Sunday 11 February 2018

The history and philosophy of geography: A meta-report (of sorts)

About a week ago, I undertook a mini research project: to read all the ‘Progress Reports’ for the subfield of ‘History and Philosophy of Geography’ (hereafter H&PG) published in Progress in Human Geography from 1984 (the first one) to the present. For those not familiar with this journal, since 1977 it has commissioned reviews (mostly annually) of a whole number of fields, forming an impressive record of the development of the discipline, in terms of its texts, its debates and its gatekeepers.

I undertook this with a hypothesis: that the historical side would predominate, with the philosophical, when taken into consideration, largely disconnected from the other half of the equation. In other words, ‘history’ would come first; ‘philosophy’ would be a distant second; and the ‘and’ would hardly feature at all.

Though with some important and informative exceptions, I found my hypothesis to be mostly correct.

The reports by year and author are as follows (see here for links):

1984: James Glick.
1985: James Glick.
1986: James Glick.
1987: James Glick.
1988: James Glick.
1990: James Glick.
1990: Neil Smith.
1992: Neil Smith.
1994: Felix Driver.
1995: Felix Driver.
1996: Felix Driver.
1997: Mark Bassin.
1999: Mark Bassin.
2000: Mark Bassin.
2002: James Ryan.
2003: James Ryan.
2004: James Ryan.
2005: Charles Withers.
2006: Charles Withers.
2007: Charles Withers.
2008: Trevor Barnes.
2009: Trevor Barnes.
2010: Trevor Barnes.
2012: Richard Powell.
2014: Richard Powell.
2015: Richard Powell.
2017: Innes Keighren.
2018: Innes Keighren.

The most obvious thing about the above may be the, shall we say, biographical homogeneity of the authors. In fairness, issues of institutional gender hierarchies are not absent from the reports. For example, in the most recent edition, Innes Keighren reports on an exercise at the 2016 RGS-IBG conference where a copy of Scottish Geography: A Historiography (2014) was covered with Post-it notes, highlighting the absence of women from its pages. Nevertheless, after 28 reports over 34 years by 9 authors – clearly this is something that the editors and the H&PG community need to address.

My expectations as regards the relative status of history and philosophy were reassured from the very first sentence of the first report: “There are manifold signs that the history of geography has come of age as an independent subdiscipline.” This same edition then, 9 pages later, concluded: “I have not spoken directly of the philosophy of geography in this article, but the stance of Capel and others in regarding it as reflecting more upon professional strategies than upon cognitive issues is interesting. The development of this position I leave for a future review.”

Sure enough, the report for 1985 spoke of: “Methodological hyperconsciousness” and “the recent boom in statements concerning the role of theory in geography.” However, this was ‘philosophy’ in a fairly thin sense. It concerned scientific epistemology as well the demands made by the likes of Anne Buttimer to be aware of one’s philosophical presuppositions and, then, environmental determinism as a matter of ideology. Glick’s remaining four reports covered many areas – from biography to the meeting of geography and sociology to the relation of geography and imperialism – but little was to be found of what I would expect (I may be wrong) a contemporary human geographer to find ‘philosophical.’

Neil Smith’s first report was titled “history and theory” rather than “history and philosophy” and it featured a section on recent spatial-theoretical contributions from the likes of Ed Soja and David Harvey. In conclusion, he remarked: “The history of geography is deadly serious.” In his second and final report (now titled “history and philosophy”), Smith brought a more overtly political edge to the series than had been prevalent previously, concentrating on the role of GIS in relation to warfare as well as gender imbalances within the discipline and, finally, some concerns about postmodern disregard for “material reality.”

Felix Driver’s tenure (consisting of a now-standard three-report duration) begins: “Authors write history, and philosophy, but rarely under conditions of their own choosing.” The sub-clause structure here is telling. However, further on, this report reflects on the influx of “social theory” to the philosophy of geography, provoked by both the “postmodern challenge” and the “environmental challenge,” producing a “serious philosophical debate in the discipline.” Driver’s second report, likewise, gives philosophy if not quite equal billing then at least a fair hearing, covering the boom in both the “postmodern” and critiques thereof.

However, his final report, in 1996, delivers the first major disconfirmation of my hypothesis, beginning, as it does, by reflecting on approaches to the writing of history and, thus, “the relationship between the ‘history’ and ‘philosophy’ of geography.” Regarding historicism, anti-historicism as well as concepts of context and critique, Driver thus openly raises the ‘and.’

Mark Bassin’s three reports are perhaps most distinguished by their incorporation of literatures beyond the Anglophone world, particularly from Russia. Once again, imperialism, Nazi geography and environmental determinism are mainstays and, besides a brief aside on ‘context,’ again the historical side is broadly prioritised. James Ryan’s 2002 report begins by noting the often “painfully obscure and √©litist” current of poststructuralism then firmly established in fashion, as well as actor-network theory and an increased attention to issues of culture. In conclusion, it notes Robert Mayhew’s articulation of Michael Oakeshott’s philosophy of history as an historiographical model for the history of geography. His next pair of reports continue similarly. Charles Withers’ texts, in turn, mentioned issues of critique and context but were, otherwise, as strictly historical as any of his predecessors.

Trevor Barnes, however, went rather the other way, beginning his first report with a declaration:
“[…] philosophies and ideas are embodied in the histories of the humans who make them, including their finitude. Such histories include inter alia places, institutions, lives and personalities, and the circulation of ideas. That is why this series is ‘the history and philosophy of geography’. It is not just history, not just philosophy, but both/and.”
The next edition noted the rise and rise of “non-representational theory.” Then, in 2010, Barnes gave a strong account of the various (largely ‘Continental’) thinkers by then well known to human geographers, before remarking that a recent special issue of Environment and Planning A on dialectics offered: “The prospect is new ways to write geography and philosophy, and possibly new ways to write the history and philosophy of geography too.” What’s more, another special issue, this time in Geoforum, had brought attention to American pragmatism, while Environment and Planning D were seeing revivalist discussions of the nineteenth-century criminologist, sociologist and philosopher Gabriel Tarde.

Richard Powell begins his first report with a lament at the “culture of celebrity” that has geographers focus only on their most celebrated forebears, and concludes: “[…] we still search for a philosophy to link our research and pedagogical practices with the worlds we study. And, after [Tim] Ingold [who made a similar argument with regard to anthropology], let us call this new philosophy of ours geography.” His 2014 report noted the recently increasing interest in the geographical thought of philosophers, particularly that of Immanuel Kant.

In 2015, he notes, as one of four current trends, the “revivification of histories of geographical concepts” and continues on to a discussion of the criticisms made by John Agnew on “histories of single words.” Powell argues that, contra Agnew, “[r]ecent work in history of geography has not taken on the history of single concepts in any comprehensive fashion” and, moreover, that, after Stuart Elden’s work on territory, “[m]uch more still remains to be done on other concepts” such as geo-, anthropos, environment, earth or landscape. However, he concluded that historians of geography must not “retreat back into antiquarianism” or fixate on “on the impressively detailed philology of a few spatial concepts.” “Rather,” he adds with a flourish “it is time to deliver on the promise of the (historical) geography of geographical and environmental thought.”

Finally, Innes Keighren’s two reports to date, though they introduce ideas such as “slow scholarship,” hew largely to the historical side once again, the second concluding: “Our task, simply put, is to keep adding our Post-it notes – to continue to remind ourselves of the good and the bad in who we are and in what we do, to see in our past both cause for regret and reason for hope.”

Thus ends the series, thus far. This is, of course, a brief and inadequate account of about a couple of hundred rather dense pages. This meta-review therefore, inevitably, says at least as much about my interests in the series as about the series itself. I should add, further, that I am in no way criticising the choices made in the above. My interest, rather, is to try to understand my own place in (or rather way into) the field.

Nevertheless, if my reading is not entirely arbitrary (and I think that it’s not), some general conclusions avail themselves: It has indeed largely been a series in the history of geography. In the 1980s, ‘philosophy’ implied either methodological considerations or social theory, probably Marxist; in the 1990s, the interest (whether sympathetic or otherwise) was mostly in ‘postmodernisms’ of one kind of another; this continued into the 2000s but with an ever greater preference for actor-network and non-representational theories. Finally, there have been some significant moments that directly counterpose my hypothesis and openly, even programmatically, reflect upon the relation between history and philosophy. However, I think that my expectations were generally confirmed.

But what does that actually mean? Well, it is simple enough to understand that many people write about the history of geography but few write about the philosophy of geography as such, except perhaps historically. Geographers practice all manners of philosophy in relation to specific issues or ideas but not often in relation to geography per se. Large parts of what the reports documented as the philosophy of geography (in the sense of philosophy practiced within geography) would generally be considered (including by the authors themselves) to belong to other fields, particularly cultural geography. Indeed, when the reports do expand beyond their conventionally historical subject matter, they have a tendency to become rather like surveys of human geography in general.

And what does that matter? Well, my purpose in this mini-project is entirely self-interested. In agreement with Barnes’ claim that history and philosophy must be taken as “both/and,” I am interested in thinking at this intersection. Indeed, this has become a central question within the larger and more important project that I should be working on right now (my thesis).

On one level it is a fairly straightforward (if somewhat large) project: a history of the concepts milieu and environment through the course of the long nineteenth-century. However, I am convinced that one cannot adequately address this history without recognising that environmental concepts have themselves played a part in producing the very historiographical approaches through which a history of environmental concepts can be attempted. In other words, the empirical history, to some extent, presupposes its own concepts.

Moreover, from the beginning I have been wanting to address this topic both historically and philosophically at the same time. I’ve thought a lot, then, about what kind of relationship this entails – how to take seriously the demands of each without eroding the specificities of either. I’ll have to save my thoughts on that front for another day. However, this is part of what I'll be writing about in the next few weeks and months.

There are a few complications that I should add in singling out H&PG from the other fields reviewed in Progress. The series on the ‘History of Geography’ began with the first issue in 1977. Indeed, the journal was already ‘Rethinking historical geography’ in 1983 and a standalone article on ‘Historical Geography: Theory and Progress’ was published in 1984. Reports on ‘Methodology and Philosophy’ were published in 1979 and 1982, while the indecisively titled “Cultural/humanistic geography” ran from 1981 to 1988 and ‘Cultural geography’ remains with us today.

Were I to make this a more serious analytical exercise, it would be interesting to compare these parallel but substantially overlapping fields. I don't think that I'll be doing that systematically; however, it'd be useful to further think my way into this field. Indeed, I am reassured that there is a niche somewhere in the middle there, where I was hoping one to be.