Who would've thought that R.E.M.'s hit tune "Stand" held the secrets to Western spatial thinking? This week I break it down for you. From Aristotle's "Stand in the place where you live" to Newton's "Carry a compass to help you along," it's like they were dropping knowledge bombs all along! So next time you get this '80s hit stuck in your head, remember, you're getting a crash course in geographic philosophy. Rock on!
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R.E.M.’s 1988 hit single, Stand, starts with this chorus:
Stand in the place where you live
Now face north
Think about direction
Wonder why you haven't before
Now stand in the place where you were
Now face west
Think about the place where you live
Wonder why you haven't before
Followed by this verse:
If you are confused, check with the sun
Carry a compass to help you along
Your feet are going to be on the ground
Your head is there to move you around
Without knowing it, they outlined what one researcher regards as the complete set of Western thought on space and place. In 1996, history and philosophy of geography professor Michael Curry identified just four distinct, but relational, notions of space that emerged two thousand years ago but continue to shape Western thought today.
Curry's four main categories of space provide a framework for understanding different conceptualizations of space. These notions have influenced philosophical and scientific perspectives on space throughout history. Here they are:
1. Static, Hierarchical, and Concrete Space (Aristotle 384-322 BC):
This notion of space was influenced by Aristotle. It suggests objects and events have their natural places within the world. Aristotle associated the elements of earth, air, fire, and water with their respective natural places – a rock falls back to earth, water finds its way back to water, air flows to air, and fire moves upwards.
This perspective views space as fixed and objects, and their elements, as being in specific positions within it. Curry reminds us that despite what modern science may say about the atomic structures and behavior of the world, we can see – as Aristotle did – that a bubble rises through water to find air like a frightened toddler running to their mother. And even with the best throw, there’s no separating a rock from its mother earth. Aristotle embraced a qualitative notion of science, informed by what he perceived to be true. Even when we may know we’re deceived. For example, we have to remind ourselves that the earth is not fixed and the sun does not set, even though it appears to be true.
Aristotle’s notion of space remained in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and guided all thought and action. But even though this Aristotelian common-sense view of the world can be seen even today, Curry notes that in 1277 the Church did its part to stamp it out. The Catholic church’s passing of Condemnation of 1277 aimed at eradicating Aristotelian teachings. The Church also embraced mathematics in the Middle Ages, though later challenged advances in math that conflicted with religious doctrine, recognizing its truth, contribution to education, and sensing the economic and intellectual power it wielded.
As the Enlightenment awoke, and with it the rise of Church-backed European geopolitical power, a more exacting view of space emerged. Surveying was ripped from the Roman ages and with it the gridding of land for political, economical, and military organizing and domination.
Then, in the mid to late 1600s, Descartes further quantified space by marrying elements of algebra to geometry imbued with Christian religiosity. He, and the Church, preached – like Plato did – that this model of mathematical certainty is the bases of all knowledge. So, while the common sense, observational, and qualitative views of Aristotle are still with us today, they don’t have nearly the influence over science Cartesian approaches do. Which leads us to Curry’s second big influence on our notion of space.
2. Absolute Grid Space (Newton 1642-1727):
The second notion of space is most often associated with Isaac Newton. This conceptualization of space is influenced by Descartes and views space as an absolute grid. In this view, space is considered an infinite and independent entity within which objects exist and events occur. It is a framework where positions, distances, and directions can be precisely defined, a fixed reference frame allows for the measurement and calculation of an object’s position and movement. Curry reminds us that Newton is largely regarded as a secular contributor to science, but like Descartes his work is riddled with religious overtones.
His Christian view of space as infinite and eternal, where objects and motion are the work of an omnipresent God, are found in his 1686 Fundamental Principles of Natural Philosophy. He says God
“is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient…He endures forever and is everywhere present. He is omnipresent not virtually only but also substantially…In him are all things contained and moved, yet neither affects the other; God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies, bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God.”
But Newton’s voice and influence was not alone. Which gets us to number three.
IT’S ALL RELATIVE
3. Relational Space (Leibniz 1646-1716):
The third notion of space was influenced by Newton’s contemporary Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He argued for a relational understanding of space. While adopting the scientific outlook of Newton, Leibniz attacked Newton’s absolutist approach tinged with Christian orthodoxy. Whereas Newton rejected the senses, as they may deceive God’s power and will, Leibniz emphasized the importance of considering how we sense relationships among objects and events. Because our eyes (with the help of our brain) can sense objects moving relative to one another, Leibniz argued space is fundamentally defined by these relationships. The positions and properties of objects are interdependent. This relational view highlights the dynamic and interconnected nature of spatial relationships that comes from motion of one object relative to another.
This notion of spatial relationships, that some objects appear to move in absolute space while others remain stationary has echoes of both Descartes and Newton but without metaphysical religiosity. It also embraces elements of a human-centeredness that culminates in unique and individual spatial perceptions. This opened the door to number four.
4. Imposed Form Space (Kant 1724-1804):
The last notion of space, associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, challenges the previous perspectives by positing that space is something imposed on the world by humans. Kant argued that space is not an inherent quality of the external world but rather a framework through which humans perceive and organize their experiences. In this view, space is a subjective construct that shapes our understanding of the world.
Kant very much believed in Descartes and Newton’s mathematical truths in how to describe the world and how objects behave, but in his 1781 Critique of Pure Reason he questioned what we can really know about the world given it’s all skewed by our perceptions. Curry recalls that Kant himself regard this shift in thinking as a ‘Copernican Revolution’. Just as Copernicus reoriented the universe by centering planets around the sun, Kant believed his critique of reason shifts the center of knowledge from what was thought to be known to the perception of the knower. He observed that even though something can be shown to be mathematically true, like gravity, we can’t see gravity. We can calculate wind speed, but we can’t see what caused the air to move. Kant’s revolution opened the door for radical alternatives to describing the world, including the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry just thirty years after Kant’s publication.
Curry’s four notions of Western spatial thought just may have culminated in a pop hit single in the 1980s. Aristotle would have liked that R.E.M. suggest we “check with the sun” given his version of space is all about the fixed positions of natural elements. Newton would commend them on advising to “carry a compass to help you along” an absolute grid space. Leibniz would remind the confident compass holder that while “your feet are going to be [at a point] on the ground, your head is there to move you around” relative to that point. And Kant would have told everyone to just stop and “think about the place where you live, wonder why you haven't before.”
Curry, M. R. 1996. On space and spatial practice in contemporary geography. In Concepts in human geography, ed. C. Earle, M. S. Kenzer, and K. Mathewson.