The human measure of space: review of “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective”, by Yi-Fu Tuan

Yi-Fu Tuan’s article is a long and developed essay which aims at proposing the conceptual bases of a humanistic perspective in geography. The humanistic approach in geography has often been alledged to be closer to humanities than to the “exact” scientific endeavour which was perceived to be that of geography at the moment of the article’s redaction, in 1979. In an earlier essay in 1976, Tuan posed the bases of humanistic geography by describing it as a social science rather than a science of the earth. The ambivalence of the term “humanistic” should not lose the reader: by this term, Tuan does not suppose, as we will see, “humanism” as a set of ethical principles, but as a scientific proposal for the comprehension of geography. I summarise briefly here an otherwise rich argument, by looking at the ground basis of this scientific proposal, and the two concepts he derives from it, space and place.

Jas de Bouffan, c. Paul Cézanne

If the positivist critique has brought some insight and methods to geography, its pretention to analyse only the spatial spatially only was in part in contradiction with itself, because of its refusal to think “the spatial” in relation with other elements of the world, leading to highly abstract analyses. If the critical answer to this approach has been widely acknowledged, its humanistic counterpart must not be neglected, as it provides a different, and no less interesting, answer to the aporias of “abstract space” analyses. This humanistic critique has been represented in the best way by Yi-Fu Tuan in his earlier works. “Humanitic,” as a notion, must not here be taken as the historical form of “humanism” and the set of ethics and principles it has promoted. In Tuan’s words, the term designates before all a scientific position, which focuses on the strictly human dimension of endeavours and, therefore, on the symbolic dimension of human behaviour:

All animals express themselves, and chimpanzees can be taught to paint, yet literature and the arts are specifically human endeavors. Science itself is a unique manifestation of human capacity, and hence the nature of science is of vital interest to humanists. Doing philosophy is perhaps the human activity par excellence for its basic character is reflection. The habit of philosophical reflection is rare among nonhuman creatures. People not only dance, speak, and think, as other animals may also do, but they are able to reflect on their acts and to evaluate them critically. From the scientific perspective many themes in sociology and in human geography-whether male-bonding, territoriality, or architecture-are almost reducible to those of animal ethology. The humanistic perspective focuses on activities and their products that are distinctive to the human species. (Tuan, 1976)

The 1979 article “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective” follows this earlier presentation to elaborate on the two central concepts of geography which are seen, as the authors states in introduction, as defining the nature of geography. The humanistic approach, in Tuan’s approach, is not in strict opposition to some elements of the positivist school. The author does not reject a priori the positivist ambition of apprehending space abstractly, but gives it a different meaning. While the positivist school posits an objectively existing abstract space, Tuan considers abstraction as a result of a process of cognition and as a regular way of knowing space: “The study of space, from the humanistic perspective, is thus the study of a people’s spatial feelings and ideas in the stream of experience. (…) The geographer’s understanding of space is abstract, though less so than that of a pure mathematician. The spatial apprehension of the man in the street is abstract, though less so than that of a scientific geographer.”[i] At the same time, Tuan proposes to reconsider some elements of the former regional school of geography and its focus for areas, which he critiques as well to promote the concept of place, in a different definition.


Space, argues Tuan, is not a single thing but can rather be approached as a multiplicity of mental constructions which all rely on the interaction between the human body and its environment. For his discussion of what space is and how to approach it, Tuan explores several themes:

Space and the body

Tuan assumes the comprehension of space as a category of perception (Tuan discusses the relation between space and time on that matter, but it is not the core argument; let us simply remind that the author shows how linguistically the notions are not opposed but entangled), and proposes to push that conception to its limit by insisting of the fact that space perception is primarily a bodily function and, therefore, is bounded by the biology of human beings. This approach, he shows, allows an explanation of why the positivist school, which took geometrical and abstract space for granted, was failing at defining it properly. For Tuan there is a difference between geometrical space, which is a result of a cultural process of production, and original space:

We can say little more than that original space possesses structure and orientation by virtue of the presence of the human body. Body implicates space; space coexists with the sentient body. This primitive relationship holds when the body is largely a system of anonymous functions, before it can serve as an instrument of conscious choice and intentions (…) Visual perception, touch, movement, and thought combine to give us our characteristic sense of space. Bifocal vision and dexterous hands equip us physically to perceive reality as a world of objects rather than as kaleidoscopic patterns. (…) The recognition of objects implies the recognition of intervals and distance relation among objects, and hence of space.

In other words, space as a category of perception comes from the fact that humans are bodies which deal with stuff, but the enunciation of space as relations (primarily, of distance) is already the effect of a symbolic interpretation: there is no description of space available to humans which would be capable of accessing it as an “objective” dimension, space is always the result of a process of thinking and representation. This does not mean for the author to marginalise his biological discussion: the cultural production of space is differing, but similar, because of some biological determination.

This is not, in Tuan, the result of an uprooted generalisation, but of accounting of the research, including in human ethology and psychology, being led as he writes his article: finding his sources in anthropology and the first constructed cognitivist studies, the author argues for a “common core” approach. For instance, if the author supports the structuralist claim that power is associated with verticality, he insists that this is due to a biological determination (“Human beings are more sensitive to vertical and horizontal lines than to oblique lines, more responsive to right angles and regular shapes than to acute or obtuse angles and irregular shapes. (…) The bilateral organisation of the human body and the direction of gravity have been suggested as the causes of such bias”). Yet the biological does not suffice to apprehend space because “only among human beings do these natural biases acquire symbolical meaning.” The fact that space is the apprehension of a specific body with other objects does not change the social determination of space and its meanings. Exploring the human dimension of space demands abandoning this “objectivist” notion that we can find a purely abstract space, and to focus on what space is for human beings, as individuals as well as groups.

Space and the individual

Here again the author takes an approach in terms of genealogy, and returns to his previous assertion that spatial experience is at first bodily, and then constructed upon: “Unlike the segmentation of time, nature itself doesn’t seem to provide suitable units for the measurement of either distance or area,” thus explaining that most units of identification in space or of space are derived either from the body or the common objects. The linguistic argument made Tuan on that point serves a different argument entirely, which is to show how much space corresponds to a centre of experience and, therefore, influences most ways of thinking or perceiving the world, from the most basic images (“A far-sighted person is not necessarily someone with good eyesight.”), but also in activity (for instance Tuan shows how we influence our way of thinking about things such as intellectual work spatially, as a journey with a beginning, an end, and a linear progression, while no actual operation takes place in space, or how manufacturing is conceived as a “road”). These representations appear to be associated with specific shapes: work is associated with directed space (organised around a displacement and a system of directions) while recreational or sacred endeavours appears more associated with non-directed space (a temple is often conceived as an isotropy, and a place of leisure as a place of staying).

Conversely, another argument made by the author in favour of a humanistic apprehension of space is the fact that as much as activities are imbued with spatial imagination, the apprehension of space is imbued with the activities that occur in it: “The window that is near seems very far once I have snuggled in bed. Distance shrinks and stretches in the course of the day and with the seasons as they affect my sense of well-being and adequacy.” Once again this argument is attached to the author’s decision to anchor the approach of space in its main dimension, as a perceptual and abstracted thing.

While this discussion can appear as very abstract, it does have essential elements for geography as the approach which does not take into account the experience of space necessarily misses that the representations it produces (mostly maps) are partial descriptions of what goes on in space for the individual persons who are concerned by it:

We are used to seeing the one map as a cartographic device [in this case, the description of a tanker full of oil out of the Middle East to Europe] summarising certain economic facts, and the other as a means for representing events in human geography [the representation of the movement of people from the Eastern shore of the USA to the centre]. But the humanist geographer can read between the lines. (…) Instead of a mere short walk from here (now) to there (then), the journey of a tanker over thousand of miles of water, taking several weeks around the Cape of Good Hope, acquires a little of the drama of an odyssey. (…) The arrow represents his lived-space, which is also his lived-time.

Space and the group

Beyond the personal experience of space, the author adds another layer to his model, which includes the fact that humans generally interact with one another in space, defining group experiential space, “I mean the spatial experience that is defined by the presence of other people.” Once again the author insists on the importance of the relation between activity, meaning, and sense of space. He takes the example of crowdedness, the feeling that “there are too many people.” Crowdedness is, argues Tuan, a singular human phenomenon (“A boulder field is a solitary place however it might be packed with boulders”). It is not, either, a phenomenon which can be objectively measured (“Two may be a crowd if both are poets of nature. On the other hand, a baseball stadium packed with 30,000 people is certainly crowded in a numerical sense, but it doesn’t follow that the spectators feel the spatial constraint”). The use the persons make of space and their relation to it define the sense of crowdedness.

Similarly to situations objectively and subjectively similar, where a number of persons are present and have the same relation to what happens, say a classroom listening to a teacher and participants to a political rally listening to a political leader, can derive deeply in their spatial meaning because of the association of the crowd with the activity (in this case whether it participates or not). Such a feeling or meaning of space as crowdedness, which we tend to think of quantitatively or as an objective dimension, appears once again as attached to the representations and social meanings rather than to such objective dimension.

Mythical spaces

Mythical (or mythical-conceptual) space is neither linked to the high abstraction of positivist space, nor to the expertiential spaces described by the author earlier. It “occupies a position between the space of sense perception and the space of pure cognition.” It is the imaginary or symbolic dimension of space. This is the space studied by the anthropologists, which makes sense of a certain apprehension of the world, associates the ways of identifying and naming directions, of dividing the world in a – generally – anthropocentric manner (regardless of the fact that societies may be or not be anthropocentric).


The first critique of space is followed by a critique of the notion of place in geography. The notion, argues Tuan, does not strictly mean location, but goes beyond that. In the English language as in several others, place both carries a sense of location and social position. The author’s question is at first, which one is the “main” meaning.

The author’s first thesis is that the social somehow precedes the spatial: “Spatial location derives from position in society rather than vice-versa. The infant’s place is the crib; the child’s place is the playroom; the social distance between the chairman of the board and myself is as evident in the places we sit at the banquet as in the places we domicile; the Jone’s live on the wrong side of the tracks because of their low socio-economic position”, and so forth. Yet there is something specifically geographic to consider about place, it does not behave like the mere index of society which would allow pinpointing different social categories, as we will se with the author’s discussion of the several meanings of the word.

The author also denies to bind the notion of place to any specific scale: a place is whatever location makes social and geographical sense. Place is not defined by a scale, a size, or a shape. It can be a chair, a crib, a region, or the earth itself, depending on the situation.


The school of regional geography encompassed the notion of region as an area with a specific “taste.” This is not very far from the signification of place meaning. A place has a “spirit,” one would say, which makes it unique. Places can be attached to specific impressions or attempt to inspire awe or affection. This is due to the fact that objects are symbolically charged. A raincoat, the example taken by the author, is just any raincoat until it becomes “this particular raincoat that I wear,” the same phenomenon occurs with place. This investment of meaning and personality in place derives from the human ability to have a sense of place:

People demonstrate their sense of place when they apply their moral and aesthetic discernment to sites and locations. (…) However, other than the all-important eye, the world is known through the senses of hearing, small, taste, and touch. These senses, unlike the visual, require close contact and long association with the environment.

In other words, sense of place comes from habit and practice. It is the phenomenon which conducts a street to become from “one street”, “one’s street.” It is associated to a form of knowledge and memory of place, as much as symbolic projection.


For Tuan, a place is not merely a location, but has to be a location “in itself,” a “small world:” “L’Etoile is a place, but the Champs-Elysées is not: one is a node, the other is a throughway. A street corner is a place, but the street itself is not.” This is once again essentially linked to usage, rather than definition itself.

Types of places: Public symbols and fields of care

The author proposes two models to apprehend the ways in which places can impose their meaning, at least partly. This is typically the case of monuments and public symbols which define their meanings by their specific layout, not by the intimate knowledge of the users. These symbols can, following the argument of the author, transcend culture or completely change of meaning depending on them. The case of Stonehenge, for instance, is that of a monument which loses its particular meaning and acquires another entirely because of the disappearance or transformation of the culture which was giving it this meaning. But this does not change its monumental aspect.

More interesting is the notion of “fields of care” proposed by the author. While public symbols can be identified from afar, there is another type of visual identification which depends on the knowledge of place (the sense of place evoked earlier). It is as if certain places were embedded into these “fields of care” which give them meaning from the viewpoint of those inhabiting or using them. This expression hides an infinity of relations between people and places, and an infinity of places as well: as the author discusses it, one cannot reduce the relation of a street gang to its “turf” to that of a ploughman to his farmstead, for example.

Development: Opening a humanly-aware geography

Beyond the complex, and sometimes, absconse, terminology used by the author, this article proposes a radical reconsideration of the previous positions in geography. For Tuan the work is complementary to that of positivist geography. Since then the two fields have largely distanced one from the other, and humanistic geography has been denounced regularly as “non-scientific.” Nonetheless the model does provide a strong approach to question the human and social experience of space and place. Focusing on these experiences, the importance of “what is not seen” in geography, on imaginaries and representations, takes its entire value.

These conceptual discussions show how much the humanist critique had to bring to geography and the science of spaces: from an endeavour of abstraction, Tuan proposed a model which put at the centre of the argument the fact that every knowledge is constrained by the knower itself. Humanistic geography does not lose interest in mapping, but does not see it as an end anymore: it interrogates belonging, representations, imagination, symbols, as many elements as were not included in the spatial-analytic approach.

[i] To ease my task, all unreferenced quotes in this post are from Tuan, 1979.

Cite this blog post
Alex Mahoudeau (2016, April 5). The human measure of space: review of “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective”, by Yi-Fu Tuan. The Cobble And The Frame. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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