Bruce B. Janz (Ed.): Place, Space and Hermeneutics

Place, Space and Hermeneutics Book Cover Place, Space and Hermeneutics
Series: Contributions to Hermeneutics, Vol. 5
Bruce B. Janz (Ed.)
Hardback 139,09 €
XXIV, 531

Reviewed by: Sanna Lehtinen (University of Helsinki)

Place, Space and Hermeneutics is an extensive compilation of articles that cover a wide spectrum of hermeneutical approaches to understanding place and space. It is the 5th volume in Contributions to Hermeneutics series and comprises 37 individual chapters. Hermeneutics is understood quite loosely through philosophical and non-philosophical definitions of it. This is explicitly done in order to avoid diminishing its possibilities: the emphasis is on making visible the richness of current hermeneutical thinking and show new directions and application possibilities for it. Hermeneutics is presented as an umbrella term for a set of methods and perspectives to interpretation that will, and already have proved, to be useful for understanding place and space. How exactly do the fundamental hermeneutic tasks of understanding and interpreting help in making sense of the human relation to space and place? Hermeneutics of place is approached through various very different cases: from imaginary places to embodied experience and from textuality to particular places on the Earth, the specific position of hermeneutics for understanding the human relation to place is shown to be undisputed. One obvious meta-question central to the collection of articles is, what kind of interpretations hermeneutics itself elicits from its authors.

One of the more fundamental themes for an anthology with this type of a theme is the spatial nature of the very situatedness of human beings (v). The interweaving of the ontological and epistemological approaches within hermeneutics is done to a convenient extent: as Jeff Malpas writes in his foreword, the emphasis of the book has been on depicting the hermeneutical engagement with the topics at hand, instead of making a dedication specifically to hermeneutical philosophy (vii). This proves that the approach stays open and close to the topics it is attempting to cover. Another more fundamental question deals with the mechanisms of how place and space contribute to the constitution of the human subjectivity and embodied experience of space. This is a topic that Shaun Gallagher, Sergio F. Martínez, and Melina Gastelum examine more closely in their joint article. The baseline, in a sense, for any hermeneutical relation to the world, comes from understanding how the lived body relates to the world it is by necessity bound to. Understanding the body as it is lived as opposed the ‘corporeal body’ (Körper) brings forth the bodily ramifications for any engagement with place. Kevin Aho takes up this distinction in his contribution and develops the theme of a hermeneutic understanding of the ‘lived-body’ (Leib).

While the application of hermeneutics to place is not new as such, attention has been paid in the book to developing hermeneutic philosophy also towards future needs and purposes. A lot of emphasis is put, quite understandably, on the notion of place. Space is not necessarily discussed to the same extent as place due to the rich, already existing phenomenological tradition concentrating on interpreting place. Space is most often treated in relation to either place or time: direct approaches and experiential perspectives to spatiality become exposed in glimpses. These reflections open up new paths and clarify old conceptions of hermeneutics. It seems clear, that future research will be able to build on the preconception that time and temporality are complemented with place and space within the hermeneutic tradition. The collection makes visible the myriad ways in which hermeneutic philosophy and phenomenology are intertwined and also where their ways part. In this, Ricoeur’s distinction between epistemological (Dilthey) and ontological approaches (Heidegger) to hermeneutics has traditionally worked as a useful compass (116). However, the multiplicity of voices is present throughout the book: in a compilation this vast, no one thinker manages to override others in balancing “the opposing pulls of space and place” (275).

The volume introduces the reader to the internal variation within contemporary hermeneutic thinking. The book is divided into three larger parts: “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”, “Figures and Thinkers” and “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. The importance of a comprehensive account of hermeneutical methodologies applied to place is also highlighted directly by many of the contributors, since, for example according to Christina M. Gschwandtner: “place is always interpreted. There is no objective, neutral, or “pure” place.” (170). Place as such calls for an interpretation as it demarcates an already existing, culturally and historically tinged engagement with space.

The first part, “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”., consists of nine individual articles examining basic questions of hermeneutics as an approach to place and space. Some do it on a more general level, but others have already a specifically chosen point of view to present. Textuality is presented as a central perspective in Bruce B. Janz’ account, the first of many dealing with this specifically central theme. Annike Schlitte takes up narrative, whereas dialogue is presented as the main topic in Kyoo Lee’s contribution. The choice of focus on textuality in the beginning is well justified by the history of hermeneutical tradition and ideas to which it is still associated with most strongly. The textual model for interpretation is a valid starting point for many of the subsequent ventures as well. The textuality-based themes discussed in the first part serve well also the interpretation of the rest of the book. While text interpretation continues to be central point of orientation for any hermeneutic approach, other interesting themes in the first part of the collection are covered by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s article on the notion of play (Gadamerian Spiel) and style and Dylan Trigg’s phenomenological take on the differences between place and non-place, that builds on the legacy of both Marc Augé and Edward Relph.

Text as a metaphor for place together with other metaphors is examined since both textuality and place are core concepts in hermeneutics (26). The relation of places to memory is also evoked (171). Different narratives turn spaces into shared places, even fictitious or dreamed spaces (Cristina Chimisso on Gaston Bachelard). The theory and practice of art is also present to some extent (Babette Babich on Merleau-Ponty and Keith Harder on place-specific artistic practices). It goes without saying, that architecture is also present in this context. Interestingly enough, stairwells and stairs prove to be important architectural elements discussed as examples in both articles that are directly focusing on architecture: Jean-Claude Gens writing about Gadamer and David Seamon focusing on the architectural language of Thomas Thiis-Evensen.

The second part is titled concisely “Figures and Thinkers” and it delves deeper into the general theme by presenting central figures for contemporary hermeneutic approach to place and space in its 12 chapters. Diverse and indispensable philosophers from Heidegger to Ricoeur or Gadamer to Malpas receive direct attention, the whole list of figures being too extensive to go through here in detail. Space is also dedicated to thinkers less directly associated with hermeneutical tradition: these include Arendt and Foucault. Some names come altogether outside the philosophical canon, such are for example Yi-Fu Tuan and J. J. Gibson, to name a few. All of these thinkers have a slightly different type of relation to hermeneutics and specifically to examining place and space. Some are closer to what could be characterized as the core of the approach and others have had a less direct influence on the unfolding the interpretational themes related to place and space. The thinkers in this part represent many traditions from ontological hermeneutics to human geography. Despite the seemingly wide variety between figures and approaches, there is unforeseeable value in bringing them together under the same title in this context.

The legacy of some prominent thinkers who have been previously considered to be at the margins of hermeneutical tradition, is rewritten from the perspective of inclusive, multidisciplinary hermeneutics. An example of this, Yi-Fu Tuan, is noted in Paul C. Adams’ chapter to explicitly avoid any methodology. However, in his approach closely following some of the central parameters of hermeneutic thinking: empathy and interest towards a vast variety of human experiences and advancing thought through contrasts in circular motion. Other thinkers would seem to resist the stamp of hermeneutics more but are still depicted in this account as bearing some connection to the current forms of hermeneutics of place and space. Henri Lefebvre, for example, is traditionally seen to be very far from any version of hermeneutics but according to Peter Gratton’s reading of his work, Lefebvre’s projects on spatiality are affect also any subsequent hermeneutical account of the themes of place or space. This selection of articles show also, how hermeneutic approach to place can get significant depth and reinforcement from Arendtian multi-perspectivism, Foucauldian discourse analysis or Gibsonian ecological psychology. Also, the more sceptical attitudes towards methodologies in general are given a place, as the articles on Bachelard, Arendt and Tuan pay attention to show.

Hermeneutics is often used to refer to the conscious development of a specific methodology, but the term also denotes a general, even a more intuitive attempt to understand the constituents of particular human actions. The volume at hand makes explicit the inevitable distinction between hermeneutics as a philosophical program (Malpas & Gander 2014) and hermeneutics as a set of interpretation tools applicable to varying topics. An overview of hermeneutics to place and space is created thus by showing the strengths of these approaches in relation to the main topics of interest here: what types of interpretations do human actions and their spatial dispersions elicit and enable? Understanding human actions and practices, their meanings and intentionality behind them, is at the centre throughout the collection, even though interpretative efforts are directed towards more particular aims in each individual contribution. The human relation to place and space and the forms it gets, opens up the discussion to many directions. This serves as a reminder of the vast terrain of possible subthemes in any variety of hermeneutics of place and space. Besides direct engagement, hermeneutics is used also to interpret the many traces left by human activity. It is easy to see great value in this type of an approach, and hermeneutics in this form could profit even more the ongoing discussions about such complex and large-scale issues as climate change and urbanization. This has already been shown by a growing interest towards environmental hermeneutics that precedes this publication (see e.g. Treanor & al. 2013). This is also precisely where the anthology proceeds towards its end.

The third, last and understandably the largest part of the book is dedicated to “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. As one strand of the final part, the topical planetary level problems that are increasingly seeping into our everyday consciousness are taken into closer consideration. The broad concepts discussed in the chapter include the Anthropocene (Janz) and climate crisis (Edward Casey). Environmental and ecological thinking is present more broadly also already in Gschwandtner’s application of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics to place. Janet Donohoe gives environmental hermeneutics a more detailed account as she focuses on the concept of the environment and what this environment in peril is in relation to the human culture and the significant places in our lives. This type of an approach is a welcome reminder, of how environmental philosophy can profit from taking hermeneutics into account in comprehending the current complex environmental threats and the relation to the human lifeworlds.

From environmental perspective, it is also relevant to think about how to draw interpretation about the events that take place on a planetary scale. How does the need for space of the human population affect the living conditions of other species on Earth? What type of knowledge and engagement do these types of questions entail? These questions raised by the currently prevailing ecological concerns show, that the need to reflect, understand and interpret these tendencies and the human responsibilities is more crucial than ever. The human capacity for collectively organizing its living conditions according to the afforded space is not unique, by any means. What we are capable though, is the conceptual thinking and long-term planning in relation to how human spaces are created, developed and used. This type of long-term, temporally evolving engagement is what hermeneutics is also well-equipped to illustrate.

The final part of the book consisting of 15 chapters in total, gives an overview of the interdisciplinary relations in which hermeneutics has proven to be particularly fruitful. The clear intention of this part is also to widen the possibilities of use and show new directions for developing hermeutics of place and space. Among various newer or less-studied interdisciplinary constellations presented here are for example topopoetics, which according to Tim Cresswell is “a project that sees poems as places and spaces” (319). This part of the book, intended to be “exploratory and creative”, stretches further ground for new hermeneutical approaches (4). Paths point towards the possible multidisciplinary futures of hermeneutics of place and space: hermeneutics as inherently directed towards exploration of inner meanings encourages these interdisciplinary approaches. This becomes apparent by some chapters of the final part: they rely strongly on the tradition of their specific field but show how hermeneutics has successfully been implemented into their approach to place or space. Thomas Dörfler and Eberhard Rothfuß, for example, have human geography as their starting point. In the same vein, Pauline McKenzie Aucoin has anthropological and Eva-Maria Simms psychological focuses in their contributions. Making visible these intersections with fields of study that grew in importance during 20th century, point towards the scale of possible uses for hermeneutical concepts and methods.

One pivotal strand in the book focuses on how hermeneutics could help in understanding urban life in its current forms and settings. Urbanization is a complex phenomenon that a collection with a focus such as this cannot omit. Yet it can be approached from many different directions even in this context and it follows that there are various more or less direct references to urban hermeneutics: Alan Blum and Andy Zieleniec, for example, take each in their own article into focus the urban social sphere in order to show how hermeneutics has already been applied and could be developed further within the sphere of social sciences. Zieleniec, for example, brings together Simmel, Benjamin and Lefebvre in order to draw a specifically sociological approach to space and spatiality within the urban sphere. The meanings and values that space and spatiality get through everyday urban activities is in the focus when going through the influence these thinkers have had on sociological study of urban environments. Hermeneutic approach definitely has a lot to offer to the philosophical understanding of different facets of urban life. In this context, the subtheme of mobility could have easily been added in a separate article: moving in any given space necessarily alters the starting point for interpretive engagement. Mobility is present in some parts though, as in Cresswell’s account of poetry (327) or when Zieleniec writes about Simmel and Benjamin (384–385; 387).

The social aspects of hermeneutic philosophy include the shared nature of place, intersubjectivity of spatial experiences and spatial or platial interpretations of social situations. Also presented are the themes of globalisation (Gratton) and inequality (Abraham Olivier on townships in the opening article of the collection), to which philosophically solid accounts are urgently needed. Towards its end, the book presents in separate articles some currently important but also exceedingly wide themes. The questions pertaining to the digital realm, for example, are opened up by Golfo Maggini’s article on digital virtual places. He presents the digital places stemming from ubiquitous computing as heterotopic places of radical alterity. This reading … It would certainly be interesting to read more about this type of an approach to digital and virtual environments, where hermeneutics can significantly widen the interpretational context.

Crucial contributions in the last part of the book are the openings towards feminist and racial approaches to hermeneutics of place and space. Janet C. Wesselius charts feminist philosophy through its already existing approaches to situatedness. She takes into examination the notion of “a woman’s place”, in particular. The perspective of philosophy of race comes through Robert Bernasconi’s article where he dissects institutional racism as a historico-spatial construct. In the final article of the volume, the reader is also given a glimpse of the non-western perspectives to hermeneutics of space and place. This is done by On-cho Ng’s critical treatment of the limits and tensions following from applying local knowledge to interpreting phenomena elsewhere: in this case from how Western hermeneutics collides with Chinese traditions of interpretation. This part of the book scratches the surface of a fascinating discussion that will hopefully continue to flourish. Due to the fact that racial, feminist, queer, non-western or multicultural approaches are by no means marginal anymore, they definitely could intersect already earlier with the main themes of the book in order to be better taken into consideration as parts of the multitude of interpretational horizons.

Throughout the entire collection, the list of actual places used as examples opens up a vast spectrum of different place typologies. They include traditionally valued culturally and historically significant places, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site Meteora in Greece (in Bahar Aktuna & Charlie Hailey’s article) or more generic forms of human spatial traits such as urban hiking trails (in Simms’ example). Walmart chain store (in Trigg’s account) comes to represent a quintessential non-place of the contemporary Western society. Importantly, also places of human despair that should be an exception in the story of any civilisation, such as German refugee camps (in Dörfler and Rothfuß’s article), are included in order to critically examine their non-place qualities. These and other concrete and sometimes even surprising examples fix reader’s attention effectively and punctuate the varied theoretical accounts on place.

The book opens up to two directions that are by no means antithetical but support each other: what are the implications of hermeneutics of place and space on studying different types of phenomena and, on the other hand, what are the direct consequences on the philosophical discourse of more explicitly emphasizing this connection and approach. All in all, there is surprisingly little redundant repetition (or wasted space, one is tempted to say in this context), even when different authors discuss the same thinkers or concepts. It is also a notable feat that the collection is accessible to readers who do not have an extensive knowledge of the hermeneutical tradition. The strengths of this volume are in its wide-ranging scope, the way it presents on-going discussions and includes less heard voices to the canon of hermeneutical approaches. By emphasizing hermeneutics as an inherently open and engaged approach, it encourages any subsequent exploration on human spatiality through this lens. This strong engagement at the core is thus also the legacy of hermeneutics outside the immediate sphere of philosophy.

Care has been put on selecting the themes and writers, at the same time giving them the freedom to approach the topic from an individually selected point of view: “This book is more curated than edited.” (2) This has resulted in a coherent and intellectually rewarding piece of philosophical literature. Janz as the editor clarifies in the introduction, that the idea has not been to cover every aspect of the wide topic but to offer enough for the discussion to continue with renewed energy (2–3). As a result, the collection will inevitably have influence in shaping and directing the contemporary understanding of what hermeneutics is and what it could be. It is also stated explicitly in the introduction that the collection is not intended to be a handbook on hermeneutics and place and space (4). However, this does not mean that it will not, or should not, be used as such. On the contrary, it is easy to see that this selection of texts can open the tradition of hermeneutics to students, scholars and other curious minds, even if they do not have philosophy as their main interest. The collection is an indispensable reference to researchers working on a variety of different topics and approaches within philosophy of space and place as well as more applied approaches circling these themes. It is a valuable contribution to hermeneutic literature as well as to place/space research and the many imaginable intersections between these.


Malpas, Jeff & Ganders, Hans-Helmut (Eds.) 2014. The Routledge Companion to Hermeneutics. London & New York: Routledge.

Treanor, Brian, Drenthen, Martin, Utsler, David & Clingerman, Forrest (Eds.) 2013. Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics. New York: Fordham University Press.

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