– Bruce Long

Many of our previous articles have focused upon analytic, renaissance, enlightenment,  and classical philosophical underpinnings of the philosophy of urban and city planning. When it comes to the concept of the character of cities, however, a more broadly continental approach is probably more suitable. We probably need to determine what it is we are after when we ask about the character of a city and how it develops over time. In other words: in philosophical and aesthetic terms – what is the character of a city – and then how does such a character develop?

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Plan of Edinburg: John Rocque

The distinction between positivist and constructivist philosophies of urban planning is largely of the analytic philosophical tradition – and is a little too binary for the comfort of postmodern and neo-leftist continental philosophers. This is important, because a concept like character is hard to separate from the psychological and the aesthetic, and so continental philosophy would seem to be the right toolkit to deploy – although not without some recourse to, and reference to, the more Anglo-American and positivistic tradition.

The distinction – in analytic terms – between constructivism and positivism is rooted in, and parallel to, ongoing arguments between subjectivists and positivists, and pragmatists and realists (there are a few similar wrestles besides in play: reductionism verses emergentism and such like). Like continental philosophers, theologians and philosophers of religion are prone to try to merge these different aspects – the scientistic/objective and subjective/experiential – of our culture and thought. Famous biologist and science historian Stephen J. Gould introduced to us his concept of non-overlapping magisteria: the idea that religion and science are separate but symbiotic elements of our cultural knowledge and character. The influential postmodernist neo-leftist philosopher Jean Baudrillard regarded rigid acceptance of both scientific and religious narratives as a mistake. Theologians are frequently at pains to denounce the science-religion dichotomy, bringing all concepts under a godhead, as it were.

The point is that of course philosophers from all camps know that these binaries (this or that distinctions) are not clear cut anyway. Distinctions are frequently drawn in order to help us analyse. For example – there are many varieties of pragmatism (that of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, John Maynard-Keynes, and Richard Rorty – just to name a few), and many of these incorporate different degrees of subjectivism (the idea that reality is primarily – or even only – subjective and experiential) and realism (the idea that our consciousness exists within the objectively real material world and emerges within that world somehow).

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Hausmann’s Architectural Paris

Continental philosophy on the whole tends to come at things from a psychologistic and social-psychological (and literary-theoretic) direction, more than from positivistic science. It often has Marxist or even religionist socialist influences, and in the former case respects materialism and the sciences as a tool for a purpose and a means to an end.

So where then to start in continental philosophy for an informative background to the character of cities and the planning thereof? The best known contemporary and recent examples of continental philosophy – those most familiar to lay folk – are probably modernism and the various kinds of existentialism (although there are certainly many other continental philosophies). Postmodernism is more recent, but it is less well understood and probably less well connected in our cultural consciousness with our current subject material: the character of the city.

Certainly the postmodern concepts of pastiche – the random or unguided admixing of styles and aesthetic objects – and randomness in stories, or the rejection of the grand narrative pre-authored story in favour of random, unguided episodes: such concepts are clearly applicable to thinking about the content, perception, and feel of urban living spaces. However, there is likely to be only one answer to how the character of cities develop according to postmodernism – and that is as a mish-mash of undirected agglomeration of features, structures, and styles. This is undeniably partly true. There is an organic and ‘random walk’ kind of nature to the development of most large human settlements in history. There are so many variables driving the development of a city or urban space – and many of these are difficult or impossible to see with the best of planning: subsidence in the ground, changes in the demand of the population for a resource due to religious convictions, changes in social practice that affect the use of buildings, and so on. Who, in 1910, could have predicted the construction of gigantic ovens in Auschwitz in Poland for the purpose of disposing of human beings on religious and political grounds? What will happen to the layout of low altitude coastal cities worldwide that were established long before the language of global warming was even conceived of?

With existentialism we always begin with the faithist/theist variety of The Disturbing Dane – Soren Kierkegaard – whose habit it was to complain to what he believed was a monotheistic god of the universe about how difficult things were – and that it did not seem to be necessary. Kierkegaard never used the term existentialist, and neither did perhaps the greatest continental philosopher of our time – Friedrich Nietzsche.

Now, Nietzsche was – and is – a multifariously demonised and maligned character. He is almost universally labelled by the folk – and not a few philosophers – as a godless nihilist. The godless part is almost undeniable. The nihilist ascription is – however – a bit of a problem. To be a nihilist proper one must do at least one thing well – and that is to deny that there is any such thing as truth at all. Nietzsche clearly did not think this, as evidenced copiously by his own writings. He believed and argued that institutions like Christianity had no real monopoly on – in fact no real grasp upon – the truth. So he believed in the truth – he simply did not think that the usual suspects had any clue what it really was, or if they did – that they were faithfully representing it.  


Frank Jackson and David Lewis: Canberra Planners. The Canberra plan is NOT about town planning.

Frank Jackson and David Lewis: Canberra Planners. The Canberra plan is NOT about town planning.

Incidentally, the term ‘folk’ here is a term used by professional philosophers to refer to those who are – well – not professional philosophers. It is usually only analytic philosophers that practice such condescension, but in their defence, 21st Century analytic philosophy did for some time culminate at the Australian National University and Princeton University in a movement referred to under the head of The Canberra Plan. Canberra planners decided – among other things – that the folk had intuitions that were often based in not only sensible cultural capital – but fairly sound reasoning. And no, as you may have guessed, the Canberra plan has – ironically in the context of this article – little or nothing to do with city planning. Although, existentialist and subjective experiential folk intuitions about life in the city do have a lot to do with our topic of discussion here.

Twentieth century continental philosophers – of the French variety anyway – were largely Marxists and socialists, and so such disabusing everyday people of their dignity was for such thinkers limited to referring to them as the herd or the masses. Perhaps ‘The folk’ is more polite after all?

Of course, by this point – we have already encountered at least one continental philosopher – Nietzsche – that was alert to the importance of the subjective and communal experience of the city, and its character. In his political-philosophical fiction Thus Spake Zarathustra, at passage 51 On Passing By the narration and dialogue proceeds thus:

THUS slowly wandering through many peoples and divers cities, did Zarathustra return by round-about roads to his mountains and his cave. And behold, thereby came he unawares also to the gate of the great city. Here, however, a foaming fool, with extended hands, sprang forward to him and stood in his way. It was the same fool whom the people called “the ape of Zarathustra:” for he had learned from him something of the expression and modulation of language, and perhaps liked also to borrow from the store of his wisdom. And the fool talked thus to Zarathustra:

O Zarathustra, here is the great city: here have you nothing to seek and everything to lose.

Why would you wade through this mire? Have pity upon your foot! Spit rather on the gate of the city, and- turn back!

The fool goes on to warn Zarathustra of the vices of the city (which is a reference the biblical concept of Babylon the Great)

All lusts and vices are here at home; but here there are also the virtuous; there is much appointable appointed virtue…There is here also much piety, and much faithful spittle-licking and spittle-backing, before the God of Hosts… But the moon still revolves around all that is earthly: so revolves also the prince around what is earthliest of all- that, however, is the gold of the shopman. The God of the Hosts of war is not the God of the golden bar; the prince proposes, but the shopman- disposes! …

-Spit on the great city and turn back!

Here, however, did Zarathustra interrupt the foaming fool, and shut his mouth.-

Stop this at once! called out Zarathustra, long have your speech and your species disgusted me!…I loathe also this great city, and not only this fool. Here and there- there is nothing to better, nothing to worsen. Woe to this great city!…Thus spoke Zarathustra, and passed by the fool and the great city.

Recently, Nietzsche scholars have noted that before the great philosopher’s stress-induced breakdown (which has been also attributed to a syphilis infection contracted from his mother – a theory increasingly rejected by scholarship) he turned significantly from his peripatetic (walking and wandering) philosophical musings in the country and forest, to the city, and specifically Turin – the architecture and character of which he mused about in almost spiritual terms ( http://bit.ly/2gVOYM3 )

Nietzsche's Turin

Nietzsche after his breakdown during a peripatetic wandering in Turin

Then there is the still godless (and much more recent twentieth century) existentialism of famous French existentialist John Paul Sartre, who was nevertheless heavily influenced by the Jesuitry over such things as suicide (which he denounced as bad faith) through a Jesuit Priest he met in prison, and whose partner was the brilliant and influential Simone De Beauvoir – a professional philosopher in her own right.

Then, further into existentialist territory, there is Albert Camus, who was Sartre’s existentialist (a label that Camus rejected) but also absurdist sparring partner. Camus’ novel The Plague was an absurdist study of the human condition in the city of Oran in French Algeria (thought to be based upon a plague of cholera that did affect the city). The Plague is the story of an ensemble of protagonists whose collective character reflects the character of the city.

The existentialists opposed nihilism, and Nietszche was probably the first of their ranks after the theistic Keirkegaard (whom many theologians despised almost as much as they did Baruch Spinoza). Nihilism and city planning? That would belong to anarchists – maybe. One would have to ask an anarchist.

The existentialists also have a heritage with German continental philosophers Husserl and Heidegger. This is a troubled heritage, since Heidegger was essentially a Nazi. Husserl and Heidegger – along with Merleau Ponty – were phenomenological existentialists. Phenomological exisentialism is somewhat obsessive about the nature of conscious experience or phenomenal experience. This element of existentialism is arguably important to the constructivist and subjectivist element of the development of the character of cities. Phenomenal experience is what – according to existentialism – would capture the aesthetic and cultural character of the city and the polis in the stream of consciousness of its inhabitants.


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The affinity between the philosophies of living spaces and urban planning, and existentialism, comes with the commitment of the latter to the human condition and experience as the central philosophical topic of importance. Most existentialists have been – like constructivists – averse to positivism, and to the idea that the important concepts of philosophy are only attached to the objectively real and that which exists independently of subjective experience.

Care must be taken by philosophers and folk alike here. It is fairly clearly not the case that just because all of our existential experience of the material universe is acquired subjectively through perception and psychology (the special philosophical interest of existentialists like Heidegger and Merleau Ponty) that we should lapse into solipsism (the idea that the only person/consciousness that really exists is somehow one’s own) or its close cousin idealism (the idea that the only person/consciousness that really exists is that of some kind of god).

So the existentialists fall more squarely on the side of constructivists about town planning, with their shared aversion to positivism, and common emphasis of subjective and conscious experience. But what of the character of cities considered as aesthetic objects and environs? Does a city or urban environment get its character only from its denizens and their experience? The empirical qualities of a city that must depend on the inhabitants and planners of a city do not seem to be the whole story.Image result for medieval city


So the problem we have is of a kind familiar to philosophers – pedants that we are. We need to ask perhaps not only how a city get its character, but what is the character of a metropolis comprised of? Existentialists like Sartre and Heidegger differed on may points including their politics, but they did not try to delete external reality from the set of things that really exist (which is a common move for some idealists). Sartre was a materialist and a realist in the Marxist vein. He did not think that the external world and its objects did not exist – only that they were philosophically unimportant compared to a subject’s lived experience of them. According to Heidegger, a hammer was a real object that would still exist if humanity suddenly passed into oblivion, but its joining with the human hand and arm as an extension of them – its inclusion in phenomenal experience as a consciously realised extension of the body – that was important.

So what then is an answer to this question of what is the character of a city comprised of? I do not think that I can provide the answer. Philosophers are not generally expected to do so, although certainly that is what the existentialists Heidegger and Sartre attempted to do with respect to the nature of human experience. However, I will suggest that the character of a city is as much subjectively and psychologically established as it is objectively determined.

I suggest that a good place (and perhaps an obvious place) to start looking is in the aesthetic appreciation of, and artistic reception of, cities by their denizens – especially artists. Especially artists with philosophical influences and knowledge who are interested in architectures, city spaces, and urban landscapes as the subject of their art. One artist in particular comes to mind: Italian Surrealist Giorgio De Chirico.

De Chirico Disquieting Muses

De Chirico Disquieting Muses


De Chirico was interested in the representation of what he calls the metaphysical city. This brings to the fore a very old and very familiar idea in classical philosophy and art: the debate between Plato and Aristotle about Plato’s forms. According to Plato, everything from men to chairs have the form that they do because they inherit from a perfect form that exists ‘somehow’ (in a Platonic ‘realm’ perhaps). Aristotle disagreed, saying that the form of which Plato spoke was simply a generalisation from the familiar concrete nature and shape of real tokens (examples) of real material things. Artists have experimented with the idea of abstract metaphysical representations of everyday things ever since then (and probably before).

That De Chirico was a surrealist representer of what he called the metaphysical city provides us with an excellent example of how the character of a city emerges from our esthetic perception of it, as well as from our functional and operational (more positivistic-empirical) objectives.


The character of a city therefore is both concrete – in the established layout of the living space and the shape of architectures comprising its metropolitan locales – and abstract in the sense that we as denizens of urban and metropolitan spaces tend to combine our personal subjective experience of both the structures and infrastructure of those places, overlaid with the custom of the . For example: how difficult is it to separate out in our minds the Art Deco architecture of 1920s Chicago from the spectre of tommy guns and gangsters, and thence the early FBI, and the Charleston, and jazz? How difficult would it have been for the inhabitants of 1920s Chicago? I suggest this is an all but impossible challenge. The same thing would apply to the inhabitants of classical baroque Florence and the cultural and aesthetic hallmarks of the Renaissance, and the politics and cultural identity that went with it.


De Chirico: The Mad Genius of a King

The character of cities, arguably, establishes itself in an aesthetic objective-external to psychologistic-internal feedback loop. In other words – it affects its planners and builders’ impression of it, and they change or develop it in response. Like a functional work of art with all of the unintentional outcomes that are usually associated with it. Examples? The cityscape on the horizon at night. The hollywood Hills and the view from them. The view of winter rooftops of the Imperial City in Beijing, and in Leningrad/St Petersburg (there alone is an example of how politics and culture changes the character of a city in the cultural consciousness of the entire world). The character of a city is a product of the constructive activity of the planners, designers, and builders of the city space, and this is inseparable from the aims, desires, and designs of those persons.


References and Bibliography

  1. Brady, E. (2014). The sublime in modern philosophy: aesthetics, ethics and nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. De Chirico, G., & Faerna, J. M. (1995). De Chirico. New York: Cameo/Abrams [i.e. Abrams/Cameo].
  3. Ferreira, M. J., & service), W. I. (Online. (2009). Kierkegaard (Vol. 8). Malden, MA;Oxford; Wiley-Blackwell.
  4. Giammei, A. (2016). Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City. Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris. Italian Culture, 34(2), 124–125.
  5. 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/
  6. Hume, D., & NetLibrary, I. (1990a). Of the delicacy of taste and passion. Boulder, Colo;Raleigh, N.C; Alex Catalogue.
  7. Hume, D., & NetLibrary, I. (1990b). (Of the) standard of taste. Hoboken, N.J: BiblioBytes.
  8. LIEBESMAN, D. (2011). CAUSATION AND THE CANBERRA PLAN. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 92(2), 232–242.
  9. 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.
  11. Spiegelberg, H. (1960). Husserl’s Phenomenology and Existentialism. The Journal of Philosophy, 57(2), 62–74.
  12. Turner, T. (1996). City as landscape: a post-postmodern view of design and planning. London: E & FN Spon.
  13. Vermeulen, P. (2013). Flights of Memory: Teju Cole’s Open City and the Limits of Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism. Jml: Journal of Modern Literature, 37(1), 40–57.