“There is no there there.”

This was famously said by Gertrude Stein in reference to her hometown of Oakland, California. The obvious take on the phrase is that Oakland, compared to her more exotic and stimulating later stomping grounds in Paris, France, was “nowheresville.”

Although she probably wished to convey this literal meaning, the ever oracular and exceedingly clever Stein may have had more metaphysical intentions as well.

Taken as a philosophical proposition, her statement is suggesting that our usual attribution of location may be mistaken and even deluded.

We hear the chirp of a bird and our senses, so capable of conveying an “outside” world to us, immediately project a distance based on the loudness of the sound and a location based on our stereophonic auditory system of two independent ears separated by 6 or 7 inches of head. We have “heard” the bird “over there,” placed in space and limited in time.

If we analyze this situation a little more closely, we are forced to admit that we don’t actually experience the bird over “there” – we only have a sensation (auditory in this case) arising in our awareness, which is immediate and present.

Although we might think that this awareness is “inside” of us, that is, in our bodies, careful observation suggests that the same situation is true here as well – any perception or sensation of a body is only appearing in our awareness and the projection of this experience into a spatial location is a secondary phenomenon.

For example, we may hear a sound that we can’t quite “place” – is it near or far, in what direction, and caused by what? Our mental faculties of memory and reason go to work to figure it out and we are only satisfied when we have named and placed the sound.

The experience of dreaming offers a further illustration. We may be asleep and dream that we are at a supper party in a well-appointed dining room filled with interesting people engaged in stimulating conversations. When we awaken and realize that it was only dream, we also appreciate that the space or “there” in which the dream action took place was entirely imaginary, somehow a projection in the awareness of the dreamer, and not actually “there” in the usual sense of the word.

To paraphrase Ms. Stein and go her one better, not only is there no “where” there, there is also no “when” there, but that is a topic for another “time.”

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