4 minute read

Geography

The Nature Of Geography

In his seminal studies on the methodology of the subject, Richard Hartshorne (1899–1992) proposed the following definition: "Geography is concerned to provide an accurate, orderly, and rational description of the variable character of the earth's surface" (Hartshorne, p. 21). Understandably this characterization has not been universally accepted, and others have suggested terms such as "areal differentiation," and "spatial interaction" as better expressing the core of geography. It has been seen as more akin to history than to the systematic sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology, etc.) in that it has no body of material peculiar to itself, but rather adopts a point of view. But subjects studied by some geographers, such as map projections, are highly "scientific."

In France the alliance between geography and history—"geohistory"—extends from Jean Bodin to Montesquieu to Jules Michelet to the Annales school, especially Lucien Febvre, A Geographical Introduction to History, and Fernand Braudel and their followers. In Germany geography was an auxiliary science in the encyclopedia of history, or Historik, as taught in the universities from the eighteenth century; and there are parallels in other national traditions.

If geography is Cinderella, its Prince Charming is cartography and, by extension, remote sensing of the environment. Maps and related images of the Earth have a wide appeal to collectors and others and are used professionally in several disciplines. But preeminently, they are the tools of geographers so that their study is often confused with the reality of the Earth itself, as expressed in the old tag "Geography is about maps."

Maps may help in an understanding of the "reality" of geography, but are not "reality" themselves, consisting, as they do, of conventional symbols. Humankind, since prehistoric times, has been concerned with the local environment, as evidenced in maps made before the written record. The subject came into focus in the later classical period as exemplified by the Geography of Strabo (63 B.C.E.–c. 24 C.E.), a verbal description of the then-known world, and the similarly titled Geographia of Ptolemy (second century C.E.), containing instructions for map-making, of essentially the same area of Eurasia and North Africa described earlier by Strabo. The Greeks from the time of Plato (427–348 or 247 B.C.E.) appear to have accepted the idea of the Earth as a perfect sphere, which, apparently, was not a part of early Babylonian, Egyptian, or Chinese cosmography. Although Buddhism spread from India to China and Japan (after 400 B.C.E.), and following the establishment of Buddhism there, priests returned to India to seek their religious roots and wrote about their travels, this geographical lore did not enter the mainstream of thought in translation until comparatively recent times. The same is largely true of Islam following the death of Muhammad (570–632 C.E.), in spite of close contact between this religion and Christianity in the Mediterranean and elsewhere over many centuries. Thus the travels of "Sinbad the Sailor" and more scientific geographies were available only in translation as relatively late additions to European literature and in this sense are considered to be "nonhistorical" in the West. Even the accounts of Marco Polo (1254–1324) of his travels from Venice to Cathay (China) and return were at first disbelieved.

This article need not go into detail concerning the remarkably accurate measurement of the circumference of the Earth by Eratosthenes (third century B.C.E.), or its rejection by others (including Ptolemy), until the later Renaissance and the scientific revolution in Europe, of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. At that time Ptolemy's Geographia was "re-discovered" and translated from Greek into Latin and formed the basis of much of the study of geography in this era. It was in turn criticized, improved upon, and superseded during the period of European ascendancy in science and global discovery when half the coasts of the world were "discovered" and charted. The dichotomy represented by the conceptions of the Greeks—Strabo on the one hand and Ptolemy on the other—continued into the Enlightenment period through the writings of, for example, Bernhard Varen (Varenius, 1622–1650) in regional geography, or chorography, and in the ideas of Edmond Halley (1656–1742), who, in addition to his work in astronomy, laid the foundations of physical, thematic mapping, with representations of winds, tides, and Earth magnetism with isogones (lines of equal magnetic variation) delineated on published charts. More than a century later, the polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), well trained in the natural and physical sciences, attempted to give unity to geography, while still considering the Earth in relation to the cosmos (Kosmos is the title of his greatest work). It was Humboldt's contemporary Carl Ritter (1779–1859) who, similarly, emphasized the unity of the field, but with a person-centered (even teleological) approach to human/land relationships, following Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and others. But the division between physical and human geography continued and increased in the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century in France, Britain, the United States, and areas influenced by these countries. That this is still the case is evidenced by recent multiauthored volumes titled, respectively, Horizons in Physical Geography (1987) and Human Geography: An Essential Anthology (1996). Accordingly, it is necessary to recognize recent trends in these major, separate divisions of geography; this article will later cite attempts at reconciliation between these two disparate streams, and others.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGeography - The Nature Of Geography, Geographical Determinism, Military And Public Geography, Geographical Theories, The Limits In Geography