Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Humboldt Discovers the Human Landscape

From Geography and the Human Spirit by Anne Buttimer (1993):
For those many geographers whose energies for a century or so had been spent on basic compilations of information and perfection of mapping techniques, Cartesian geometry and Newtonian mechanics offered new frontiers for rational and elegant renderings of the earth’s surface. Many would also hearken to the optimistic promises of eighteenth-century Encyclopédisme and the prospects of improving the human condition through societal applications of scientific rationality. Like Pope Alexander IV, who in 1494 drew the Tordecellas line to separate the Spanish and Portuguese territories in the New World, Immanuel Kant would define the legitimate territories of intellectual curiosity for particular fields in the early 18oos. Geographers should focus on space, the outer sense; to historians belonged the study of time, the inner sense, and all that this implied in terms of emotion and human experience .

It was still in a Kantian spirit, while transcending the letter of his epistcmological la that geography’s two great pioneers, Alexander von Humboldt (1769—1859) and Carl Ritter (1779—1859), made their decisive contributions to the discipline. Far from armchair speculation about human nature or worries about boundaries separating science and humanities, Humboldt’s Cosmos remains even today the unrivaled model for a geography imbued with the humanist spirit. Together with Carl Ritter, the other acclaimed father of modern geography, Humboldt moved geography beyond the routine-operational compiling of information, classification, and mapping of earth features. The earth and its panorama of diversified landscapes contained for him the drama of civilization and biosphere.

In their actual writings, the old distinctions between Platonic and Aristotelian ontology would reappear: Ritter’s Erdkunde read the earth’s landscapes as script of a divine plan for humanity, Humboldt’s Cosmos found in the cosmos itself the “sacred forceanimated by the breath of life." While attuned to the general quest for Ganzheiten [wholeness], which characterized their day, both defied the Kantian boundaries of geography as mere mapmaking: time, process, causal connections were all included in their mirrors on reality. Humboldt was fascinated by the diverse ways in which humans had internalized nature and landscape. As a pioneering voice in the exploration of environmental perceptions, he would actually subvert the Kantian orthodoxy that geography was simply the description of the earth’s surface. [Emphases mine]

Buttimer's book stresses the tension between geographer's self-perception as scientists, their desire to turn to human matters, and the discipline's uncomfortable relationship with "its parents," geology and history. It is an excellent book about the art of geographical description and the history of the discipline as set against an unfolding Western philosophy.

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