that Descartes and Arendt, and others, present it. Although they have much more to say on the topic of thinking than has been outlined here, and their accounts include complications and subtleties that are often overlooked, their emphasis on interiority and solitariness appears tied to a view of thinking, and of the mind more generally, as existing somehow apart from the world of bodies, things, spaces and places. Thus, Descartes tells us, again in the Discourse, that one of the key conclusions arrived at in his own inquiries was the knowledge that “I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist”. The idea of the unplaced character of thinking is also echoed by Arendt, although without the same explicit metaphysical language, at the end of the first volume of The Life of the Mind: “[T]he thinking ego” she says, “is, strictly speaking, nowhere”. But does the solitariness and interiority of thinking have to be understood as tied to such a view? And is it even correct to suppose that thinking is unplaced and apart from the world in the way supposed?

There is certainly good reason to be sceptical, if only because of the increasing body of evidence which suggests a very different view, namely, that mind and cognition are inextricably bound up with the world and with emplaced action in the world – that they should be understood as “situated” or as “embodied, embedded, extended and enactive” (to use the language of 4E cognition). This view can also be taken to imply, though the implication is not usually spelled out, that thinking must be understood as having, in some sense, a fundamentally spatial or topological character, so that, whatever else we say about thinking, we have to affirm that thinking takes place in space (even if the meaning of this needs clarification). We can thus say, contrary to Descartes, that thinking requires some place, and contrary to Arendt, that thinking is always somewhere.


There are many different considerations that may lead to the sort of situated or emplaced view of thinking that is at issue here – including important findings that have arisen from recent advances in the neurosciences. Among the purely philosophical considerations that are relevant, however, is the idea that the contents of thinking – thoughts and experiences – have meaning only through the way they are both rationally and causally connected with one another as well as with their objects at the same time as they are also implicated with a larger body of social connection and interaction.

Donald Davidson famously captures the interactive, interdependent structure that is at issue here – which underpins the possibility of what he refers to as “objective thought” – in terms of the idea of triangulation as a process that occurs between different but engaged speakers (who are also thinkers) and the things in the world with which they are mutually engaged. In a key essay titled “Three Varieties of Knowledge”, Davidson elaborates what is essentially the same structure through the idea of an epistemic “tripod” according to which knowledge is based in the three-way interplay of subjective, intersubjective, and objective – of self, other, and world.

Davidson’s use of the idea of triangulation as a key idea in understanding how thought ­is possible – and so how the activity of thought, in other words, thinking, is possible also – is indicative of the way notions of space and place are at work in his account, even if not directly thematized. Triangulation is an idea taken from the practice of surveying and the determination of position. It is fundamentally a spatial or topological notion in the sense that it is concerned with the structure of space and place (albeit, so far as mapping and positioning are concerned, as given within a specific context). Davidson provides an important example of how “topology” might be at work in thinking, not only as an idea thought about, but also as intrinsic to the structure and possibility of thinking.

Significantly, one can already discern the traces of such a topology even in Descartes and Arendt. It is present in the images on which they draw (Descartes’ enclosed room being the obvious example, although other images can be found in Arendt) by which the topology of thinking, whilst remaining unaddressed in any direct way, is nevertheless woven into the fabric of their thinking. But it is already evident in the very ideas with which thinking is associated – in the ideas of thinking as an interior activity as well as in the notion of thinking as solitary.

Interiority (and exteriority with it) is unequivocally a topological notion, being tied to the notion of a place and a boundary that constitutes that place. And if solitariness does not immediately evoke the topological or the spatial, as soon as one attempts to elaborate upon the nature of solitude, place and space inevitably come into view. To be solitary is to be apart from, but what sense can be given to apartness that does not, in some fashion, draw on the idea of the spatial? Spatiality is precisely that which allows for distinct but simultaneous existence – which is why it looms so large in the thinking of a philosopher such as Emmanuel Levinas, for whom the relation to the other that is expressed through the idea of the “face-to-face” is explicitly spatial. Arendt’s descriptions of both solitude and dialogue invariably draw, if sometimes only implicitly, on spatial and topological images and ideas.

Arendt is not unusual in this latter respect­ – and neither is Levinas. Indeed, one of the oddities of philosophical thinking about thinking, though seldom remarked upon, is how frequently the character of thinking as interior and solitary is affirmed, and with it the idea of thinking as apart from place and space, at the same time as such thinking also relies upon, and often implicitly invokes, the topological and the spatial. This is so not only in respect of images like that of the Cartesian thinker enclosed within his heated room, but also in the very language that thinking about thinking, and thinking in general, typically employs – as in talk of the “space of imagination”, the “grasp” of a concept, the “ground” of understanding – with the spatial and topological content of such language being itself mostly overlooked or ignored. It is as if philosophers are blind to their own being-placed; unable to recognise the place in which their thinking originates and by which it is sustained; unable to recognise where they already are – unable to recognise where thinking always already is.

It is as if philosophers are blind to their own being-placed; unable to recognise the place in which their thinking originates and by which it is sustained.

There are occasions when the implication of place and space in thinking is explicitly recognised. Yet all too often, when this does occur, it is in terms of the implication of space and place as metaphors – whether as a result of the ubiquity of metaphor in general or else the ubiquity of topological and spatial metaphors in particular. And in being treated as metaphors in this way, such ideas and images are effectively taken as not really being about spaces or places as such. There is, of course, a further set of issues that could be taken up here about the nature and significance of metaphor as well as of “literality”, and it would be as well not to assume too much here. But equally, one ought not to assume too much about how the topological and the spatial should be understood independently of any metaphorical sense –­ and they should certainly not be assumed to be simply derivative of space and place as these terms operate within physical theory alone.

One thinker who is alive to his place, and to the place of his own thinking as well as of thinking in general, is Henry David Thoreau. “What sort of space”, he asks in Walden, “is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?” Thoreau is clear that solitariness does not mean loneliness (something important for Arendt also, especially in political terms, as one might argue it is for Thoreau), and solitude is possible even in the midst of others, just as it is also not ensured by physical distance. One might suppose that the space that makes for solitude in Thoreau’s sense is a “space” that arises through a withdrawal into the mind and that such a “space” is not really a space at all – here is that turn towards the metaphorization of the topological and spatial that is so common and that undoubtedly plays a part in the obscuring of the spatial and topological in Descartes and Arendt as well as others. But what is very clear in Thoreau is that although solitude is not a simple function of physical distance alone (Thoreau’s Walden house was set in an already inhabited landscape and was certainly not as “isolated” as is sometimes assumed), it is nonetheless intimately bound up with forms of spatiality that belong to different modes of being in the world, different modes of attentiveness to what is around one, and so to different modes of activity and engagement.

The sort of space that makes for solitude is thus not some sort of metaphorical space nor a variety of “non-space”, but rather the space that arises from different places and different ways of being in place. After all, it is partly in search of solitude that Thoreau comes to Walden Pond, and what he finds there is a space and place for thinking that is intimately bound up with the places and spaces of that place. Solitude is itself a way of being with others and of being apart from others. And this “being with” and “apart from” cannot be understood as some strange withdrawal from place and space but only in terms of a complex set of what are essentially topological and spatial – and therefore also active and embodied – modes of relatedness.


Space is not primarily the space of physical extendedness as narrowly understood. Rather, “physical” extendedness (and one might question exactly what “physical” means here) is one of the modes in which space is realised, but only one – and this remains so despite the unargued but commonplace assumption that space does indeed refer primarily to physical extendedness or, perhaps more specifically, to extendedness as it may be theorized within physical theory. Space itself, if one can speak that way, is something closer to a certain openness of being (not unlike that identified by Plato in his discussion of chora in the Timaeus) or of the openness that allows for the presence of things. If such a characterization seems opaque or lacking in exactitude, then this merely reflects a difficulty that pertains to every concept barring the most simplistic. And as with space, so too with place. Location within a space of physical extension – as might be expressed using a grid reference on a map – is not to be construed as the primary sense of place. Instead, place involves openness – the same openness at issue in space (which is why the Greek topos, like the French espace, can name both space and place) – but openness as it is also bounded. Place is the bounded open. The boundedness at issue here is like the boundedness of the horizon: as the visual horizon is not to be construed as merely that at which seeing stops, but rather as that which enables seeing (since without the horizon there is no visual field), so the boundedness of place is what makes possible the open field that enables appearance. If there were no bound, and so no open, but also no place, then nothing would appear – hence the dictum repeated by Aristotle, in his discussion, in Book IV of the Physics, of place or topos (which is, he says, both “profound and difficult to grasp”), that “all that is is somewhere… [and] what is not is nowhere”. Thinking occurs in the space that opens up between thinkers in the world (which is why it occurs in relation to the solitary, since the solitary is itself a mode of being-with, of being in-relation) at the same time as it also opens up within the experience of thinkers (and both these spaces belong to the world even though it is to the world as more than just the world of physics). It is thus that thinking occurs both in the between and the within. Moreover, these do not constitute two completely different spaces, but one – it is in the space between one another that we also find a space within ourselves. And as they are spaces tied to the between and the within, so the spaces at issue here are essentially bound to the boundedness of place. It is through our being here, in the midst of the world, that the spaces of thinking emerge as spaces for thinking. To think of thinking in this way – as having a space that belongs to it and that is also a space to be discerned in the multiplicity of the world – is also to think of thinking as both in and of the world even as it also stands apart from the world. Indeed, the interiority of thinking, which is partly what sustains the idea of its worldly apartness, must itself belong to the world – the world thus has an interiority of its own and it is that interiority that, in large part, we call thinking. Similarly, the solitariness of thinking is not a solitariness that belongs to what is apart from the world, but is itself an apartness that belongs to the world and that arises in the midst of its multiplicity. Thinking, then, is not something that can be set against the world, and thought and world are neither “correlated” nor strictly separable (contra the claims of some popular contemporary forms of “realism”), but are instead intimately inter-implicated with one another. Even Descartes seems to have some sense of this when he notes that one cannot be lodged in one’s body like “a pilot in a vessel” (although here too the topological and spatial imagery is notable); and Arendt, for all that she tends to speak of thinking as apart from the world, also has a strong sense of the necessary engagement of thinking in the world. Yet neither Descartes nor Arendt seems properly to recognise the way in which thinking already begins in the world and that the spaces and places of thinking are the spaces and places of the world. The world is indeed just that which opens up in place and whose spatiality is first grasped (even if not always recognised) as co-extensive with the spatiality, and the spaciousness, of thinking. The openness of the world is the openness of thinking and vice versa. There is a strong sense of this in Thoreau and it is partly what underlies the significance of his thinking both for environmental philosophy and for philosophy in general. Notwithstanding the fact that he often draws on ideas and ways of speaking appropriate to his time, still what shines through the pages of Walden is the sense of Thoreau as thinking from within the landscape in which he lives and in intimate connection to all that belongs to that landscape – not only his human neighbours, but trees, plants, birds, and animals, and not only those of the present, but also of the past (prominent among whom are escaped slaves). Thoreau’s own solitariness and apartness is thus bound up with a neighbourliness and togetherness all of which is articulated within the same landscape. Thinking belongs in and to the world even when it seems to find itself apart from it. There is nowhere else that thinking could find itself – no realm of pure thought that is somehow other-worldly in any real sense. Because thinking begins in the world, so too the situatedness of thinking, its being-placed, must be understood, not as that which is a barrier to thinking or as a problematic limitation upon it, but as that which fundamentally enables thinking – it is in its situatedness, in its being placed, that thinking finds its very possibility and its proper ground. It is this idea, though more often expressed in terms of the essential tie between finitude and understanding (in other words, in terms of the limits of understanding that both situate it and make it possible), that has been central to twentieth-century hermeneutic thinking – particularly as exemplified in the work of the Hans-Georg Gadamer.

It is in its situatedness, in its being placed, that thinking finds its very possibility and its proper ground.

Thinking belongs to the world, is always undertaken from out of the world, and may even be said to be dependent upon it. It is this that is so strikingly evident in the work of a thinker such as Thoreau, although Thoreau is not alone in this regard. Moreover, as it is surely Thoreau’s attentiveness to place and landscape that also makes for his attentiveness to the placed character of thinking, so this can be discerned elsewhere. Albert Camus’ explicit concern with the Mediterranean landscape in which his thinking is grounded is a prime example of a similar focus on both place and the place of thinking. And so too is Virginia Woolf’s emphasis (is it a coincidence that it is thinkers who are also writers that figure here?) not only on the importance of “a room of one’s own”, but on the connection of thinking and writing to the concreteness of things and of the concreteness of things to thinking and writing: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down”. ***

Picture 1901 "Interior en la calle Strand"

In the “Introduction” to her discussion of thinking in The Life of the Mind, Arendt explains how her inquiries into thinking partly arose as a result of her observation, at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, of the way evil seemed tied to a form of not thinking – “not stupidity, but thoughtlessness”. Arendt’s explicit discussion, as will already be evident, moves in a different direction from that explored here (although it also contains other, implicitly more convergent elements). If, contra Arendt, we do indeed take thinking to be inextricably bound to place, then the thoughtlessness that Eichmann exhibits, the lack of thinking that Arendt sees as connected to evil, can also be characterised as an effacing, a refusing, even a forgetting, of the proper place of thinking and of thinking’s own being-placed. To attend to place is always to attend both to boundedness and finitude, and to what goes beyond that boundedness and finitude but is opened up by it; it is to attend to what is at the bounds, at the horizon, and to what is immediately before us. To attend to the place of thinking is to be willing to attend to the complexity of our situation – of the open, bounded space in which we are – and to question, to listen, and to respond in ways appropriate to that situation. What Arendt calls “the banality of evil” is not about a concern with the ordinariness of things that Woolf, for instance, evokes, but is evident in the very loss of the capacity for genuine concern as such – loss of the capacity for genuine attentiveness and responsivity, loss of the capacity even to grasp and properly to respond to the ordinary.

The obscuring and forgetting of the place of thinking, and so also of its bounds and limits, is exacerbated by the distracting and displacing character of the technological systems that nowadays proliferate around us and increasingly dominate our lives. The irony, of course, is that the systems at issue are a product of thinking, and so, in an important sense, dependent upon it, at the same time as they also function to do away with the need for thinking (and especially for judgment) – whether in the case of the payment app that makes it easier to buy “without thinking”, the autonomous weapons system that can activate its own defences (and, potentially, even identify its own targets), and the proliferating forms of online management software that increasingly anonymise and automate decision-making across many different organisations and situations. The loss of thinking here is directly tied to the loss of place or of a sense of being-placed, and so also of a sense of bound or limit, that is integral to contemporary technological systems and the structure of managerialized capital with which they are enmeshed. The banal evil that Arendt identified in the case of Eichmann, and that consists in the loss of genuine attentiveness and responsiveness, is thus in danger of becoming, not merely banal, but a pervasive and ubiquitous feature of contemporary life.

To attend to place is always to attend both to boundedness and finitude, and to what goes beyond that boundedness and finitude but is opened up by it.

The danger here is all the more evident when one reflects on the way in which the loss of thinking that occurs under the increasing sway of contemporary technologization, managerialization, commodification, and globalization, appear tied to the rise of exactly the language Arendt associated with Eichmann. In this respect, Arendt argues that the loss of thinking is associated with an emptying out of meaning, so that what dominates is the language of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to standardized codes of expression and conduct”; and, one might add, the language of the algorithm, of monetized value, of euphemised violence; the language of everybody and nobody, of everywhere and nowhere. Partly because of its embodied and emplaced character, thinking must always be bound up with technological systems and devices, but that cannot mean that the effects of those systems and devices in shaping and even displacing thinking should be ignored or dismissed, nor should it lead us to overlook the intensified effects of contemporary technological systems compared to the those of the past.

It is commonplace to hear – in a way only slightly muted by the current pandemic – that the contemporary world is characterised by the disappearance of boundaries, by limitless connection and flow, by the erasing of the differences between places, by what is, effectively, the disappearance of place. For many this may well appear as the realization of a certain sort of promise contained within modernity (and even as contained in Descartes) of a world without boundaries or places that is thereby also a world open to a pure and unfettered mode of thinking. Yet if thinking is indeed bound to its place as the condition of its opening into the world, then what is really presaged is not the opening up of thinking, but its closing off; not a freeing up of thinking, but its effacement.

Jeff Malpas is an Australian philosopher and is currently Emeritus Distinguished Professor at the University of Tasmania in Hobart and Distinguished Visiting Professor at LaTrobe University in Melbourne. His work is grounded in post-Kantian thought, especially the hermeneutical and phenomenological traditions, as well as in analytic philosophy of language and mind, and draws on the thinking of a diverse range of thinkers and writers including, most notably, Albert Camus, Donald Davidson, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, he is the author, among other works, of Place and Experience (2018) and Heidegger’s Topology (2006). His latest book, The Fundamental Field: Thought, Poetics, World (co-authored with Kenneth White) was published last year by Edinburgh University Press.


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 4 ("Thinking Otherwise"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider making a small donation. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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