Re-linking Place to Nostalgia (With Footnotes!)

An excerpt from Edward S. Casey’s, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study

“One of the most eloquent testimonies to place’s extraordinary memorability is found in nostalgia. We are nostalgic primarily about particular places that have been emotionally significant to us and which we now miss: we are in pain (algos) about a return home (nostos) that is not presently possible. It is not accidental that ‘nostalgia’ and ‘homesickness’ are still regarded as synonyms in current English dictionaries.”

 What is the relation between place and nostalgia?

The problem with place is that philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries sought to emphasize metaphysical ideas over materially constructed emotions and feelings. And the concrete home, along with site-specific nostalgia, fell off the academic map. But nostalgia gained steam in popular culture. Nostalgia in the early nineteenth century was seen by many to be the natural consequence of an upheaval of memory, often catalyzed by a forced removal from a known place, especially one’s home. On one hand, conscripted soldiers and migrant laborers forced from their homes suffered from a type of nostalgia closely connected to increasingly powerful forces of capitalism and state power. And on the other hand, according to Jean Starobinski in “The Idea of Nostalgia” (1966), academics and philosophers were de-linking the physical home from nostalgia, stating, as Kant did, that it was a romantic middle-class preoccupation with the passing of youth itself. Kant’s ideas on nostalgia, of course, were not simple. Casey says that “Kant scoffed at this remedy,” of a return home; any actual return was bound to be “very disappointing” because the physical site may have become “wholly transformed” (201).1 But Casey points out in another essay titled “The World of Nostalgia” (1987), that Kant, like Johannes Hofer (see previous post), also believed that nostalgia was an imaginative act that has affinities with various memories of places that are used to construct a “created” world (367-8).2 The friction between the place-based and philosophy-based views of nostalgia, not “settled” by the medical community until the end of the nineteenth-century, is not just present in a world full of moving, displacement, and exile, it is a primary source of both human identity adjustment and reinforcement.3


So, what does this mean for today’s world in which place matters a lot to those losing their homes due to foreclosures and job losses? And what does it mean for those caught up in telecommuting and web 2.0–where workers and users are making the work place less important? 

Stay tuned to this blog for definitive answers!



Sean Scanlan

1 Casey believes that the history of nostalgia within philosophy hinges upon to role of place. While specific place diminished in stature during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the desire for a return to imagination as the source of the world increased. Put another way, by the late eighteenth century, as the geographic site of home was stripped from nostalgia, it was replaced with a spiritual return, an attachment to a way of being in the world. Artists, unlike most philosophers, elevated and refined the uses of nostalgia in terms of actual homes, and if not in terms of descriptions of physical structures, then in terms of the hope of return–often in the face of great odds. See Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study (1987; Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000) 201.

2 In “The World of Nostalgia,” Casey compares a variety of philosophers’ views on nostalgia in terms of place. Casey’s phenomenological perspective regards home as vexingly tethered to both the exterior world and the world “within.” Ultimately, Casey believes that nostalgia is a “unique mode of insight into a world that has become irretrievably past and that arrays itself, as we remember it now, in a plenitude of places” (380). Edward S. Casey, “The World of Nostalgia,” Man and World 4.20 (Oct 1987): 361-384.

3 Homesickness has replaced nostalgia as a medical term, so that a crossing of usage has occurred: nostalgia has been de-medicalized, while homesickness has recently entered medical literature. During the First World War, American troops were still being treated for nostalgia. But by the Second World War, some doctors employed therapy as treatment for homesickness. By 1952, no entries on homesickness were in The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But homesickness returned by the 1968 edition. See Susan J. Matt, “You Can’t Go Home Again: Homesickness and Nostalgia in U.S. History,” The Journal of American History 94.2 (2007): 469-97. Recent studies on the linkage between environment and body have emphasized the possible existence of homesickness as a disease. The pediatric specialist Christopher A. Thurber has written several scholarly articles on treating homesickness in adolescents. See Christopher A. Thurber, Edward Walton, and the Council on School Health, “Preventing and Treating Homesickness,” Pediatrics 119 (2007): 192-201; and Christopher A. Thurber and Marian D. Sigman, “Preliminary Models of Risk and Protective Factors for Childhood Homesickness: Review and Empirical Synthesis, Child Development 69.4 (1998): 903-34.


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