the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2009 October 14


Reflections following David Livingstone’s ‘The geographical tradition’


We can credit David Livingstone as both a geographer and as a historian. As a geographer, he exhibits a particular interest in, even a partisan attachment to, geography as a field; but any historian choosing to write about geography might have done the same simply from attention to the chosen theme (and as a geographer, I naturally believe that the theme has its appeal). As a historian, Livingstone relates a particular set of facts, and for the most part he employs the customary chronological organization and even the great-man focus; but he also, in keeping with the academic discipline of history, presents a particular theory of the facts. It is this last that is most of concern. Either his facts are accurate or they are not, and as far as I can judge, they are. His theory cannot be so easily accepted or dismissed.

However, most theories have the requirement of parsimony. A Grand Unified Theory is an admirable goal, but seldom achieved, and most proposals focus on a small set of explanations — in a quantitative analogy, they attempt to identify a small set of variables that can explain a large proportion, though not all, of the variation in a targeted dependent variable. Livingstone has identified religion and mysticism as companions, and even contributors, to the scientific revolution. He has, in a long discussion of figures in the advance of science and scientific geography, claimed a surprising level of enthusiasm for what seems, to our modern eyes, unscientific. He has located geography at the center of scientific advance at many periods. And he has tied geography as a body of knowledge and a set of methods of inquiry to a range of broader social themes, including imperialism and colonialism, national identity, and the expansion of commerce and capitalism. Each of these can be examined and questioned, individually or together, but in no case should we suppose that Livingstone does not recognize that he is telling only part of the story. This is a necessity; his page space is limited, as is our attention. We must presume that he has focused on themes that are of interest not because they dominate, but because they have not been well-recognized up to now.

For Livingstone, scientific advance has always been accompanied by religion, mysticism, intelligent design (to use an anachronistic term that seems to fit Livingstone’s description), and related, apparently non-scientific systems of belief. The line between science and various mystical fields (for example, astrology) has been blurred for much of history. But, as Livingstone makes clear, there never was a line between science and mainstream religion, not until recently at the earliest.

Many geographers were able to view accumulation of scientific facts as a service of God’s creation. Carl Ritter was a particular advocate of the broad study of the world as a window to the perfection of nature as God created it. Others maintained a temporal-religious dichotomy that allowed scientific research to proceed without religious interference. This attitude was taken by many, including Alexander von Humboldt (to reference the standard Ritter-Humboldt narrative), though Livingstone (following Dick Hartshorne) emphasizes the role of Immanuel Kant in its creation. Kant was not, however, positioned at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and so he as much endorsed a previous position as engendered it in later scientists. His connection to geography seems tenuous to me, despite the fact that he taught the subject, since he apparently did not attempt to add to our understanding through fact or theory. Livingstone and Hartshorne are rather overselling the point, then, much more so than with the later discussion of Charles Darwin, who can be discussed here as a contributor to general science and to geographic knowledge.

It is nonetheless true that science was not seen as incompatible with religious belief; and according to Livingstone, some religious traditions, Protestantism in general and Puritanism in particular, have even proven conducive to certain kinds of scientific advance. But this is hardly a new point, and it is appropriately empirical. We find that some sects, such as mainline Protestantism in the United States, correspond with a relatively-liberal mindset. Others have specific traditions, such as the Talmudic debate of Judaism, that encourage critical thinking. And in any case, many practicing and contributing scientists even today are believers in one faith or other. Unexplored by Livingstone, though, is the social requirement of faith that has since largely fallen away (in the West, that is). We cannot know, nor can Livingstone help us know, to what extent the scientists of earlier eras were expressing their true convictions in speaking and writing of God and their particular religions (here, Christianity). There may simply have been no way to reconcile a profession of skepticism with perceived or very real family or community obligations. Those who doubt that reading of history can look instead to the many present societies where religious doubt, and in particular apostasy, can be met with serious penalties, including death. (Salman Rushdie, indeed, was sentenced to death by the ruler of a society to which he had never even belonged.)

Livingstone does clearly demonstrate that the tension between what we think of as science and pseudo-science — say, between chemistry and alchemy, or between astronomy and astrology — is, as Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston might have it, a false binary. In fact, there is no sound reason to separate the two. Alchemy and astrology are simply modern names for earlier versions of the respective sciences. Their practitioners, including scientific paragons like Isaac Newton, were following the usual scientific impulses, namely to understand the workings of the world, and to learn how to manipulate it for material advantage. The caricature of alchemy and astrology is only effective in hindsight and, in the case of astrology, in reference to the quaint (perhaps deliberately quaint?) and lingering (perhaps revived?) attachment to its principles long after the scientific evidence has weighed against them. But there is nothing inherently silly about transmutation of lead into gold, for example; they are metals of the same period and nearly the same atomic weight, with strong superficial similarities. Nor is it ridiculous to suppose that the strong seasonal variation in nature, which could be correlated to the zodiac, is present in humans as well; in fact, some degree of this variation is surely true, such as seasonal depression. And this is just to consider the centerpieces of the caricatures.

Among science’s difficult relationships is the one it has with authority. While the obvious clash is with religious authority — notwithstanding Livingstone’s thesis — he reminds us that the scientific revolution had as much to do with challenging scientific authority, above all Aristotle. This, however, is the expected narrative; the term ‘revolution’ was never taken to be entirely hyperbolic, and those who created modern science must have been turning against some perceived power of the past, even if just intellectual, whereas here we have also tremendous social power. It is as well that Livingstone does not dwell on this issue, though, because while it is an important element of the explanation, it is also an accepted part of the explanation, and he could add very little to what is already taken for granted. And his task, as implied before, is to explain what is yet unexplained.

Of course, in the history of geography, geography will have a featured place; and Livingstone may here do no better than other geographical historians. But in that he is telling a story that is, if anything, more from the point of view of general science, the argument is helpful, and convincing. In his view, geography has often been very central to scientific advance, and particularly the impulse to explore the unknown and record all the facts of the world. It is impossible to separate out my own partisan reaction to this assertion; but my presence in geography has much to do with its synthetic, integrative nature. Geography is a reasonable, and arguably superior, way to organize information about the world, be that human or natural. While Livingstone spends more time on the natural sciences, he offers enough information about anthropology and ethnology to verify that many early explorers and scientists were indeed using geography as an organizing framework for this new knowledge, and were, therefore, practicing geography. And with this new empirical investigation, particularly with geography, a whole range of other fields developed in tandem: cartography, naturalism, ethnology, travelogue, anthropology, and even art, among others. This is especially true of the expeditionary geography, including that resulting from the voyages of James Cook (Livingstone cites specifically the naturalists Joseph Banks, and Johann Reinhold Forster and Johann Georg Adam Forster, who led Cook’s scientific teams), as well as that of Humboldt and Darwin.

Though it is by now obligatory and not particularly imaginative to deconstruct a subject in light of today’s political sensibilities, there can be little argument with Livingstone’s connection of geography with imperialism, colonialism, and exploitative capitalism. So, truly, we must identify as geographers those who performed the surveys, drew the maps, and gave the briefings that made possible the conquest and the continued pacification of many parts of the world, particularly by the Europeans. Geography and cartography have always had a recognized function in war; that is as much so in a defensive or humanitarian war as in a war of conquest, and the geography of these, at least, is often hard to distinguish. Certainly there must have been many European geographers who viewed their practice as a service not merely of nationalism or patriotism (which remain, strangely, acceptable to most observers) but patently of empire, of national aggrandizement. They must have been comfortable with the use of their knowledge to subdue and exploit the new lands and their inhabitants, to rule and profit from them, on the grounds of possession — the new lands were now viewed as the property of the metropolis. (Livingstone’s description of the Royal Geographical Society easily conjures up the image of the imperialist dilettante of casual racist disdain.) In any case, the government of the metropolis, whether aristocratic or even republican, took the new lands as property, and in the case of Léopold II of Belgium, as personal property. Fair enough to condemn those who served that project, described so by Bill Freund:

King though he was, Leopold ran the Free State like a capitalist of the robber-baron era. ... It was enforced through mass terror: armed expeditions, the use of hostages, especially women and children, mutilations, and killings. ... The consequent devastation and depopulation approached a genocidal scale and probably outdid in horrors anything ever perpetrated by the slave trade. [p101]
What Livingstone fails to emphasize (if not detect) is that geography and related science can be a well-intentioned byproduct of imperialism and colonialism. It has simply never been in the nature of explorers and scientists to refuse entrée to a new place because of the dubious circumstances that made it possible. In other words, the increased opportunity for Europeans of a curious bent to explore and learn of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific, with all of their unknowns to Western and even universal understanding, would not be abjured just because the opportunity was created by an army. And second-generation colonists or even metropolitans can be excused for thinking that they could serve the cause of science and even humanitarianism best by seizing the opportunity and exploring. Modern anthropology is generally viewed as, if anything, sympathetic to the subject; the person, for instance, who studies the language of an oppressed people can do more to remedy their plight than the person who remains ignorant. And the study of the natural world is generally taken to be neutral; the facts and mysteries of an unexplored area would have been just as unexplored, and just as interesting, regardless of the surrounding political situation, and the situation is not aggravated by knowing them. Should we give less credit to those who performed these actions in the past? They might at least be given the benefit of the doubt.

Somewhere between the two may lie the story of Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark. Livingstone credits Jefferson more or less as the father of US geography and at least the uncle of US science. More importantly, though, he uses Jefferson and Lewis and Clark to illustrate the value of geography for the reinforcement or, as here, the construction of national identity. To some extent these three were studying and celebrating the lands in which they themselves were born and lived; to another they were acting through conquest and blazing a trail for further conquest. And a decent question for us going forward, as scientists and geographers (and rather incidentally as compatriots of Jefferson, since the moral situation is much the same everywhere now), is whether we fall into this middle category, half innocent and half complicit, or can excuse ourselves entirely as neutral observers contributing to knowledge, which for all the dangers is inherently good. While holders of the former view might self-identify as appropriately cynical (and cynicism is in general a fair position to take), they fall rather too quickly into conspiracy and self-loathing, and leave us with a world so deconstructed that we can do nothing, so little do we trust our own motives — except deconstruction itself, which even applied to geography hardly counts as geography.


Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston. ‘Deconstructing human geography’s binaries’, p1-20 in Cloke and Johnston, eds.
Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston, eds. ‘Spaces of geographical thought: deconstructing human geography’s binaries’. Sage, 2005.
Bill Freund. ‘The making of contemporary Africa: the development of African society since 1800’, second edition. Lynne Rienner, 1998.
David N. Livingstone. ‘The geographical tradition’. Blackwell, 1992.


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