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THEORIA: TRAVEL AS PARAPHOR; Part 2 - Grounded in Movement: Theoria & Physis

Theoria, with a root identified as thea- “view”- shares its etymology with the English word “theater” and is included in a Greek family of words sharing this root: theamata- “things that are viewed”; theorein- “to contemplate/behold” (Walter 1992, 218 n. 19). Theoria as an active perception was taught within the Orphic cults, offering a highly affective mental state in which the properly initiated spectator becomes immediately linked to the collective group-soul, or daemon (Cornford 1980, 199). The knowledge produced through these experiences of theoria was for the Greeks not distinguished from movement, as the daemon was an aspect of a particular place, making the ecstatic union of the ritual spectator with the god a spatial event. Even long after Greek cultural practices had moved the Gods from their places as daemons grounded in the things of the earth to be made to inhabit an other space, beyond the sensible realm of the world, Aristotle wrote of thinking and knowledge as a sympathetic movement of the soul:

The soul is said to feel pain and joy, confidence and fear, and again to be angry, to perceive, and to think; and all these states are felt to be movements, which might lead one to suppose that soul itself is moved. (Aristotle, De anima, a4, 408b 1)

Those who make soul consist of all the elements, and hold that like perceives and knows like, ‘assume that perceiving is a sort of being acted upon or moved, and that the same is true of thinking and knowing. (ibid, a5, 410a 25)

In this system of knowledge, causes and effects are alike: likeness is interpreted as kinship or membership in a common group, represented by a material substrate or continuum. “The first notion of causality is, thus, not temporal but static, simultaneous, and spatial” (Cornford 1980, 140). The common material substrate was based in what the Milesians, the earliest school of Greek philosophers, called physis: ‘nature’, a concept which has the same origin as the ancient magic called mana, and was the origin of all movement, synonymous with life itself (ibid, 4; 7; 89; 125).

The school established by Pythagoras initiated the movement of the concept of theoria away from emotion and toward passionless contemplation of mathematical principles, with the numbers themselves becoming an index of the laws of physis. At the same time as the founding of Pythagoras’ school, the first known Greek historian, Hecataeus, was making use of a rather different notion of theoria. His involved a hefty dose of skepticism, relying on his own physical movements around the known world to gather information, beginning his Histories writing, “[f]or the stories of the Greeks, as they appear to me, are numerous and foolish” (Snell 1953, 143). The earliest known complete work of prose in the western literary tradition is the Inquiries of Herodotus, dating from 430 BCE ("inquiries" being a literal translation for the ancient Greek word that would normally be rendered today as "histories"). The places visited by the sightseeing theorist were topoi, and this act of visitation and witnessing is the analogical root of the modern notion of topics in thought and writing. The early traveling theorists’ movements were not an analogy or metaphor for anything: they were a necessary component of knowledge formation, even separated as far as possible from the mystical roots linking knowledge with movement deep in Greek culture. But the movements of Hecataeus and Herodotus were not forced as they had been for Odysseus and other hapless wanderers; nor were they leisurely like those of Solon, who is credited with being the first Greek to travel the world specifically for the sake of theory (Herodotus 1.29; Snell 1953, 143-44). Hecataeus and Herodotus traveled according to a well organized plan designed to achieve a maximum of knowledge (Snell 1953, 144). It is this purposeful travel for reasons of knowledge production that is the most ready site to articulate travel as paraphor.

The architectural tour as paraphor

An example of, and the inspiration for, travel as paraphor comes from the architect Le Corbusier’s peculiar manner of ecstatic travel. Le Corbusier’s movements were fundamentally didactic, and his early trips were a part of the long tradition of the architectural student’s tour. His earliest sally-forth, a two month trip through Italy that he began at the age of 19, is a typical example of this tradition, except perhaps in its fervor and intensity, especially in regard to his affective capacity of relation to the architecture and art he encountered. We know that an immense event in Le Corbusier’s creative life awaited him early in this Italian tour- his visit to the Carthusian Monastery Cartosa del Galluzzo in Val d’Ema, outside Florence. References to this place and his experiences there would continue to populate his publications and influence his work for decades until his death.

Like Hecataeus and Herodotus, the young Le Corbusier carried discourse with him as liminal baggage that helped to program his movement and guide his relations with the places he encountered. In turn, this programmed travel, as an instance of theoria, formatted the information he gathered. In paraphoric movement, discourse is a hinge between the traveling subject and travel as subject in a relation of symmetrical formation.


  • Cornford, Francis. 1980. From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Humanities Press.

  • Snell, Bruno. 1953. The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought. Trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Walter, Eugene. 1992. Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment. Chapel Hill,NC: University of North Carolina Press.

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