History of Philosophy, History of Ideas, History of Geography

Brian Leiter links to an interesting open letter on why graduate students should seriously consider studying the history of philosophy. The Leiter page also has some interesting discussion.

The discussion appears, largely, to be framed within a more ‘analytic’ discourse, and my sense is that the ‘continental’ tradition has tended not to see the distinction between philosophy and the history of philosophy in such a strict manner. Indeed, some of what’s being said, especially in the comments, doesn’t fit with the Philosophy departments I know, journals I read or the conferences I go to, but I am almost certain they are in a minority.

It also got me thinking of my own adoptive discipline, Geography. I still don’t quite self-identify as a geographer, and think that basically I remain, for the most part, someone who does the history of ideas. I used to do this in a Politics department; now I do it in Geography. It’s one of the reasons I like the approaches of Medieval Studies, and why thinkers like Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, and Reinhard Koselleck, despite methodological and political differences, are inspirational.

But back to Geography. As a discipline, it doesn’t seem to have a very clear sense of its own history. There are exceptions, of course, of whom David N. Livingstone and Charles Withers are two of the most remarkable current exponents. Denis Cosgrove, who sadly died in 2008, was a major figure in this regard. The history of cartography project led by Brian Harley and David Woodward, and continued after their deaths is one of the most important projects in this vein. When I was working on Kant, and his Physische Geographie, there were relatively few geographers who could have been asked to contribute. Charlie ended up writing the contextual essay on Kant in relation to human geography; and Michael Church wrote the one on physical geography. David wrote one of the endorsements. Alongside this work I sent a paper on Kant’s geography to the Journal of Historical Geography. One of the referees said that it wasn’t really historical geography, but rather history of geography, and suggested it didn’t fit the journal. Fortunately the other referees were more positive, and the editor, Felix Driver, supported its publication. But if not that journal, where else could you send something on the history of geography?

Historical geography is sometimes claimed to be a threatened field, but there are plenty of good people doing work in that regard – too many to name. But where are the historians of geography, as a subfield within the history of ideas or the history of science? Apart from those I’ve already mentioned, I can’t think of many more. Some of the work of Miles Ogborn, Felix Driver and Chris Philo; some good works in the history of geology, earth sciences, physical geography. So I suppose if you were to draw parallels to the open letter, you’d need to say that this isn’t where the jobs are, and not necessarily a good career move at any stage. But a sense of the discipline’s history – even its very recent history – is often lacking.

What is being said in the letter is closer to my sense of Politics departments, where political theory (especially contemporary ‘John Rawls and after’ justice debates) is often privileged over the history of political thought. This is despite the way almost all degrees seem to have some component of the Hobbes-Marx type canon as a compulsory element. Also worth mentioning the language issue, which puts people off working on anything that can’t be read in a modern, English, critical edition. The last line of the letter is reductive – translation is only ever rarely one-to-one equivalence – but the general sentiment seems a good one.

[update – interesting response at the APPS blog here]

This entry was posted in David N. Livingstone, J.G.A. Pocock, Medieval Studies, Quentin Skinnner, Reinhart Koselleck. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to History of Philosophy, History of Ideas, History of Geography

  1. Jeremy says:

    Why is there not more history of geography “as a subfield within the history of ideas or the history of science?” In fact that might point to an answer: there has been history of geography, but as history of geographical thought, and often a fairly adulatory one at that, seeking to recover the great names of the past. It has not been situated within history of ideas or the critical tradition. This was why Neil Smith’s 2003 book for example, was criticized by the AAG Archivist, Geof Martin (a man whose knowledge of the history of the geographical discipline by the way I deeply admire). Smith was too critical of Bowman (eg implying he was a racist, and he made a couple of historical slipups, misattributed some material, and generally ignored Martin’s work as irrelevant–which it was for him). But it caused resentment.

    I would agree we need more history of geography as history of science, or as genealogy. Maybe we should compile a list: I would add Trevor Barnes.

    • stuartelden says:

      Agree with the general sentiments, and certainly the addition of Trevor to the list. I didn’t know the Smith/Martin story. Interesting that you see the ‘history of geographical thought’ as the issue, since I’d see that as precisely the thing we need more of – I’d say Livingstone or Withers work was in that broad sense. Terminology aside, I think you’re right that situating it within history of ideas or the critical tradition is the right way forward.

  2. christian abrahamsson says:

    I find this discussion very interesting. One thing that I think is important to highlight is the lack of a common tradition or a canon in geography. Tradition also in the sense of translation between generations. This is related to the historiography that seems to me to be par of the course in many Anglophone PhD programs as well as in its “encyclopaedic” projects. Geography is often described as something that begun in earnest after 1945 – if even then. What came before was the bad old days of environmental determinism or the Sauerian landscapes of barns and fences. All nuances are brushed to the side. The perfect example of this can be found, I think, in Peter Gould’s GEOGRAPHY 1957–1977: THE AUGEAN PERIOD. A paper that I truly enjoy. The irony is of course that this lack of a canon means that few read the work of the iconoclastic space cadets today. As they didn’t read the work of the iconoclast Sauer. I am not saying that this iconoclasm is necessarily a bad thing but any revolution – as in the incessant turns geography has been subjugated to – need to know against what, precisely, it is turning against. In this sense it seems as if the neighbouring disciplines of anthropology and sociology are far more advanced that geography. Perhaps, one of the reasons is that it is impossible to conceive of the histories (as well as their present) of these disciplines without taking into account their continental legacies? Legacies that, ironically, contain geographers such as Vidal (the annals school) and Ratzel (Durkheim).
    Furthermore, I agree that the way out of writing the history of the discipline as either hagiography or as patricide is through embedding it in a tradition of history of science or ideas. Another dilemma is the way that the history of the discipline has been written from the perspective of national schools or traditions. Something that is still being done in for example the country reports of Social and Cultural Geography. These, often arbitrary, periodization’s and national fixations effectively hinder the writing of the history of the discipline. Someone like Torsten Hägerstrand was of course a Swedish geographer but is becomes almost impossible to understand his time-geography and its holistic ontology without reading it against the Ratzelian tradition translated to him through the influence of Edgar Kant.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks for these thoughts. The lack of a canon is a strength in some ways; a weakness in others. The Gould piece you mention is available free access here

  3. Dean says:

    I agree with Christian Abrahamsson that this is an interesting discussion. I think there are a few problems worth flagging.
    1. The language issue. As Stuart says, many geographers are monolingual, or, if they know another language, they don’t use it in their research. This obviously prohibits people from working on non-Anglophone geographical thought. I could say more about this, as this is an issue of great concern to me, but I’ll refrain.

    2. Critical geography. I think there are two impulses in ‘critical geography’ that work against the history of geographical ideas:
    (a) the view that the history of ideas is usually not ‘critical’ enough (e.g. see R. Peet’s disparaging remarks in his review of Livingstone’s _Adam’s ancestors_ in the Annals of the AAG, vol 9, no 2, April 2009, 425-27).
    (b) the strong emphasis on colonialism and imperialism. While the links between geographical ideas, geographers’ practices and states’ colonial projects merits much attention, other dimensions of geography’s story need not be sidelined.

    3. Method. If the history of geographical ideas is to revive itself, it needs to further engage with questions of methodology. Of course, Livingstone and Withers have done some of this, as has Gregory. Yet, it seems, at present, the two methodological options are Foucauldian genealogy or a history of science approach. I think a history of science approach is quite productive, though there is plenty of room to engage with others methods, such as those of Koselleck, Pocock, Skinner, who Stuart mentioned earlier. I sometimes have the impression that geographers default to Foucault when it comes to the history of ideas, which I think has to do with the ‘critical’ geography issue (point 2). While Foucault’s work is important, there are plenty of other methodological options.

    4. Original sources. Here, I would simply agree with Christian when he says that there is a tendency to critique and move ‘beyond’ authors without first understanding what they actually wrote. I doubt Sauer and Ratzel are taught much in history of geography courses. Of course, the problem with Ratzel is partly linguistic, as English translations of his work are lacking (which leads us back to point 1).

    In sum, I would agree that the best way to reinvigorate the history of ideas in geography is to look outside the discipline to historians of ideas and science. Perhaps we need another debate like the one on Livingstone’s _The geographical tradition_ that was published in Transactions in 1995.

  4. Pingback: More on the history of philosophy | Progressive Geographies

  5. christian abrahamsson says:

    I have to agree with a lot of what Dean says. Although the problem with monolingual geography is obviously greater in some contexts than in other (and perhaps some sub disciplines?).
    Hopefully some of these issues will be addressed in the following panel that Veronica della Dora, Innes Keighren and myself are organising at the AAG in Seattle.
    4482 Classics in Human Geography
    is scheduled on Friday, 4/15/2011, from 12:40 PM – 2:20 PM in Grand Ballroom D – Sheraton Hotel, Second Floor
    Christian Abrahamsson – Wageningen University
    Innes M. Keighren – Royal Holloway, University of London
    Veronica Della Dora – University of Bristol
    Charles W.J. Withers – UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
    Janice Monk – University of Arizona
    Avril Maddrell
    Richard H. Schein – University Of Kentucky
    John A. Agnew – University of California – Los Angeles
    Session Description: In the autumn of 1991, Progress in Human Geography introduced “Classics in human geography revisited”—an occasional series designed to reflect upon the books, scholarly articles, and other publications that had shaped the disciplinary focus and discursive practice of human geography in the post-war period. To date, the series has recognized thirty-six classic texts, the earliest published in 1945, the most recent in 1993. The purpose of this panel is to think rather more broadly about that history and about how we might conceive of geography’s textual canon, particularly if we extend our temporal scope into the nineteenth century and our linguistic consideration beyond the Anglophone world. The idea of a canon in geography has important implications for our understanding of the discipline’s epistemic character; for the histories we tell about geography and geographers; and for the way we address the circulation of ideas, influence, and inspiration. Is there a textual cannon in geography? If not, why not? If there is a cannon, by what means, and for what purposes, have certain books been included and excluded? By implication, which geographers and geographies do we chose to remember, and which do we choose to forget?
    Rather than un-doings and paradigmatic revolutions, does it makes sense instead to talk about continuities, discontinuities, and ‘returns’? What is the role of academia in these processes of knowledge-making? Lastly, what does reflecting on geography’s cannon do for our understanding of the discipline as ‘imagined community’, with its foundational narratives and myths?

  6. Dean says:

    The panel looks great. Sadly, I won’t be at the AAG this year! These are important questions that need to be discussed, and I’ll look forward to the panel’s results, as it were.

  7. Felix Driver says:

    Stuart’s rhetorical question about the Journal of Historical Geography seems to suggest that papers on the history of geography are difficult to place (“if not that journal, where else could you send something on the history of geography?”). For readers of this blog who may not be familiar with the journal, I’d like to say that as editor of the JHG I am delighted to publish papers on the history of geography, broadly defined; that there are lots of other journals (in various languages) which regularly publish work on the history of geography; and that the history of geography is a much broader field than the few names mentioned above. Just for interest, a list of papers covering the history of geography published in JHG since Stuart’s excellent Kant paper appeared in the JHG in 2009 follows below (full details may be found at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/03057488)

    French geography, cartography and colonialism: introduction
    Hélène Blais, Florence Deprest, Pierre Singaravelou

    We have tailored Africa: French colonialism and the ‘artificiality’ of Africa’s borders in the interwar period
    Camille Lefebvre

    The institutionalisation of ‘colonial geography’ in France, 1880–1940
    Pierre Singaravelou

    Using the concept of genre de vie: French geographers and colonial Algeria, c.1880–1949
    Florence Deprest

    The correspondence between Élisée Reclus and Pëtr Kropotkin as a source for the history of geography
    Federico Ferretti

    Modern observations: new ornithology and the science of ourselves, 1920–1940
    M. Toogood

    Piracy and the production of knowledge in the travels of William Dampier, c.1679–1688
    William Hasty

    Wandering scholars? Academic mobility and the British World, 1850–1940
    Tamson Pietsch

    Putting maps in place
    Stephen Daniels

    Counterfactual reasoning and method in historical geography
    Mark Day

    The Allison Commission and the national map: towards a Republic of Knowledge in late nineteenth-century America
    Scott Kirsch

    Narratives and counter-narratives of climate change: North Atlantic glaciology and meteorology, c.1930–1955
    Sverker Sörlin

    Voices from the sea ice: the reception of climate impact narratives
    Michael T. Bravo

    Conventions of climate change: constructions of danger and the dispossession of the atmosphere
    Diana M. Liverman

    The whistleblower and the canary: rhetorical constructions of climate change Original Research Article
    Richard Hamblyn

    ‘Taken captive by the mystery of the Great River’: towards an historical geography of British geography and Atlantic slavery
    David Lambert

    Mapping the desert: Arthur Rimbaud, Charles de Foucauld, and the Société de Géographie, 1884–85
    Rosemary A. Peters

    Denis Cosgrove: historical geography unbound
    Felix Driver

  8. Pingback: Felix Driver on the History of Geography | Progressive Geographies

  9. Robert Mayhew says:

    There does seem to me to be some work on the history of geography which draws on the so called “Cambridge school” of contextual intellectual history to which you allude at the start of this thread. David Livingstone clearly drew some inspiration from these sources, although he seems more Gadamerian in the end analysis. But dare I mention that my own work has for a decade plus drawn explicitly on Oakeshott, Skinner and Pocock? I’ve written a number of pieces, for example, re the geographies of Pocock’s “Barbarism and Religion” project which you mention elsewhere in this site. More recently, I’ve also delved into a more Nietzschean vein of genealogical history in an essay published in Agnew and Livingstone’s recent collection, “The Sage Handbook of Geographical Knowledge”.
    We also now have a more variegated discussion emerging with the cross-fertilisations coming from that branch of intellectual history addressing the history of the book, which has made for interesting inflections in our disciplinary histories in the hands of Miles Ogborn, David Lambert and Innes Keighren. And so on… And then there is the reverse traffic, wherein it seems that a lot of intellectual historians are drawing inspiration from the ideas of geogaphies of knowledge Withers and Livingstone have pioneered: volume 4 of Pocock’s “Barbarism and Religion” is an obvious example. See also the recent volume by Jonathan Scott, “When the Waves Ruled Britannia”.
    Greatly looking forward to the Kant collection as another component in these discussions….

  10. Pingback: History of Geographical Thought (again) | Progressive Geographies

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