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Disclosing the Depths of Heidegger’s Topology: A Response to Relph

Jeff Malpas

Malpas is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tasmania and author of Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topology (Cambridge University Press, 1999). John Cameron and Ingrid Stefanovic provided reviews of this book in the spring 2004 EAP; Malpas, in turn, responded to those reviews in the fall 2004 issue (all available under “reviews” on the EAP webpage at www.arch.ksu.edu/seamon/EAP.html). Malpas is coeditor of Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer (2002) and two volumes of essays honoring Hubert L. Dreyfus: Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity; and Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science (2000). Jeff.Malpas@utas.edu.au. © 2008 Jeff Malpas. Originally published in vol. 19, no. 1 (winter 2008), pp. 9-12.

In his review of my Heidegger’s Topology, Edward Relph acknowledges the importance of Heidegger’s thought in the contemporary turn to place within the humanities and social sciences, just as he acknowledges the importance of the philosophical inquiry into place as such. Relph is also particularly generous in his estimation of the role of my work, in Heidegger’s Topology and elsewhere, in contributing to this renewed interest in place.

Moreover, Relph provides a strikingly apt and vivid image of the way the concept of “place” has, in recent years, “exploded” across many different areas and disciplines in a proliferation of different forms and uses. While there are many works that deploy various senses of place and that also delineate the detailed textures and forms of particular places, when it comes to the theoretical inquiry into place, the focus for the most part is not on place as such but either on the effects of place or on place itself as an effect of other processes.

Relph notes that David Harvey, for instance, treats place as a social construction, claiming that the only interesting question then concerns the social processes that give rise to place (Harvey 1996, pp. 293-94). Here, place is nothing more than an effect. Doreen Massey, on the other hand, treats place, which she refuses to distinguish from space, as significant largely in terms of the consequences of our imagination of place (Massey 2005, esp. pp. 5-8). Here, the effects of place are given priority.

Even the work of a theorist such as Henri Lefebvre (esp. Lefebvre 1991), so often cited as a key figure in the literature on place, turns out to be important, less for his elucidation of the concept than for the prioritization of space and place as acceptable terms within critical discourse (moreover, in Lefebvre, one finds much the same treatment of space and place as effects of social and economic factors as is evident in Harvey’s own Lefebvrian-inflected writing). Much the same is true of other prominent theorists such as Foucault and even Deleuze and Guattari.

Part of Heidegger’s importance is the central role his work played in enabling the appearance of place (and space) as a key theoretical concept in writers such as Lefebvre and Foucault (a point that Stuart Elden’s work has done much to establish—see, for instance, Elden 2001). Furthermore, Heidegger is one of the few philosophers and the only major 20th-century thinker to thematize place as such and to provide an analysis of its structure and significance—so much so that the later Heidegger could refer to his own work as a “topology of being.” For anyone interested in the attempt to say more about place than is available in the work of thinkers like Harvey and Massey (or Lefebvre and Foucault), Heidegger must be essential reading.


Yet while Relph and I seem to be in agreement on the importance of Heidegger as a central figure in the thinking of place, we disagree in our assessments of just what is most significant in Heideggers treatment of place.

Focusing on the concept of dwelling that looms so large in Heidegger’s later thinking, Relph observes that, while he finds this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy “appealing because it reinforces my own doubts about modern placelessness” (Relph 1976, 1981), he nevertheless views it as “the most superficial” aspect of Heidegger’s thought. Relph takes the turn toward the concept of dwelling in later Heidegger as indicative of a shift from “rigorous phenomenological description to a selective historical judgment.”

There is no doubt that there is a move away from a certain conception of phenomenology in Heidegger, although as I note toward the end of Heidegger’s Topology, there is an important sense in which a form of “phenomenological seeing” remains central to all Heidegger’s thinking (Malpas, 2006, pp. 307-8). I would, however, certainly dispute Relph’s claim that what characterizes the later Heidegger is a shift to a “selective historical judgment,” just as I would also take issue with Relph’s judgment as to the superficiality of the Heideggerian account of dwelling.

It is important to note that the concept of dwelling is already present in Being and Time. In a brief and highly condensed passage in §12 (the main elements of which reappear in “Building Dwelling Thinking”), Heidegger distinguishes the way in which Dasein is “in” its world from the way in which a physical entity is “in” space (a sense of spatial-physical “containment” that allows one thing to be said to be “in” another as the water is “in” the glass or the glass is “in” the room). Heidegger refers to this first sense of “in” in terms of dwelling (see Heidegger, 1962, H54).

As deployed in Being and Time, the concept of dwelling remains obscure and problematic (Malpas 2006, pp. 74-83).In Heidegger’s later thinking, however, it becomes one of the central ideas in his articulation of the enriched conception of place, one that includes both spatial and temporal elements to which human being is tied. In this respect, it is a mistake to see the notion of dwelling as tied to some pre-modern mode of life. Not only does this interpretation render the concept superficial but also constitutes a highly partial reading of Heidegger’s articulation.

What is at issue in Heidegger’s talk of dwelling is not a comparison in the “quality of life” between different historical periods but, rather, the nature of human being as intimately tied to place. Dwelling is Heidegger’s name for the topological mode of being that belongs to human being—not merely the human in some selected historical period but to the human “as such.”

Precisely because humans dwell, the technological transformation of the world associated with modernity is such a challenge—an affront, even, to what it is to be human. The essential character of human life as dwelling is contradicted and obscured by the re-presentation of the human in terms of consumption, productivity, preference, and utility.

Moreover, just as Heidegger’s critique of technology is directed at a pervasive tendency that underlies technology rather than being necessarily instantiated in any particular technological device, so too is Heideggers account of dwelling intended as a description of a fundamental mode of being rather than something to be instantiated only in certain lives rather than others.


Although Relph rejects the Heideggerian concept of dwelling as “superficial,” he is rather more sympathetic toward Heidegger’s critique of technology that Relph reinterprets as a critique of “rationalism.” I think that the use of the latter term here is ill-advised. While there is a certain calculative rationality that Heidegger views as problematic, it is a serious mistake, even if a widespread one, to treat Heidegger as an anti-rationalist in any more general sense. There are, however, undoubtedly important points of convergence between Heidegger’s account of modern technology and its essence (what Heidegger refers to as “das Gestell”—“the Framework”) and accounts to be found in the work of other 20th-century thinkers, including Foucault’s analysis of the rise of governmentality and the bio-political; Weber’s description of the processes of rationalisation and bureaucratization; and Adorno’s account of instrumental rationality.

Such convergence is perhaps unsurprising given the prevalence of ideas concerning the problems and limits of technology in pre-war European thinking. What makes Heidegger’s account distinctive, however, is the way in which the critique of technology is tied to a topological analysis of which Heidegger’s account of dwelling is an integral part. Nowhere is this more evident than in the essay, “The Thing”—itself part of the original lecture sequence from which “The Question Concerning Technology” also came—which begins with Heidegger’s announcement of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “time-space compression” (Heidegger 1971, p. 163; Malpas 2006, pp. 278-79).

Relph assumes a connection between “rationalism” and the loss of place. Not only does he associate such “rationalism” with placelessness, but he also sees evidence of the decline of “rationalism” in the resurgence of interest in place. It remains unclear, however, how or why such a connection should obtain. If my account is correct, Heidegger provides an answer that works through the elucidation of place in relation to being and, in terms of dwelling, to human being. An answer is also pointed to through his analysis of the way in which technology operates in relation to place.

The fact that Relph seems not to have appreciated this aspect of Heidegger’s topological thinking may indicate a deficiency in my presentation in Heidegger’s Topology. It may well be the case that much more needs to be said to bring out the complexity and detail of Heidegger’s later thought, though I suspect that part of the difficulty here is that any writing on the later Heidegger still stands under the shadow of the often partial and superficial readings that have dominated much of the literature to date and that pervade the broader appropriation of Heideggerian thinking.


Relph finds the Heideggerian response to the danger of technological modernity (at least as I articulate that response in Heidegger’s Topology, in terms of the importance of ideas of openness, indeterminacy, wonder and, though not mentioned by Relph, questionability [Malpas 2006, pp. 302-03]) to be “insubstantial” and Heidegger’s own comment in the Der Spiegel interview—“only a god can save us”—to be disingenuous and evasive.

I can sympathize with Relph’s dissatisfaction here, but I think it misses the point concerning what is at issue. Once we analyse the operation of technological modernity topologically, we can see how it actually transforms our experience of place in ways that are at odds with the underlying character of place, and the underlying character even of that mode of being that belongs to technological modernity itself, but which it also conceals.

My emphasis on the importance of concepts like openness, indeterminacy, wonder, questionability, and associated modes of comportment is intended to direct attention toward key elements in an experience of place that obscures neither our embeddedness in place and the nature of that embeddedness nor the character of place as such.

Moreover, that we should look for a more concrete solution to the problems of technological modernity, while unsurprising, is also mistaken. Our contemporary situation is not the result of a process over which we, either collectively or individually, have mastery. Indeed, the desire for mastery and the appearance of the entire world as potentially subject to control is itself an integral element in the particular formation of the world that is technological modernity. The relinquishing of the desire for control and the recognition of the extent to which all-encompassing solutions are beyond us will be key elements in that “other beginning” that might presage the shift to a truly “post-modern,” “post-technological” world.


The later Heidegger’s apparently weary insistence on the limits in our ability to change the world’s course should not be construed as a failure of vision or some lapse into quietistic resignation. It follows directly from a recognition of the essentially placed character of human being and the limitation and fragility following inevitably from it.

If it were possible to reconfigure our current forms of social and political organisation around a recognition of such placedness, then we would have a solution to many of our contemporary ills. Yet there is no concrete way in which such a wholesale reconfiguration can be brought away in a directed and purposive manner.

What we can do is work, as Heidegger suggests, in the many small ways that are available to us, to reorient ourselves to our actual situation and to the proper place in which find ourselves. Beyond this, however, there is no “saving power” that we ourselves can exercise.


Heidegger’s Topology attempts to provide an account of the way in which place provides a starting point for Heideggers thinking as well as an idea toward which it develops. Indeed, it is only in the very late thinking, from perhaps 1947 onward, that Heidegger’s topology emerges in a fully developed form (although a form that can only be appreciated when viewed in terms of the problems in the earlier thinking to which it is also a response).

If we are to take Heidegger as making a significant contribution to the philosophical analysis of place in the 20th century, then it must be primarily on the basis of the later thinking rather than the earlier. But the later thinking also makes demands on the reader that are much greater than those of the earlier work—demands that follow, in part, from Heideggers own attempts to think topologically—and as a result the later thinking is more prone to being misread and misconstrued.

I had hoped that Heidegger’s Topology would go some way toward correcting this tendency, but if Relph’s comments are taken as an indication, the work would seem to have fallen short of at least one of its objectives. On the other hand, if the sort of topology or topography in which I take Heidegger to have been engaged and to which I take my own work to be a contribution does constitute a different, if not entirely unprecedented, mode of thinking, then perhaps one simply has to accept certain inevitable difficulties in the communication and elucidation of that thinking.

Heidegger’s Topology does not, however, stand alone. Not only does it seem to me to be supported by the work of others in the same field, most notably, by that of Ed Casey, but it should also be read against the background of my other work. In this respect, Heidegger’s Topology is only the second book in what should be a sequence of works that will together, I hope, provide a more fully elaborated account of the philosophical topology that is adumbrated in Heidegger.


Casey, E., 1993. Getting Back into Place. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Elden, S., 2001. Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History. London: Continuum.

Harvey, D., 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, trans. John Macquarie & Edward Robinson. NY: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, M., 1971. “The Thing,” in Poetry Language Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter. NY: Harper & Row.

Malpas, J., 2006. Heidegger’s Topology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Massey, D., 2005. For Space. London: Sage.

Relph, E., 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.

Relph, E., 1981. Rational Landscapes and Humanistic Geography. London: Croom Helm.


Text Box: Building & Dwelling 
To spare and preserve is to “let be,” but not through a withdrawal so much as a certain mode of engagement, and in “Building Dwelling Thinking,” the manner in which human beings are engaged with things and in the world is through that by which the idea of dwelling is itself introduced, namely, “building.” 
Building is the activity that produces, that brings things forth, either through cultivation or through construction…. All human being involves building, and so stands in an important relation to the Greek “techne,” itself understood by Heidegger in terms of the disclosing or “letting-appear” that lies behind our word “technology.”
Yet the productive activity of building is not simply identical with technology, with any technique, nor with any technical enterprise such as architecture or engineering. Building is that mode of productive activity that articulates the world in a way that allows for human dwelling. 
But this means that building must be understood as arising on the basis of dwelling rather than being that on which dwelling is itself based. Thus Heidegger writes that “Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.” Building is the productive activity through which human beings make a place for themselves in the world and so by means of which their own dwelling is articulated…. 
The building that is undertaken on the basis of our proper dwelling is a building that allows for such dwelling and so allows for the gathering of the fourfold—it is a building that itself spares and preserves through allowing human beings to engage with things in a way that reflects the unitary and differing character of things. True building produces things that allow the world and the things that make up the world to come forth in their abundance and multiplicity—true building produces, as it also works in relation to, “things”; true building makes for, as it also arises in, places (from Heidegger’s Topology, p. 271).