– Bruce Long

What does urban and city planning have to do with Foucault’s conception and discussion of the panopticon, Aristotelian virtue ethics, and Plato’s conception of harmony as conducive to the existence of a just city?Let’s start with the (philosophically expressed) end in mind: happiness (psychological and subjective). Following a hybrid constructivist and positivist conception of what makes for a psychologically and physically healthy living space, contemporary psychology (hopefully part of the 50% of it that is scientifically falsifiable) has identified a number of features that are critically important to psychological health in urban spaces:

  1. Greenspace: Trees and natural aesthetics make an enormous difference to the comfort and perceived comfort of inhabitants of an urban space. Psychology confirms the early ethos of the greenspace city
  2. Community and elimination or mitigation of isolation: social inclusion
  3. Ready access to vital resources (in approximate accordance with Maslow’s heirarchy of needs)
  4. Short work commute times conducive to increasing the individual’s quality of time management
  5. Aesthetic quality
  6. Hygiene, cleanliness
  7. Safety, including justice/rule of law

There are other factors, and 1 and 5 are closely related. All of these might be said to be related to the outcome of happiness. The philosophy of happiness is in fact a serious subdiscipline in analytic and Eastern philosophy – a rare nexus. Continental philosophy is more concerned perhaps with health and psychological wellbeing. However, this is a concept that is intimate in philosophy with the concept of happiness also.

But what of happiness in the city and urban planned environment? There are many ways in which happiness and the nature of happiness are defined and codified in Western philosophy. Happiness is frequently associated – on an intuitive and also philosophical basis – with one’s environment. The ways in which philosophers approach happiness and manifold, and many of them map to the list of contemporary urban space psychological health factors listed above.

Let’s start with some straightforward insight from a study (one of a number) into the impact of greenspace size and accessibility on mental health especially in the case where the urban inhabitant suffers from anxiety or depression:

Anxiety/mood disorder treatment counts by three age groups were aggregated to 3149 small area units in Auckland. Six measures of green space access were derived using GIS techniques involving total green spaces and useable green spaces. Negative binomial regression models have been fitted to test the relationship between access to green space and area-level anxiety/mood disorder treatment counts, adjusted for age and area-level deprivation. Anxiety/mood disorder treatment counts were associated with three green space measures. The proportion of both total and useable green space within 3 km and distance to nearest useable green space all indicated a protective effect of increased access to green space against anxiety/mood disorder treatment counts. Access to total and useable green space within 300 m did not exhibit significant associations. This study found that decreased distance to useable green space and increased proportion of green space within the larger neighbourhood were associated with decreased anxiety/mood disorder treatment counts in an urban environment. This suggests the benefits of green space on mental health may relate both to active participation in useable green spaces near to the home and observable green space in the neighbourhood environment.;This study aims to find whether proximity to urban green spaces is associated with human mental health.; (Nutsford et. al., source 11)

So that study captured the importance of the greenspace on the health of the urban inhabitant. But there is another concept that has been associated with happiness by philosophers since Plato (at least) in the West and since pre-dynasty taoist thought in China and the East: that of harmony.

Social harmony has been an important concept – for obvious reasons – since ancient China and the time of the Greek Acropolis. Some of the obvious reasons are not what one might think. Monarchs and emperors have historically been interested in social harmony as a route to social control and often with a mind to unification of separatist states and the achievement of greater economic and political interest. However, this pragmatic view of harmony is not that which philosophers generally associate with happiness.


The importance of greenspace to psychological health is perhaps a modern codification of the ancient emphasis on harmony between nature and humans (a theme very important in Chinese Confucian and Taoist thought, for example). However, it is probably the concept of harmony between and within individuals that is the mainstay conception of harmony for Western philosophy since the ancient Greeks first debated it.

That philosophical concept of harmony – as related to the happiness of a society – is in fact well demonstrated in this fairly recent (2011-2013) study comparing the harmony of Hong Kong with that of China, the abstract for which (admittedly politically charged and motivated) study is informative, especially with respect to the acknowledgement of the semantic differences in the conceptions of harmony itself between the two societies:

This paper reconstructs a concept of harmony in two Chinese societies: Hong Kong and China, by utilizing the measures and empirical data of harmony surveys. The data collected in harmony surveys reveal people’s perceptions of social harmony in the two places. Meta-analysis of the harmony data and the related measures yields the concepts of social harmony in the two places. A reconstructed concept is formed by integrating the extracted ones. A comparison is done between this concept and the notions of wellbeing or happiness of these two societies to identify similarities and differences. It is argued that though semantically not identical, the two concepts share enough overlaps to warrant the view that a suitably developed measure of social harmony, no less than that of happiness, could be used as a comparatively useful measure of the well-being of Chinese societies. (Ip., et. al, Source 10 below)

Perhaps the first thing to notice is the Chinese propensity towards positivist views even of something as prospectively difficult to quantify as harmony. However, this study alone is enough to demonstrate that harmony is not just a handwaving term of little import. It is regarded as a politically and socially important dynamic that can be quantified in some way – and importantly that is associated with happiness and wellbeing.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is recorded as having a debate with interlocutor and antagonist Thrasymachus. The thrust of the debate is that – according to Thrasymachus – a justice (and by extension a just city) is unattainable, since those in power simply do whatever they will and say what they like to retain power. His perspective is that leaders will do whatever they must to benefit themselves first, and thus any kind of objective conception of justice is unrealistic to propose. Socrates tries to combat Thrasymachus’ argument (although his rebuttal is considered quite inadequate by most contemporary philosophers) with reference to the concept of harmony existing in the city as it does and should in a person. He parallels the harmony achieved when courage and passion are subsumed under the governance of reason (the gut and heart under the head) with the harmony of a city as achievable by having the workers and soldiers/defenders subsumed under the guidance of politician-philosophers (of course). This harmony – says Socrates – leads to justice.

This archaic and mythologised conception of justice is hardly taken seriously anymore, and it fell out of favour as early as the time of Aristotle. Aristotle took up the concept of harmony, however, and also presented a theory about what it means to be happy. Happiness according to Aristotle has a moral element: it is achieved not when one is fitting into the social scheme of things and minding one’s own Platonic business, but when one is achieving virtue. Aristotle’s ethics is the first recorded virtue ethics. To be happy – he said – one must be virtuous. Virtue is described as a kind of metaphysical quality, but is not achieved or manifested when one is undertaking right action per Plato’s approach – but is a character quality.

According to Aristotle – one will be happy if one is virtuous, and this happens if one is of good character. Beyond this – there is mystery. Happiness is something that comes from within the person as adjunct to the quality of their character. It is not a product of one’s external environment. What that virtuous character is exactly – is not analysed effectively (and Aristotle is the father of philosophical and natural analysis).

By the time the philosophers of the 20th century arrived – especially those continental philosophers interested in concepts such as social constructedness, the errant nature of grand religious and ideological narratives (big stories that societies have about themselves), individual agency, oppression, and social justice – happiness had come to be about the retaining of one’s individual agency and such things are Sartre’s concept of good faith (being true to one’s self) in the face of bogus authoritarian social impositions. This is  of course almost the opposite of Plato’s conception of minding one’s own business by fitting into one’s class and role in society unquestioningly. The beginning of this entire movement is usually attributed to Nietzsche in the 19th century, and to his intellectual heritage: Voltaire and Rousseau, among other enlightenment thinkers, with their courageous rejection of authority over liberty.

By the second half of the 20th Century, even modernism and modernity had begun to give way to the withering attacks of the postmodernists and psychologistic crypto and neo-Marxists. Inspired by Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, and determined to undermine the archaic ideologies of religion and monarchism – Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Baudrilled subjected their societies’ concepts of self, the social, authority, and heirarchy to sophisticated and unprecedented criticism – and to the spectre of the deconstruction (Gillies Deleuze and Jacques Derrida) – a challenge to logical binaries that limited human choice and interpretation in an unsatisfying and unnecessarily strictured way.

Perhaps the most important contributions with respect to the urban environment and the lived social space as representative of the society itself came from Michel Foucault. In his Discipline and Punish Foucault takes on – and attempts to tear down – the edifice of the punitive and authoritarian (and predominantly fascist) by way of a critique of one of its primary tools of oppression and power – the prison. His most famous example and stalking horse is very relevant to the concepts of happiness and harmony in a planned community. It is utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The panopticon is a cylindrical prison design wherein the prisoners are arrayed around the outer ‘drum’ like a kind of stadium or arena, and a large guard and administration tower in the middle of the complex has an open view of all of the cells in the prison twenty four hours a day.


Of the panopticon, Foucault said:

The Panopticon, on the other hand, must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men. No doubt Bentham presents it as a particular institution, closed in upon itself. Utopias, perfectly closed in upon themselves, are common enough. As opposed to the ruined prisons, littered with mechanisms of torture, to be seen in Piranese’s engravings, the Panopticon presents a cruel, ingenious cage. The fact that it should have given rise, even in our own time, to so many variations, projected or realized, is evidence of the imaginary intensity that it has possessed for almost two hundred years. But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of l power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use. (Discipline and Punish)


This excerpt from Foucault’s writing will give the reader both a concept of how difficult continental philosophers can be to read (remember also that the original text is in French), and also reveal simultaneously the motivation for many complaints about the obscurantism of their writing as leveled at them by analytic Anglo-American philosophers. However, the important thing for our current discussion is that the panopticon is an example of an architectural design purposed for unhappiness. It is little wonder then that Foucault is perplexed at Bentham’s thinking, and calls it cruel.

Ironically, the progenitor of the panopticon idea – Jeremy Bentham – and his student John Stuart Mill were both Epicurean moral consequentialists and utilitarians. That means that they were inspired by the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus to define the good or moral as being determined by what makes people happy by giving them pleasure and removing their suffering. Little wonder Foucault was surprised at the nightmare of what the design of the panopticon signified.

The panopticon embodies the opposite of what the philosophy of planning in both positivist and constructivist guises seeks to achieve in urban environments now. Contemporary planners seek a balance of the private and the public such that the psychological needs of the individual as a kind of atom of society, are met. Wanton exposure and isolation are both negatively viewed as being unconducive to happiness. Things like the panopticon are conducive to neither social or individual harmony and happiness, so Foucault argued. Foucault was probably about as right about this as a philosopher can be right about anything.

Foucault addressed the idea of social planned city spaces as direct representations of political and social power structures. Foucault’s gauntlet has been taken up by Giorgio Agamben, who drives harder than perhaps any other continental philosopher at the philosophy of the signification of politics and power in the philosophies of city and urban planning. The happiness of the inhabitant of such spaces is linked with their freedom and agency, and it is on that horizon that lies harmony.

So we have arrived at a point in history and the history of philosophy that maps to the positivist to constructivist move in Western planning philosophy (the latter being initially more focused upon the urban dweller as a psychological and emotional being), and to the growing interest in the importance of harmony of community as facilitated by the arrangement of urban and metropolitan lived spaces in planning in China (Mao was always interested in this, but Chinese planners after the cultural revolution had more opportunity to explore it fully).

What then of the continuance of the postmodern into the information age, and what happens to happiness and harmony? Jean Baudrillard did not address this directly, but was interested in the social constructs deployed within human communities and their effect on the perception of reality by the individual. According to Baudrillard, the removal of our freedom and happiness comes with the removal of our ability to connect with what is real around us, robbing us of our agency, and therefore our internal harmony. The resulting disharmony between the individual and their community is described in terms of dissimulation: pretending that which is real is not. It is very much a form of isolation.

The abstract of a paper about the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard by Hania Nashef’s paper, which explores the prescience of Baudrillard’s doctrine of the hyperreal in contemporary society, puts the question of the effect of our inability to perceive what is real due to grand narratives (marketing, religious, scientific, social, and political) in the context of smartphone mediated cyberspace:

Jean Baudrillard sees in today’s simulation the model ‘of a real but without origin or reality: a hyperreal’. With the hyperreal, the individual is unable to distinguish what is real and what is not [it’s semantically altered representation]. In this article, I argue how the pervasiveness of media, in the form of mobile phones, tablets with their applications and social networking sites, singularly or in unison create and sustain the existence of the hyperreal. They succeed at once through an imagined call for urgency and an implosion of meaning that cannot be contained. This type of media is a priori a form of simulation, and has not only erased the boundaries that exit between the real and the unreal but has also developed as a site accountable for continual deference of the being-in-the-world, forcing on the latter a perpetual existence in the hyperreal.

This kind of philosophy is very much of the continental and literary theoretic (and Freudian psychoanalytic) kind. I am not sure that what Nashef proposes can be regarded as a concrete scientific or immutable conclusion of some kind. However, it is as apt a cultural observation as that made by Baudrillard, and it may provide a cultural expression of a concern about the way in which social media and smartphone technology tend to create an environment where social and psychological abuse, denigration, defamation, invasion of privacy, and slander all go virtually unrecognised by all but the victim(s).

Panopticon after Foucault.

What is the significance of this to urban and city planning? Well, I suggest that since the communications infrastructure and technology that come as part of the new urban and metropolitan environment, that it is a virtual but psychologically affective space within our planned urban spaces that can undo or undermine the planning of real spaces and environments that is meant to make the inhabitants of our cites and urban environments more healthy. In addition to the criteria at the beginning of the article – this kind of disconnectedness from reality is isolating. What could be a possible solution to this, given that the power of convenience and communication of social media and smartphone technology is such that it is unlikely to be curbed? In fact – I have a suggestion (not really philosophical work – some might say). It could be that the solution is already with us: in the form of the Internet cafe.

Internet cafes hold a curious position in the suite of different social spaces and social utilities that we make available to ourselves in our urban environments. They are communal, congenial to interpersonal communication, and involve quite intimate interpersonal presence and space sharing: users frequently sit within only 80 cm to a meter of each other, and there is often constant communication through multiple channels. Last time I witnessed one of these environments, there were several young women included in the crowd of communal game players. There was much exchange of in game banter, no small amount of cross talk and joking, and plenty of  Le regard romantique (the gaze romantic) between young attractive persons to be had.

The Internet cafe has already achieved a place in our cultural consciousness with a mythos all of its own – and in some cases these social dens of the digital age have been associated with outcomes that bring to mind he timeless aphorism that reality is stranger than fiction (and that’s without even considering the hyperreal). Recently in China a woman who had been missing for 10 years and was presumed dead turned up playing a particularly addictive and competitive game in Internet cafes:

Xiao Yun had spent the last 10 years ‘sleeping in internet cafes and bath houses and playing the multi-player game CrossFire’ (Source: The Independent)

There was not much harmony or happiness to be had – apparently – between Miss Yun and her parents. However, it seems that perhaps her escape into the deep infrastructure of her community in the social spaces and associated social virtual spaces (interactive and community populated cyberspace) – although perhaps not very conducive to her personal prosperity (notwithstanding the possibility that she may have been trying to become a champion gamer and thereby become wealthy)- was socially harmonious, and neither oppressive nor fearful.

One might put the case that some kind of addiction is involved, but it seems to be that Xiao Yun chose her social sphere and found it to be harmonious and conducive to her happiness in every sense that mattered to her (albeit having not experienced anything else since 14 years of age). There is the strong suggestion of escapology on her part – but she was found in good health in a non-cult environment and in no mood to change her environment:

Xiao Yun, now 24-years-old, left her family home in Zhejiang, east China, following an argument with her parents when she was 14, The South China Morning Post reports. Ms Yun was found by police on Friday after a routine check of an internet café in the city of Hangzhou, where authorities discovered she was using a fake identity card. Police questioning revealed Ms Yun had spent the last 10 years sleeping in internet cafes and bath houses, spending much of her time playing the multi-player shooter game CrossFire, according to reports. She allegedly survived on donations from fellow cafe users and occasionally worked as a cashier in some cafés to earn additional income.

She was reportedly not happy to return to her family, but her stay in the social space of the cybercafes of her city seems to have been harmonious for her in important ways. Certainly poverty is another very strong possibility for Xiao’s motivation. Many young women in China come from backgrounds of abject poverty. What is interesting here is that the Internet cafes of the large metropolitan centre of Hangzhou (2.45 million people) which adjoins Shanghai (2010 census records the metropolitan population at a staggering 34 million people).

One way of emphasising the striking developments in social planned spaces in enormous post-communist cities in China might be to compare the fate of this otherwise incredibly vulnerable young girl with that of the famous French literary giant and cultural paragon of libertarian excellence and courage – Jean Genet. Less than a century ago, Genet’s parallel fate as an orphan saw him multiply imprisoned, seconded to the foreign legion, and abused multiply – and that was in France. By comparison, Xiao seems to have entered into a world of Internet cafe ‘dime store’ clerking and (albeit uncomfortable) serial slumber parties (although challenges and hardships there must have been) that was superior to her rejected home life.

Is it possible that the left wing ethos of Communism harks back far more than the West is comfortable in admitting to the community of Jesus that reputedly shared everything and took care of those in need?

Bibliography and References

  1. Anand, P., & EBSCOhost. (2016). Happiness explained: what human flourishing is and what we can do to promote it (First). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  3. Berry, H. L. (2007). “Crowded suburbs” and “killer cities”: a brief review of the relationship between urban environments and mental health. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin, 18(11-12), 222.
  4. Cahn, S. M., & Vitrano, C. (2007). Happiness: classic and contemporary readings in philosophy. Oxford;New York; Oxford University Press.
  5. Foucault, M., & Sheridan, A. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. London: Allen Lane.
  6. Greco, J., & Turri, J. (2016). Virtue Epistemology. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/epistemology-virtue/
  7. Guite, H. F., Clark, C., & Ackrill, G. (2006). The impact of the physical and urban environment on mental well-being. Public Health, 120(12), 1117–1126.
  8. Heinaman, R. (1998). Social Justice in Plato’s Republic. Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought, 15(1-2), 23–43.
  9. Hursthouse, R., & Pettigrove, G. (2016). Virtue Ethics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/ethics-virtue/
  10. Ip, P.-K. (2014). Harmony as Happiness? Social Harmony in Two Chinese Societies. Social Indicators Research, 117(3), 719–741.
  11. Lear, J. (2003). The mythic defense of justice in Plato’s Republic. Connecticut Law Review, 35(4), 1549.
  12. Mogilner, C., & Norton, M. (2013). Philosophies of Happiness: Preferences For Experienced and Remembered Happiness. Advances in Consumer Research, 41, 1.
  13. Nashef, H. A. M. (2016). Virtuality and différance in the age of the hyperreal. Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, 7(1), 39–56.
  14. Nutsford, D., Pearson, A. L., & Kingham, S. (2013a). An ecological study investigating the association between access to urban green space and mental health. Public Health, 127(11), 1005.
  15. Pløger, J. (2008). Foucault’s Dispositif and the City. Planning Theory, 7(1), 51–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473095207085665
  16. Rabbås, Ø., Emilsson, E. K., Fossheim, H., Tuominen, M., & Press, O. U. (2015). The quest for the good life: ancient philosophers on happiness (1st ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  17. Wong, D. (2016). Chinese Ethics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/ethics-chinese/

Links of Interest:

“Going back to the metropolis, my idea is that we are not facing a process of development and growth of the old city, but the institution of a new paradigm whose character needs to be analyzed. Undoubtedly one of its main traits is that there is a shift form the model of the polis founded on a centre, that is, a public centre or agora, to a new metropolitan spatialization that is certainly invested in a process of de-politicization, which results in a strange zone where it is impossible to decide what is private and what is public.” (Giorgio Agamben)

Giorgio Agamben: The City, The Plague, Foucault, Ungovernableness, etc…

Woman missing presumed dead found living in Internet Cafe’s for 10 years

Harmony of Aristotle and Plato

IEP Virtue