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Prepositions are funny and usually very short linguistic creatures. We all know them and had to learn them growing up. They include such minute samples as: in, on, up, down, over, under, through, among many others. Many of us remember learning them from children’s TV shows such as Sesame Street and the like. There we would see funny puppets moving all over the place to try to make us understand by actually visualizing what each of these little particles meant. And somehow we did learn them, but we are now so focused on actually using them both in speech and in our daily actions that we rarely stop to think about their important role in opening up for us the structure of our very own being. For it would be unbelievable if such little words could open up such deep dimensions, wouldn’t it? Perhaps reflecting on prepositions might be a clear way of learning to position ourselves before ourselves with greater resolve. For indeed prepositions are quite unique in that they might just reveal how ignorant we are of ourselves and the possible conditions underlying who we are.

But first a story, for many puzzles come to our lives unexpectedly if only we are open to their appearance. How did I in fact come to see their importance? It was only made possible because of the fact that I became by chance a language teacher and had to actually teach these little words to many students who knew how to use them in their own language but —–through a wicked twist of fate—– had to learn them once again in another one! So when I started teaching them I would just simply give some visual examples of how they worked and tried to explain, as best I could, how they worked. I would say things like: “See that dog there? Well, it is jumping OVER the fence. Can everyone repeat that!” And I would hear them repeating this and congratulate myself on being such a good teacher. How little did I know.

If you have been a language teacher, or taken language courses, you know prepositions are some of the first linguistic elements taught. I assume it is so because we think they are just so easy to grasp. However, the more I taught them, the more I was puzzled by different aspects regarding their nature. The more I tried to teach them, the more I came to realize how little I understood them. Besides, some students really had a tough time seeing how they were used and what they were for. And furthermore, many students would ask some tough questions for which I knew the correct answer ——namely, use such and such a preposition in this case—– but I did not know why! And yet all of us, teacher and students, had already learned them many years ago in our own languages when we were just kids. This is a truly odd state of affairs; knowing one knows and hardly being able to express what it is one knows and how one can be sure of actually knowing it. It was somehow as if by growing up we had misplaced ourselves, losing a kind of understanding which was once quite open even if now remote.

What were these difficulties? Well, they went something like this. Have you ever thought about how to explain what is the difference between being “under” a tree and “below” a tree? Or, more dramatically: it is certainly quite different to say that “John is resting under the tree”, than to say “John is resting peacefully below the tree”. Now, I know you know which is which if you are an English-speaker, but tell me what is the difference, how to explain it to a student and why is there such a profound difference in meaning? For, in one, John is actually alive; in the other, John has departed the living! I will help you out a bit, in a similar way we usually say we are “under” the umbrella and not “below” it. Or, think about this case. Do you know what is the difference between the basic spatial prepositions “in” and “into”? I mean, why do we say “Natalia is in her house “, in contrast to, “Natalia is going into her house”. I will help you out; just look at the verbs. Prepositions are quite strange creatures: some of them go hand in hand with what are called static verbs, others only make their appearance with movement verbs.

But it gets specially worse in English because in this language prepositions sometimes go hand in hand with verbs so that together they create what are know as “phrasal verbs”. These are easily used by English-speakers, once again, on a daily basis. But for English students ——those immigrants you come across on your daily moving through the positions of your life—— they are a very deep and prolonged nightmare! In this respect, perhaps if one knew one’s prepositions one would be more readily positioned as regards immigrants themselves. For immigrants truly become displaced, they lose their known positions and headings and must have the strength to learn these new prepositions which assume a different kind of ordering. Immigrants know what it is to become a stranger in not always welcoming lands. To this type of disorientation we shall return, but for now back to the grammar of things. Let me try to exemplify: can you imagine what it is to try to learn what is the difference in meanings between: put up a wall, put up for sale, put up with someone, put up a fight, put through (on a phone), put on a sweater, put out (a fire), put in a good word, put off (as in ‘postpone’), be put off (by my friend), put forth (an idea), put money towards, put a terrible event behind you, put away (for life), put your point across, etcetera …? And all this just with changes in one verb! And did you know that there are actually complete dictionaries ONLY dedicated to these type of verbs? I guess you start to get the idea, but I just wanted to put it down in this blog.

But that is not all; the puzzle to which I am alluding is not merely one dealing with writing, it enters the domain of speech and thus can open or close dialogue itself. In English prepositions do not have a marked accent when said. Thus, for instance, when you speak you usually do not say: “He went INTO his room”, placing a heavy stress on the preposition itself. On the contrary, prepositions in English do not normally have a stress to them. No wonder students from other countries have such a tough time listening to them; they are actually almost invisible and only faintly noticeable! This is why for non-English speakers trying to understand the difference between: “He walked in his room” and “He walked into his room”, is like noticing the difference between two very similar birds for those of us who know very little of birds. Of course, we as teachers actually emphasize the preposition itself and say: “He walked INTO his room” placing ALL the emphasis/stress on the preposition itself. And we congratulate ourselves on helping out so much. But here is the problem, no English speaker actually speaks like that! So remember, when you come across an immigrant in your daily life, just try to remember that your impatience with his/her speaking abilities may result also from a lack of self-understanding on your part. Just maybe, if we knew more about our own language, we would appreciate the difficulties in learning it for others. This type of understanding would allow for greater patience and shared activity.

But even if interesting, all these are only the secondary reasons for my interest in prepositions. What these previous experiences reveal is something which has been known for a long time, that we use language without actually being conscious of it. I find this simply amazing, that we as humans are so bright and yet hardly reflect upon how amazing these capacities are. Why would this be so? One reason could be a certain kind of fear, a fear of wonder. For we might think that if we reflect upon the obvious, suddenly what we were used to doing without question comes to a halt and strange uncomfortable puzzles arise. However that may be, the main point about prepositions is that they function in a very special way. They provide us with a certain orientation in the world in which we make our lives; they provide, in a sense, a connection with the world we inhabit. In this respect they are indeed the most spatial elements of language. Prepositions allows us to find the where of our motions, allowing us the possibility for locating who we are in the context in which we move. To end this post I will provide you with four examples of the reflective possibilities underlying such a discussion:

A) Elsewhere I have argued for a reconsideration of the family by using five of these prepositions: 1.the “downward view” of the family, 2. the “upward view” of the family, 3. the “outward view” of the family, 4. the “inward view” of the family, and finally using spatial imagination, the 5. ‘roundward view” of the family. You can find this discussion here: Link

B) It is philosophers who have seriously taken up the issue of our spatial structuring of the world. It is perhaps professor Charles Taylor who brings to light the issue of our orientation and the use of spatial metaphors better than anyone else. In his Sources of the Self he writes regarding the self and its constant use of spatial metaphors in the construction of its narrative identity:

“what this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not. I feel myself drawn here to use a spatial metaphor; but I believe this to be more than a personal predilection. There are signs that the link with spatial orientation lies very deep in our the human psyche. In some extreme cases of what are described as “narcissistic personality disorders”, which take the form of a radical uncertainty about oneself and about what is of value to oneself, patients show signs of spatial disorientation as well as moments of acute crisis. The disorientation and uncertainty about where one stands as a person seems to spill over into a loss of grip on one’s stance in physical space.” (SotS. p. 28)

In our everyday dealing with things we move along; but then things happen. For instance, we feel our friend has utterly betrayed us. And then what was taken for granted, namely, that we were moving along just fine, comes to a halt. It is here that the normal structures of orientation are radically undermined, those structures which previously were truly out of sight. It is here that the spatial metaphors come to the fore: we are truly set off course, we feel that the rug has been pulled from right under our feet, we really feel that we have no direction to our lives, we have no North, we say that we are stumbling as we go, we confess we can’t get “over” it, we feel paralyzed, we perceive going outdoors as threatening, among many others. The spatial self-understandings, including our prepositions, which once gave us no thought suddenly must be reconsidered and given a new and deeper understanding so that we can reorient ourselves by means of this new insight. To not be able to reorient ourselves thus is excruciating for many. Perhaps by coming to see how prepositions open up the world of our interactions will allow us to more easily find new pathways and meadows in which to be. Perhaps you can allow those immigrants we spoke of above to find these new pastures much more readily. Help them with their prepositions so that they may position themselves much more readily within your unquestioned coordinates.

C) And then there is the case of maps, which I have discussed in another post as well. link As in the use of prepositions we use them and move in and through them without seeking or apparently needing any kind of reflective guidance. We know where we are going and, if in doubt, we also know we know how to use them. So, how could one go about seeing what is behind these maps, if in fact we move through our spaces as fish move through water? I once asked a young boy how fish took a shower if there were already in water. He was puzzled. I laughed a bit, but I feel the same way with regards to our notion of space. In this respect I laugh a bit at myself. If we are “immersed” in our spatial being in the world, how to find a way to surprise ourselves? Here, recourse to history is one fundamental possibility.

You look and find everything all too familiar. THAT is part of the problem. But do you have a sense that there is something very limiting about this representation of space? “Well, “ you could reply, “how else can one go around places then?” And I wonder worried, “so you do not see it”. Well, I must not give up and try to allow you to see what is so strange here. Take a look at another period in time in which other types of relations to space existed. Take a look at some early medieval maps:

Paris Map 1250

[link]

Chronicles of St. Denis 1364-1372

[link]

Now you at least see that OUR maps are profoundly different. You look a bit startled. And of course you laugh a bit and say to yourself: “Poor people they were so ignorant then, they just simply did not have the technology to map out correctly their maps.” And I agree, in part: I mean, look at those little houses, well, was that drawn by children? Did artist Paul Klee draw these maps?

But maybe, you might just start to ponder whether it is YOU who does not see what those maps take for granted. A bit worried, you start to realize that the medieval maps were not guided by the x-y coordinates of the Cartesian grid. In contrast, early medieval maps represent the world in terms of the world’s significance to the inhabitants of these spaces. What mattered was not the distance between the houses, but the houses; and if a given place had a special significance, well, it was actually drawn to stand out. The church, the castle, Prince amelo14’s retreat, were much larger than they actually were in reality. And besides, you might just start to see how your modern eyes are connected to a secular way of seeing the world. The Chronicle of St. Denis is a mapping which involves the stages of the life of a Saint. Remember what we said at the start of the Muslim pilgrimage? Our maps certainly have no sense of any pilgrimage whatsoever; their function is to get us around as quickly and efficiently as possible. Harvey summarizes well the issue: “Maps stripped of all fantasy and religious belief, as well as any sign of the experiences involved in their production, had become abstract and strictly functional systems for the factual pondering of phenomena in space” (249). Charles Taylor, the architectonic foundation of my Ph.D. thesis, adds: “A way is essentially something you go through in time. The map on the other hand, lays out everything simultaneously, and relates every point to every point without discrimination”. (176)

And we wonder how come we have never seen this before. What else might we not be seeing? What else might we not even want to open ourselves to seeing? A firm conviction of the Socratic uneasiness which sets itself up against those who simply know they know, motivates me to write this post, to face up to my own ignorance of myself and of the spatial world I inhabit daily.

And finally,

D) we now turn to perhaps the single most famous philosophical example of the attempt to understand what lies behind our everyday use of prepositions, that of Heidegger’s famous expression “Being-in-the-world”. In his preliminary sketch regarding the spatiality of Dasein he allows us to regain a certain understanding of prepositions and the type of primordial understanding of spatiality which our technologically-oriented world lacks. He writes:

“Nor does the term “Being-in” mean a spatial “in-one-another-ness” of things present at hand, anymore than the word ‘in’ primordially signifies a spatial relationship of this kind. (1) ‘In’ is derived from “innan” —“to reside”, “habitare” , “to dwell”. ‘An’ signifies “I am accustomed”. “I am familiar with”, “I look after something”. Being in is different from being alongside the world as primordial structure of Dasein’s Being.” (BT, Part I , II , 12; pp. 79-80)

For what is revealed to us in coming to a primordial understanding of the minute preposition “in” is that what we thought was primary, namely that it allowed us to represent the world of objects around which we moved, is merely a secondary function. To “be-in-the-world” goes beyond a representational organization of things out there; properly understood, “to-be-in-a-place” is to open said place to its always recoverable presence. To be in a place allows us to dwell there beyond the mathematical configuration itself. We all sense this when we speak of the difference between being “in a house” and being finally “at home”. For surely there is much more to being at home than the walls. In this respect, inhabiting a space goes beyond our physical presence in certain coordinates; surely we can use our GPS technology to move around coordinates, but hardly to inhabit the world in which alone we can be. Space is in this sense liberated from the mathematical, and recovered in its most profound dimension, that which links it directly to our mode of Being. Such liberation can only come about by coming to a realization that geometry and architecture and even linguistic grammar are only made possible because of the spatial structure of our “Being-in-the-world” itself.

An architectural example of such spatial liberation can be seen in Louis Kahn’s astonishing conversation with a brick:

“And if you think of Brick, for instance,
and you say to Brick,
“What do you want Brick?”
And Brick says to you
“I like an Arch.”
And if you say to Brick
“Look, arches are expensive,
and I can use a concrete lentil over you.
What do you think of that?”
“Brick?”
Brick says:
… I like an Arch”


I like arches too. Prepositions might be a bit like those bricks who want to be arches. Prepositions want to be poems and essays and letters, and even blogs! But you might wonder, “How could so simple a thing as a brick speak?” But then again, haven’t we come to realize together how simple prepositions seemed to us at first? And just as Kahn spoke of a spirituality to bricks, we can speak of a more important spirituality to prepositions. For surely they are closer to us, closer to our spirit. We truly may find ourselves “in’ and ‘through’ them. Recovering our lost connection to such simple words will hopefully allow us to reorient ourselves more decisively. Maybe, just maybe, now prepositions can better speak to us.

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