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3 On studying places

3.1 Tradition of regional geography

'[A]nyone who inspects the world around him is in some measure a geographer' (Lowenthal 1961: 242). Some modes of geographical thinking have been a necessary condition of human life since the beginning. The term 'geography' has been used since about 300 BC when scholars in Alexandria began to use it. Even earlier, descriptions of different places in the known world were given by various writers like Herodotus who lived in the Fifth Century BC (Holt-Jensen 1988: 11).

Methodological guidelines for performing a geographical description were initially presented by Strabo in the First Century BC. He writes that 'since different places exhibit different good and bad attributes, [--] some that are due to nature; for they are permanent, whereas the adventitious attributes undergo changes.' He reminds one that the latter ones are also significant to the nature of place--sometimes even after they have persisted since they 'somehow possess a certain distinction and fame' (Strabo 1917: 465).

The dualistic character of geography seeking balance between human and nature is thus apparent already in the work of Strabo. However, there was not much progress in the methodology of regional geography over the next two thousand years. In the Middle Ages, the progress of methodological work did not disappear but it flourished more in the Islamic world than in the Christian parts of Europe (see e.g. Holt-Jensen 1988: 13).

In the Renaissance mode of thought the particularity of 'place' was substituted by universal 'space', and the supremacy of space was even enforced in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the vein of such thinkers as Galilei, Newton, and Leibniz, places were seen merely as momentary subdivisions of neutral and homogenic space (Casey 1998: 134). There was no interest to develop tools for describing particular places, or regions. On the other hand, the discovery and exploration of new continents aroused practical need for undergoing those kinds of studies, anyhow.

Bernhard Varenius was the first one to divide geography into general and specific parts, i.e. into systematic and regional geography. His Geographia Generalis which was published in 1650 included three sections. These were absolute (terrestrial), relative (cosmic), and comparative sections. The last one is the specific section of his study. Varenius himself did not really appreciate the last section and explained that it was included only as a concession of earlier approaches to the subject (Holt-Jensen 1988: 15). This is quite understandable, taken the scientific atmosphere of the period.

The foundations of modern institutionalised geography were laid in the 19th century. Two Prussian geographers--or cosmographers--have a central role in this development. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) made large expeditions especially to South America. He wrote his main work Cosmos as a physical description of the world but insisted that all phenomena are to be studied in relation to other physical and human phenomena. His contemporain Carl Ritter (1779-1859) specified the scientific base of geography more carefully saying that all phenomena should be studied in the light of other analogical phenomena in the other regions (Bailly & Ferras 1997: 70). Both of them were professors of geography in the University of Berlin but, nevertheless, in their time, geography was not yet institutionalised as a sharp-edged discipline but was part of broader speculations about the world around us (Bunkse 1990: 103).

Notable steps towards the humanistic tradition in geography were taken by Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) and his students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They introduced a point de vue to geography (Berdoulay 1995: 184). This is what Vidal himself calls 'terrestrial unity' (l'unité terrestre). It is described by the concept of 'milieu' which is the ensemble of co-existing heterogenical beings that interact reciprocically with each other (Vidal de la Blache 1921/1995: 31-33). The epistemological stance of Vidal was later called 'possibilism' as contrasted to deterministic stance of environmentalists. Vidal himself, however, never used that term (Berdoulay 1995: 214).

In Germany, Ewald Banse (1883-1953) declared that geography should be redefined as art. Real geography, according to him, is 'a spiritual presentation of experienced impressions' (Banse 1924, cit. Holt-Jensen 1988: 81). His plea got no response, however. German geography of the first four decades of the 20th century was dominated on the other hand by neo-Kantian thinkers such as Alfred Hettner (1859-1941), who based his epistemology on Immanuel Kant's idea of nomothetic and idiographic sciences, and on the other hand by landscape (Landschaft) geographers such as Siegfried Passarge (1867-1958) who saw 'landscape' as a regional concept that unites physical and human geography. Banse had some connections with the latter school of thought. Some traces of enviromental determinism of the late 19th century were also remaining in the form of 'regional-geographical model' (Länderkundliche Schema) where 'region' was approached as a sequence of geological structure, surface morphology, climate, drainage, plant and animal geography, settlement, economy, and population (Elkins 1989).

German geographical thinking--especially that of Hettner--influenced greatly to the development of North American geography. Hettnerian influence is particulary strong in the works of Richard Hartshorne. His main work The nature of geography, published in 1939, is still one of the foundational texts in geographical epistemology. Hartshorne's emphasis on the objectivity of chorological study, however, made him introduce some positivistic elements to his epistemology. The manner how Hartshorne delineates chorological sciences--eg. geography, astronomy and geophysics--and chronological sciences--e.g. history and paleontology--apart from the systematic sciences (Hartshorne 1959: 178) is derived via Hettner from Kant.

By the 1950s geography was dominated by positivistic epistemology with its abstract spatialisations. A notable exception was Eric Dardel (1899-1967). He derived from the etymology of the word 'geography' that the world is a kind of text that has to be interpreted in terms of human condition (Dardel 1952/1990: 2). Dardel's thoughts received more attention in the 1970s when phenomenological philosophy was introduced to Anglo-American geography. The concept of 'region', however, was widely substituted by that of 'place'. This was largely due to the more fundamental ontological status of the latter (see Chapter 3.2 for further discussion). On the other hand, the basic idea of describing the particularity of the world was the same.

In the 1980s 'regional' came back to geography when the so-called 'new regional geography' was introduced. As one of its proponents Mary Beth Pudup (1988: 369) says, the aim of this new mode of regional studies was to utilise the conceptual framework of social sciences in geography. Regional variances are thus seen as local responses to general conditions, namely the capitalist mode of production. This is criticized for instance by Hans Holmén (1995: 51) by noting that it is basically the same kind of abstracting theory as those positivistic spatial models that it tries to challenge. According to Holmén, regional aspect is therefore lost.

Anne Gilbert (1988: 210, 222) notes that the French mode of new regional geography stresses more the importance of cultural aspects and the specificity of regions. R. Brunet et alii (1982: 27) say that Anglo-Saxon geography is more psychological, and approaches the lived space through the concept of 'perception'. Anyway, there is an underlying normative aspect in new regional geography: it is not just a scientific understanding of the spatio-temporal world but an instrument for action. What Gilbert (1988: 222) insists is that this normative argument has been always implicitly involved in regional geography but, nevertheless, she presents no argument to support this allegation.

If 'new regional geography' is the new paradigm of regional geography or just a side track in a long tradition is not yet possible to declare. However, if the fundamental idea of geography as earth-writing is taken seriously the main emphasis should be given to region, or place, itself. Whether new regional geography can do this is highly dubious. J.H. Paterson (1974: 4) says that 'regional geography' is 'work in which the purpose of the study is to clarify a specific situation in a particular locality'. This is a more traditional but not in any way outmoded stance to the subject. It is also the stance taken in this study.

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