– Bruce Long
One of the most striking relationships between any two bodies of knowledge and human experience is the interaction and interdependence between the city and philosophy. Yes – you read that correctly. Philosophy is the story of the city, and vice versa. How to defend such a bold (but perhaps unsurprising) claim with substance?
Well, any trained philosopher will tell you that philosophy would never have been possible without the polis, and thence the metropolis. Philosophy – and by extension natural philosophy and science – are children of the city. One cannot afford time to think and muse on a farm or in an agrarian (or nomadic, or minimalist) community, or in a tribal setting, where one is constantly expecting enemy incursion, prospective crop failure, or storms. All of one’s time must be spent ensuring that one’s survival – and that of one’s family and peers – is sustained by the land and nature.
Under such circumstances, pensive thought – that which Aristotle referred to as the via contemplativa – must be (or at least historically has been) subsumed under simpler faith-based perceptions of the world and nature. Under such circumstances, tribal patriarchal hierarchy and authoritarian stricture become all but necessary, or at least a natural consequence of the pressures of duty and discipline upon the small agrarian and tribal community. In such communities, farm hands and warriors are valuable. Daydreamers are generally punished, or else there are very limited roles for them: usually of a mystical nature where the person is a partial outcast anyway.
One might learn eventually how to plant seed better through repeated long live trials of crop growing, but there will be no time, skill, or place for a laboratory to experiment with the process under controlled conditions. Intellectualism gets sidelined for dogma designed to divert one’s attention from the many possibilities of philosophical consideration and investigation. There is comparatively little value in asking why: only in asking when and how, and to what practical end.
In other words, it is not surprising that the scientific revolution took such a long time to arrive, nor that the human landscape had to change significantly in order to facilitate it. Nor is it surprising that it failed to get off the ground numerously in history (from the time of the conflicts between Greek philosophers and religionists which saw to the demise of such figures as Socrates and Hypatia).
We see exactly the same dynamic played out time and time again in contemporary and post-industrial culture. Industrial boom towns go bust when gold, oil or market demand dries up. Big cities thrive while small towns struggle to sustain themselves in almost all Western empires of capitalism and the free market. Industrial cities like Detroit in the USA, which was a technological and economic one-trick pony, die out and become ghost towns like the gold and silver mining settlements of the 19th century. We even have many names for such things: small town syndrome, ghost town, and poor country cousins. These imputations of poverty are not just allusions to fiscal struggle: to pecuniary lack. In fact they are arguably less about that than about other forms of wealth: intellectual, cultural, and community capital. With more people and more hands – and more minds and more administration and governance – there are more cultural and intellectual resources available. The polis gives birth to philosophy. Philosophy sets its eye upon the polis with a view to improve and develop it.
So the city is the birthplace and cradle of philosophy. However, philosophy shapes the living space and its aesthetics also. Of course, a good philosopher will mount a reflexive challenge to this orthodoxy, if only to sure up the argument, but that is not my purpose here (and nor is a blog article a sound place to attempt such, although mentioning it is manageable). For the most part, the city-philosophy coupling is received wisdom from the time of the origin of the polis is that the peripatetics of Athens – from the time of The Agora and The Acropolis and the establishment of the various Greek philosophical academies.
It is relatively easy to surmise how the city is an almost necessary condition for the existence of philosophical thought and especially the academy, but what of the other direction of the dependence? How is the city influenced by philosophy? What can justify such bold claim? Alexander Cuthbert approaches the background of the topic using a broad overview:
The shape and form of cities has always been the subject of philosophical discourse, breeding theoretical interventions, utopian visions, symbolic constructs or speculation about the future.Two and a half millennia have now past since Hippodamus, Aristotle, Zeno and Plato raised questions about the ideal size and form of cities as well as their social organisation.After Hellenistic Greece, the practice of philosophy became embedded as an ongoing responsibility of civilised life, more often than not challenging the societies within which it took root. As a discipline, social science has been dominated by the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Simmel, Weber, Durkheim and others … Dozens of influential philosophers have impacted on architectural, urban and landscape theory, including, but not limited to, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Pierre Bourdieu, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Christian Metz, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Alain Touraine. Of course none of these came stillborn to the world of philosophy, and represented in their work are ‘dominant others’, for example Foucault (Marx and Nietzsche), Lyotard (Marx and Kant), Barthes (de Saussure), Lacan (Hegel and Freud). France aside, other philosophers have influenced urban studies, such as Martin Heidegger, Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva and Frederic Jameson … The subject matter of their interests is truly Herculean, ranging from the outer fringes of human psychology to the symbolic structuring of language and thought. However, the overall brilliance of this work proposes a precise problematic, the reason for Peter Dickens’ admonition that we must move inward from social theory to architecture and urban design. It is too easy for designers in general to plunder this entire body of work for ideas that are then located elsewhere, lacking their original legitimacy and content. Among such a huge array of published work it is difficult to isolate any specific author at the cost of the others, although several do stand out as having singular significance in the areas of architecture and urban design. (5: Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, 53-4.)
Generally speaking philosophy provides a core for the cultural capital of a people and their living space. This cultural capital – which becomes an attraction for the denizens and visitors of the living space alike – may not be overtly philosophical. However the semi-formal or even formal articulation of various political and other philosophies often informs such cultural capital quite directly.
Planning and Esthetic Perception
Planning is one way in which this direct transmission of cultural value via philosophical ideas takes place. The philosophy of planning is perhaps the primary and most direct example of such influence. People have ideas about how a city does, and should, look and feel. A large part of this is about what people desire to represent about themselves – and what they want to be as a community and as individuals. There is a descriptive analysis (how it is and looks) of their habitat to be had, and a prescriptive or normative one (how we think it should be) that says that a city should be a certain way, and its lived experience correspondingly worked out in a certain way. But what are the primary terms of this kind of analysis and these kinds of assertions? They are probably best approached through the concept of esthetic or aesthetic perception. Esthetic perception is one of the most important concepts in fields from art theory through to the philosophy of fiction and literature.
Some of the most eccentric and yet influential works of philosophy and literary theory are produced by little known authors who dare to cross disciplines in unprecedented ways. Little known French electrical engineer, physicist, philosopher, and literary theorist Abraham Moles is an example of this (15).
Moles made an effort to combine literary theory and aesthetics with information theoretic precepts. This was not a popular move at the time, with the father of information theory – Claude E. Shannon – who referred to such apparently metaphorical appropriations of his work as problematic at best. Simultaneously, his work was ignored as out of touch with the prevailing postmodern deconstructionist thought of the time (deconstruction is related to philosophical constructivism in so far as the former is taken to undo rigid concepts arrived at via both constructivist and grand narrative or positivist approaches). Moles’ point about literature and texts was similar to that made by Wolfgang Iser. The general idea is that the perception of a text or artwork changes with each viewing even for an individual. The internal information of the receiver of the text makes it a different text each time it is experienced.
David Hume said something similar to this much earlier in philosophical history, but he allowed (required, in fact) that experts in the art field were the one’s to ask about what was truly aesthetically pleasing because of their highly attuned aesthetic sensibilities (9, 10). When it comes to the aesthetic appeal and quality of cities, every person that lives within the space is somewhat of an expert by fiat: if they are taking any notice. Moreover, they are likely to be taking some notice if they feel the place in which they live is miserable and unpleasant.
Human denizens of cities have many practical and functional requirements for their lived spaces, but these seem to be less valued without the appeal of the aesthetic. How beautiful something is as an object and an experience is perhaps immutably linked with how happy people are. Much philosophical ink has been spilled over the subject of happiness. Some philosophers assert that it is about contentedness (Epicurianism and utilitarianism both regard the moral good as being whatever has the consequences of making one happy and reducing suffering) whilst others regard it as linked with virtue variously described, or with self determination. Much continental philosophical ink has been spilled – from Theodore Adorno to Francois Lyotard and Gilllies Deleuze – about the effect of the social and concrete living environment on the individual.
Foundational Epicurean (happiness via enjoyment as central) and self-determining ideas of happiness are arguably those which mesh most fluidly with the aesthetics of the city. But then – per Iser and Moles – what makes one happy with one’s lived space might be determined heavily by one’s existing disposition and beliefs, one’s prior information and knowledge, and also change over time. Iser was a literary theorist more than a philosopher, and Moles one of the earliest informationist philosophers – or information theoretic philosophers (he may have been the first). I suggest there is a parallel to be found between the city as a kind of constructed metaphorical story with a certain kind of structures and dynamic meaning – and the actual stories fictional and non-fictional – in the form of various cultural and philosophical texts – which influence its planners and designers.
Ironically – given the subjective nature of aesthetic pleasure and quality – science may have a way of revealing insights into what makes a city aesthetically pleasing, and therefore a happier living space and a better city. This is because the psychological status of metropolitans and dwellers in urban spaces. New research emphasizes quality of life indicators (associated with such things as Maslow’s hierarchy) in the determination of the happiness of individuals and communities. This kind of research is part of a very long trajectory of findings from as far back as Lord Cadbury’s work on establishing Bournville as a greenfield community for his workers. But the more recent research incorporates quite comprehensive and rigorous psychometric and other testing that strongly suggests that the living space heavily influences the mental health of the individual (Boyko, 2010).
So the aesthetics of a city and of an urban living space is immutably linked to the emotional and mental health of its denizens, and the primary mechanism for effecting positive change in this connexion is planning. So the marriage between the city and philosophy – much of which is linked to psychology and social-psychology – is in fact multifaceted and twofold: philosophy can only survive in a metropolis, and the post-postmodern living space (in the first world) is improvable on the basis of what amounts to the philosophy of planning. This is even more apparent when one considers that different philosophical perspectives place very different value upon the psychological status and subjective reception of the environment and habitat.
References and Bibliograpy
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- Berleant, A. (1992). The aesthetics of environment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Brady, E. (2014). The sublime in modern philosophy: aesthetics, ethics and nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Cooper, R., Boyko, C., & Codinhoto, R. (2010). The effect of the physical environment on mental wellbeing. [References].
- Cuthbert, A. R. (2003). Designing cities: critical readings in urban design. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
- Cuthbert, A. R., & service), W. I. (Online. (2006). The form of cities: political economy and urban design. Malden, MA;Oxford; Blackwell Pub.
- Epting, S. (2016). Intra-Disciplinary Research as Progress in Philosophy: Lessons from Philosophy of the City. Philosophia.
- Gracyk, T. (2016). Hume’s Aesthetics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/hume-aesthetics/
- Hume, D., & NetLibrary, I. (1990a). Of the delicacy of taste and passion. Boulder, Colo;Raleigh, N.C; Alex Catalogue.
- Hume, D., & NetLibrary, I. (1990b). (Of the) standard of taste. Hoboken, N.J: BiblioBytes.
- Iser, W. (1974). The implied reader: patterns of communication in prose fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Iser, W. (2006). How to do theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
- Landry, C., & Britain), E. (Great. (2000). The creative city: a toolkit for urban innovators. Near Stroud, U.K: Comedia.
- Lefebvre, H. (2014). The urban revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Moles, A. A. (1966). Information theory and esthetic perception. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Peters, M. A. (2014). Philosophy of the City: Hymn to the Polis. On the Right to the City. Policy Futures in Education, 12(4), 455–462.
- Punter, J., Punter, J., Carmona, M., & Carmona, M. (1996). Urban design policies in English local plans: content and prescriptions. Urban Design International, 1(3), 201–234.
- Rutter, M. (2005). How the environment affects mental health. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 186(1), 4–6. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.186.1.4
- Tolstoy, graf, Leo, & Maude, A. (1971). What is art? Chicheley: Minet.
- Turner, T. (1996). City as landscape: a post-postmodern view of design and planning. London: E & FN Spon.