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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T63


The Study of Geography 1

It is a remarkable fact, that, in the recent literature of geography,
researches on the method and limits of that science occupy a prominent
place. Almost every distinguished geographer has felt the necessity
of expressing his views on its aim and scope, and of defending it from
being disintegrated and swallowed up by geology, botany, history, and
other sciences treating on subjects similar to or identical with those of
geography. If the representatives of a science as young as geography
spend a great part of their time in discussions of this kind, though the
material for investigation is still unlimited; if they feel compelled to
defend their field of research against assaults of their fellow-workers and
outsiders, — the reason for this fact must be looked for in a deep discrepancy
between their fundamental views of science and those of their

Formerly, when the greater part of the earth's surface was undiscovered,
and European vessels sailed only over their well-known routes from
continent to continent, careful not to stray from the old path and fearing
the dangers of unknown regions, the mere thought of these vast territories
which had never been sighted by a European could fill the mind of
geographers with ardent longing for extended knowledge; with the
desire of unveiling the secrets of regions enlivened by imagination with
figures of unknown animals and peoples. But the more completely the
outlines of continents and islands became known the stronger grew the
desire to understand the phenomena of the newly discovered regions by
comparing them with those of one's own country. Instead of merely
extending their study over new areas, scientists began to be absorbed in
examining the phenomena more intently, and comparing them with the
results of observations already made. Thus Humboldt's admirable works
and Karl Ritter's comparative geography arose out of the rapidly
extending knowledge of the earth.

The fact that the rapid disclosure of the most remote parts of the
globe coincided with the no less rapid development of physical sciences
has had a deep influence upon the development of geography; for while
the circle of phenomena became wider every day, the idea became prevalent
639that a single phenomenon is not of great avail, but that it is the aim
of science to deduce laws from phenomena; and the wider their scope,
the more valuable they are considered. The descriptive sciences were
deemed inferior in value to researches which had hitherto been outside
their range. Instead of systematic botany and zoology, biology became
the favorite study; theoretical philosophy was supplanted by experimental
psychology; and, by the same process, geography disintegrated
into geology, meteorology, etc.

Ever since, these sciences have rapidly developed, but geography itself
has for a long time been almost overshadowed by its growing children.
However, we do not think they can fill its place, and wish to prove that
its neglect cannot be remedied by the attentive cultivation of those
sciences separately.

Those accustomed to value a study according to the scope of the laws
found by means of it are not content with researches on phenomena such
as are the object of geography. They consider them from a physical
standpoint, and find them to be physical, meteorological, or ethnological
; and, after having explained them by means of physical, physiological,
or psychological laws, have finished their work. It is instructive
to consider thoroughly their definition of geography. They declare that
the domain of this science comprises neither magnetical and meteorological
nor geological phenomena and processes. They generously grant
it the study of the distribution of animals and plants, as far as physiologists
and evolutionists will permit; but all agree that anthropo-geography
— the life of man as far as it depends on the country he lives in — is the
true domain of geography.

It is not difficult to discover the principle on which this segregation is
founded. Physical phenomena are subject to physical laws which are
known, or which will assuredly be found by the methods used in discovering
those that are known. Physiological, and, to a still higher
degree, psychological laws are not sufficiently well known to allow their
being treated in the same way as physical laws. The conditions of the
phenomena are generally so complicated that, even if the most general
laws were known, a strict conclusion cannot easily be drawn. But were
those auxiliary sciences just as far developed as physics, no doubt the
same scientists who at the present time concede them willingly to geography
would not hesitate to claim them for physiology and psychology.
It is evident that there is no middle way: geography must either be
maintained in its full extent or it must be given up altogether.

As soon as we agree that the purpose of every science is accomplished
640when the laws which govern its phenomena are discovered, we must
admit that the subject of geography is distributed among a great number
of sciences; if, however, we would maintain its independence, we must
prove that there exists another object for science besides the deduction of
laws from phenomena. And it is our opinion that there is another
object, — the thorough understanding of phenomena. Thus we find that
the contest between geographers and their adversaries is identical with
the old controversy between historical and physical methods. One party
claims that the ideal aim of science ought to be the discovery of general
laws; the other maintains that it is the investigation of phenomena

It is easily understood, therefore, why in geography the contest between
these views is particularly lively. Here naturalists and historians
meet in a common field of work. A great number of modern geographers
have been educated as historians, and they must try to come to an agreement
with the naturalists, who, in turn, must learn to accommodate
their views to those of the historians. It is evident that an answer to this
fundamental question on the value of historical and physical science can
only be found by a methodological investigation of their relation to each

All agree that the establishment of facts is the foundation and starting-point
of science. The physicist compares a series of similar facts,
from which he isolates the general phenomenon which is common to all
of them. Henceforth the single facts become less important to him, as he
lays stress on the general law alone. On the other hand, the facts are
the object which is of importance and interest to the historian. An
example will explain our meaning more satisfactorily than a theoretical

When Newton studied the motion of the planets, the distribution of
those celestial bodies in space and time was the means, not the object,
of his researches. His problem was the action of two bodies upon each
other, and thus he found the law of gravitation. On the other hand,
Kant and Laplace, in studying the solar system^ asked the question,
Why is every one of the bodies constituting the solar system in the place
it occupies? They took the law as granted, and applied it to the phenomena
from which it had been deduced, in order to study the history
of the solar system. Newton's work was at an end as soon as he had
found the law of gravitation while this law was the preliminary condition
of Kant's work.

Here is another example: according to Buckle's conception, historical
641facts must be considered as being caused by physiological and psychological
laws. Accordingly, he does not describe men and their actions as
arising from their own character and the events influencing their lives,
but calls our attention to the laws governing the history of mankind.
The object of the historian is a different one. He is absorbed in the study
of the facts, and dwells admiringly on the character of his heroes. He
takes the most lively interest in the persons and nations he treats of, but
is unwilling to consider them as subject to stringent laws.

We believe that the physical conception is nowhere else expressed as
clearly as in Comte's system of sciences. Setting aside astronomy, which
has been placed rather arbitrarily between mathematics and physics, all
his sciences have the one aim, to deduce laws from phenomena. The
single phenomenon itself is insignificant: it is only valuable because it is
an exemplification of a law, and serves to find new laws or to corroborate
old ones. To this system of sciences Humboldt's “Cosmos” is opposed
in principle. Cosmography, as we may call this science, considers every
phenomenon as worthy of being studied for its own sake. Its mere existence
entitles it to a full share of our attention; and the knowledge of its
existence and evolution in space and time fully satisfies the student,
without regard to the laws which it corroborates or which may be
deduced from it.

Physicists will acknowledge that the study of the history of many phenomena
is a work of scientific value. Nobody doubts the importance of
Kant's researches on the solar system; nobody derogates from that of
investigations upon the evolution of organisms. However, there is another
class of phenomena the study of which is not considered of equal
value, and among them are the geographical ones. In considering the
geography of a country, it seems that the geological, meteorological, and
anthropo-geographical phenomena form an incidental conglomerate,
having no natural tie or relation to one another, while, for instance, the
evolutionist's subject of study forms a natural unity. We may be allowed
to say that the naturalist demands an objective connection between the
phenomena he studies, which the geographical phenomena seem to lack.
Their connection seems to be subjective, originating in the mind of the

Accordingly there are two principal questions which must be
answered: first, the one referring to the opposition between physicists
and cosmographers, i.e., Is the study of phenomena for their own sake
equal in value to the deduction of laws? second, Is the study of a series
642of phenomena having a merely subjective connection equal in value to
researches on the history of those forming an objective unity?

We shall first discuss the difference of opinion between physicists and
cosmographers. The two parties are strongly opposed to each other;
and it is a hard task to evaluate fairly the arguments of opponents whose
method of thinking and way of feeling are entirely opposed to one's own.
An unbiased judgment cannot be formed without severe mental struggles
which destroy convictions that were considered immovable, and had become
dear to us. But those struggles lead to the grander conviction that
both parties, though in a permanent state of conflict, aspire to the same
end, — to find the eternal truth.

The origin of every science we find in two different desires of the
human mind, — its aesthetic wants, and its interest in the individual
phenomenon. It must have been an early desire of developing mankind
to arrange systematically the phenomena seen by the observer
in overwhelming number, and thus to put the confused impressions
in order. This desire must be considered an emanation of the
aesthetic disposition, which is offended by confusion and want of
clearness. When occupied in satisfying this desire, the regularity of the
processes and phenomena would attain a far greater importance than
the single phenomenon, which is only considered important as being a
specimen of the class to which it belongs. The more clearly all phenomena
are arranged, the better will the aesthetic desire be satisfied,
and, for that reason, the most general laws and ideas are considered the
most valuable results of science.

From this point of view, the philosophical ideas of Epicurus are very
interesting, as they may be considered the extreme position to which this
aesthetic desire can lead if the pleasure one enjoys in arranging phenomena
in a clear system is the only incentive. He considered any explanation
of a phenomenon sufficient, provided it be natural. It does
not matter, he taught, if an hypothesis is true, but all probable explanations
are of the same value, and the choice between them is quite insignificant.
We believe this opinion is called to new life by a number of
modern scientists, i.e., by those who try to construct the evolution of
organisms in details which, at the present time at least, can neither be
proved nor refuted. If, for instance, Müller describes the history of
flowers, he gives only a probable way of development, without any better
proof than that it seems to be the simplest and therefore the most
plausible. But this construction of a probable hypothesis as to the origin
643of phenomena gives a satisfaction to our aesthetic desire to bring the
confusion of forms and species into a system. But it should be borne in
mind that a theory must be true, and that its truth is the standard by
which its value is measured. Therefore naturalists are always engaged
in examining the truth of their theories by applying them to new phenomena,
and in these researches those phenomena are the most important
which seem to be opposed to the theories. As soon as the question
whether the theory is applicable to the class of phenomena is solved, the
whole class is of little further interest to the investigator.

While physical science arises from the logical and aesthetic demands
of the human mind, cosmography has its source in the personal
feeling of man towards the world, towards the phenomena surrounding
him. We may call this an “affective” impulse, in contrast to the aesthetic
impulse. Goethe has expressed this idea with admirable clearness: “It
seems to me that every phenomenon, every fact, itself is the really interesting
object. Whoever explains it, or connects it with other events,
usually only amuses himself or makes sport of us, as, for instance, the
naturalist or historian. But a single action or event is interesting, not
because it is explainable, but because it is true.” (Unterhaltungen deutscher

The mere occurrence of an event claims the full attention of our
mind, because we are affected by it, and it is studied without any regard
to its place in a system. This continuous impulse is the important counterbalance
against the one-sidedness of a science arisen from merely
aesthetic impulses. As the truth of every phenomenon causes us to study
it, a true history of its evolution alone can satisfy the investigator's mind,
and it is for this reason that Epicurus's probable or possible explanation
is not at all satisfactory for science, but that every approach to truth is
considered a progress by far superior to the most elaborate system which
may give proof of a subtle mind and scrupulous thought, but claims to
be only one among many possible systems.

Naturalists will not deny the importance of every phenomenon, but
do not consider it worthy of study for its own sake. It is only a proof or a
refutation of their laws, systems, and hypotheses (as they are deduced
from true phenomena), which they feel obliged to bring as near the
truth as possible. The deductions, however, are their main interest; and
the reward of the indefatigable student is to review, from the summit of
his most general deductions, the vast field of phenomena. Joyfully he
sees that every process and every phenomenon which seem to the stranger
644an irregular and incomprehensible conglomerate is a link in a long
chain. Losing sight of the single facts, he sees only the beautiful order of
the world.

The cosmographer, on the other hand, holds to the phenomenon
which is the object of his study, may it occupy a high or a low rank in
the system of physical sciences, and lovingly tries to penetrate into its
secrets until every feature is plain and clear. This occupation with the
object of his affection affords him a delight not inferior to that which
the physicist enjoys in his systematical arrangement of the world.

Our inquiry leads us to the conclusion that it is in vain to search for an
answer to the question, Which of the two methods is of a higher value?
as each originates in a different desire of the human mind. An answer
can only be subjective, being a confession of the answerer as to which
is dearer to him, — his personal feeling towards the phenomena surrounding
him, or his inclination for abstractions; whether he prefers to
recognize the individuality in the totality, or the totality in the individuality.

Let us now turn to the discussion of the second point. We have seen
that physicists are inclined to acknowledge the value of a certain class of
cosmographical studies. It is the characteristic quality of those phenomena
that they are the result of the action of incidental causes upon
one group of forces, or upon the elements of phenomena. The physicist
does not study the whole phenomenon as it represents itself to the human
mind, but resolves it into its elements, which he investigates separately.
The investigation of the history of these elements of phenomena leads to
a systematical arrangement, which gives to the aesthetic desire as
much satisfaction as the formulation of laws. The end which evolutional
and astronomical researches tend to is the best proof of this fact.
A study of groups of phenomena which seem to be connected only in
the mind of the observer, and admit of being resolved into their elements,
cannot lead to a similar result, and is therefore considered of inferior
value. However, we have tried to prove that the source of cosmographical
researches is an affective one. If this be right, we cannot distinguish
between complex and simple phenomena, as the physicist tries to do,
and neglect their subjective unity, — the connection in which they appear
to the mind of the observer. The whole phenomenon, and not its
elements, is the object of the cosmographer's study. Thus the physiognomy
of a country is of no interest to the physicist, while it is important
to the cosmographer.645

From the stand-point we occupy, a discussion of the value of these
researches is of just as little avail as that of the value of the two branches
of science, for the judgment will be founded on the mental disposition of
the judge, and be only a confession as to which impulse predominates,
the aesthetic or the affective. However, one fact appears from our inquiry:
cosmography is closely related to the arts, as the way in which the
mind is affected by phenomena forms an important branch of the study.
It therefore requires a different treatment from that of the physical

We will apply these results to the study of geography. Its objects are,
the phenomena caused by the distribution of land and water, by the
vertical forms of the earth's surface and by the mutual influence of the
earth and its inhabitants upon each other.

What does the physicist do with this object of study? He selects a
single element out of phenomena which are observed at a certain point
of the earth's surface, and compares it with another one found at another
place. He continues in this way searching for similar phenomena,
and loses sight altogether of the spot from which he started. Thus he
becomes the founder of the sciences into which geography has gradually
been resolved, as his studies are either directed to geological phenomena
alone, or to meteorological, botanical, or whatever it may be. The most
general deductions which can be reached in the pursuit of these studies
still have a close connection with the single object, as they cannot be
carried further than to the most general geographical ideas, as mountain
ranges, running water, oceans, etc. The most general results of his
investigations will therefore be a general history of the earth's surface.
When he brings these results into a system, he acts, as it seems to us,
against the cosmographical character of the science. For instance, a system
of all possible actions of water as forming the earth's surface seems to
us of little value, except from a practical stand-point as being useful in
studying the geological history of a district or of the earth's surface.
Therefore these systems must be considered as important auxiliary sciences,
but they are not geography itself. Their value is founded only on
their applicability to the study of geography. The invention of geographical
systems, so far as they do not serve this purpose, must be considered
as useless, and classifications must be made only as far as geographical
phenomena of a similar kind must be explained by different causes.

But there is another branch of geography besides this, equal to it in
value — the physiognomy of the earth. It cannot afford a satisfactory
646object of study to the physicist, as its unity is a merely subjective one;
and the geographer, in treating these subjects, approaches the domain
of art, as the results of his study principally affect the feeling, and therefore
must be described in an artistic way in order to satisfy the feeling
in which it originated.

Our consideration leads us to the conclusion that geography is part of
cosmography, and has its source in the affective impulse, in the desire to
understand the phenomena and history of a country or of the whole
earth, the home of mankind. It depends upon the inclination of the
scientist towards physical or cosmographical method, whether he studies
the history of the whole earth, or whether he prefers to learn that of a
single country. From our point of view, the discussion whether geology
or meteorology belongs to geography is of little importance, and we are
willing to call all scientists geographers who study the phenomena of the
earth's surface. We give geology no preference over the other branches
of science, as many modern scientists are inclined to do. The study of
the earth's surface implies geological researches as well as meteorological,
ethnological, and others, as none of them cover the scope of geography,
its aim being to delineate the picture of the earth's surface.

Many are the sciences that must help to reach this end; many are the
studies and researches that must be pursued to add new features to the
incomplete picture; but every step that brings us nearer the end gives
ampler satisfaction to the impulse which induces us to devote our time
and work to this study, gratifying the love for the country we inhabit,
and the nature that surrounds us.647

1 Science, vol. 9 (1887), pp. 137-141.