Category Archives: Geography

Alexander von Humboldt, synthesist

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science’ by Andrea Wulf, which has made me much more aware of the profound scientific legacy of Humboldt (a figure who seems to be largely forgotten in Anglophone countries). Humboldt (1769-1859) was a towering figure of science, not because he created a massive new theory like Newton or Einstein, but because of the way he linked different spheres of discussion together to recognise new conditions. He can be a new source of inspiration today precisely because science, and indeed the academic world in general, suffers so much from over-specialisation and the narrowing of assumptions that this brings with it.

Humboldt was born into an aristocratic family in Prussia at the time of Prussia’s increasing ascendancy in Germany, but before its unification. Influenced by Goethe and Kant, he treated human understanding as an interconnected whole, developing a concept of nature that recognised all these interconnections at a time when few of them were understood. He was the first to recognise the relationship between animals, plants, geology and climate across the world, and the first to warn of the destructive effects of human activity on the environment, including climate change. He spoke and read four languages fluently and was as equally at home in Paris, London, Washington, or Bogota as he was in Berlin. He travelled to South America and Russia, combining meticulous observation, intrepid exploration, and broad awareness of the relationships between all the phenomena he observed. Back in Paris and Berlin, he wrote books that interwove geology, astronomy, botany, zoology, human geography and politics, describing his experiences with sensitivity and power and illustrating them visually, as well as providing all the data. He spoke to the public and became massively popular, as well as being an inspiration for such varied figures as Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. The great strength of Wulf’s book is that she unites an engrossing account of Humboldt’s own life and achievements with one of his influence on all of these figures.humboldt-bonpland_chimborazoHumboldt’s way of doing science united analysis with synthesis in a way that seems to be largely lost today. His general conclusions could be backed up with detailed evidence from observation that was often first-hand, but at the same time he could pan out and make links between diverse fields of study. For example, he noted the effects of the Spanish colonial system on the environment of South America, and the impoverishment of plant and animal life it was already creating in some areas, even whilst abundant life thrived in those less affected by human interference. He also linked human-created deforestation to a feedback loop of climate change, as the lack of trees desiccated a local environment. To make links in this way, across the boundaries of politics, botany, meteorology and geography, is to synthesise, creating new understanding, rather than just to analyse causes and justifications within an accepted field of discourse.

Some of the thinkers I most admire today are synthesisers who have likewise linked together fields that are often falsely separated: Carl Jung, Iain McGilchrist, or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for instance. But synthetic thinkers today have the odds massively stacked against them, and are typically forced by the academic system to plough a narrow furrow for many years before they can be allowed to synthesise and be taken seriously. ‘The academic system’ here means peer-reviewed journals that take the limited assumptions of a particular specialisation as their sole basis, and expect highly-evidenced work covering a small area that can be fitted into an existing accepted framework of knowledge. Anything in the least synthetic is almost automatically rejected by such journals, and even if they are supposedly inter-disciplinary they are often highly limited in the starting assumptions they will accept. No academic career is possible without the support of these journals, and thus the triumph of analysis over synthesis maintains a stranglehold over the academic world.

But if you read about Humboldt’s scientific world of the early nineteenth century, you find quite a different world. Here a scientist was still largely thought of as an individual thinker and observer rather than someone who had to conform to a massive socially-regulated project. Here synthetic abilities could still be recognised, appreciated and cultivated alongside those of analysis and observation. The scientists were much fewer in number and had much more limited facilities at their disposal, but they still made great breakthroughs, because they were free to reflect on their experience from a variety of perspectives and thus come up with new theories. Humboldt’s recognition of what we now call ecological relationships was a discovery that could hardly be of greater practical importance to us today – probably much greater importance than the relative breakthroughs made today by specialised teams who persist in ploughing a well-ploughed furrow a little bit further.

Of course, it would be easy to idealise that earlier scientific world, and the current one has many other advantages. What seems important to me is not to in any way belittle the efforts of scientists in the current specialised system, but to encourage awareness of the overall limitations of that system and urge it to incorporate more synthesis. It is like a tree that has grown strongly in one direction when the light was available there, but now lacks the flexibility to grow in a new direction when the source of light moves. The scientific system depends on the education system, which gives far too little grounding in philosophical, psychological and emotional awareness which would help people more readily see the limitations of a specialised position. In turn philosophy itself needs root and branch reform, because it has been warped in mistaken imitation of over-specialised science, rather than fulfilling its practical function of a general critical consideration of our widest beliefs and assumptions. Without a recognition of the perspective from which synthesis is so important, we are unlikely to be motivated in changing our institutions to encourage it. Looking back at the strengths of what was done in the past can at least provide a vein of inspiration for that, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how to act today.


Picture: Humboldt and Bonpland by Mount Chimborazo by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (public domain)


Cosmopolitanism is the belief that one is a citizen of the world, not just of one particular piece of it that happens to have been sectioned off in a particular fashion by geological movements or medieval bloodshed. Such a position could be over-idealised, but I think it could also be understood as a realistic and balanced position that addresses wider conditions as well as more immediate ones. What’s more, I very much feel we need more cosmopolitan thinking in the UK at the moment, where the media is often consumed in a blaze of narrow arguments about the EU, leading up to the June referendum on membership.Kwame Anthony Appiah from video Almost all these arguments, even those of the ‘remain’ camp, concentrate overwhelmingly on an assumed national interest. But personally, when I vote on June 23rd, I shall do so not just as a citizen of the UK, but also as a citizen of the EU and of the world.

In this video, Kwame Anthony Appiah (a philosopher working in the US, who is descended from Ghanaian chiefs on one side and Sir Stafford Cripps, UK cabinet minister, on the other) gives a persuasive account of cosmopolitanism and its advantages.

As Appiah explains here, Cosmopolitanism recognises the value both of our commonality with the whole world, and of cultural difference. His most important message is that our moral concern does not and should not end at national borders. Why should it, when national borders are the arbitrary results of geography, past conflict, and absolutised tribal, linguistic or religious difference? Borders of any kind are an attempt to absolutise differences that are merely incremental and that (however strong they may be) in any case do not necessarily require separate political organisation. Borders are also a political reality that we have to adapt to, but hardly one that we should be spending our energy strengthening when there are so many better places to put that energy. As the Pope memorably said recently with reference to Donald Trump’s wall-building aspirations, we should be building bridges, not walls.

As with any ideology, there is a risk that cosmopolitanism could become idealised and absolutised. It could start to ignore the political borders that do operate, and the even more important psychological condition of people’s limited identification. It may well be that the EU has made some misjudgements based on such idealism, particularly its admission of Greece to the Euro without adequate scrutiny of its long-term financial stability. Integration of the world needs to be incremental, and cannot proceed too much in advance of the integration of the individual people who are its citizens. The EU has made some astonishing achievements in integrating Europe both politically and culturally during the past 50 years or so, but it probably needs a period of consolidation now, for the people and their culture and economic life to catch up with it. However, the EU’s mistakes, such as they are, are hardly an argument for reversing many of its achievements by withdrawing one of its most Important states from the union.

If we focus on a recognition of our embodiment and its limitations, that may seem to bring with it a more localised focus, recognising the strengths of our immediate environment and culture. But a localised culture is not necessarily a parochial culture that tries to separate its interests from those further afield. Our embodiment is also a source of universality, as we have pretty much the same basic body and brain structure as all other humans throughout the world. All that we have to do to recognise our cosmopolitanism is to recognise our embodied humanity, and to give it more importance than narrow tribal identity. If you want to look more beyond narrow tribal identity, then look to the influences you expose yourself to. For example, your media sources: populist UK newspapers like the Daily Mail will expose you to the assumptions of narrow tribal identity day after day, and I’m sure there are similar sources in other countries. Don’t assume that such narrow sources won’t have an effect. It will have an effect because you have a body, rather than being a disembodied reason that can consider every issue afresh at every moment.

I do think that cosmopolitanism is an ideological approach that could quite readily be an expression of the Middle Way in most cases, provided we are careful not to absolutise it. For most of us, dogmatic nationalism is a far greater danger in practice than dogmatic internationalism, and cosmopolitanism combines an internationalist outlook with a full respect for cultural difference and localised autonomy. I think it is only through such an outlook that, in the longer-term, it is possible to address the conflicts in the world adequately. I also see the EU, whatever its short-term errors or limitations, as a cosmopolitan institution whose founding principles of internationalism linked with subsidiarity try to follow that balance. So there are not too many prizes for guessing which way I will be voting on 23rd June.

NB. This article has been reproduced by a site called ‘Multinational News’. Please note, if you have come here from that site, that ‘Multinational News’ has pirated this article without permission from the author.

Unruly geography

Since early childhood, I have been fascinated by maps. I used to pore over my father’s old atlases from the 1930’s (where half the world was still pink), and then draw my own fantasy maps – which, as I became a teenager, turned into map-based strategy games drawn on grids of hexagons. Maps were a way of conceptually controlling a world of uncertainty, of creating and defending clear boundaries. In that way, despite their graphical nature, maps can be just another way of absolutizing, and the Middle Way can be a challenge to the assumptions we often make about them. What would a Middle Way geography look like?Off the Map

I have been stimulated to think more about this recently by reading a fascinating book called Off the Map by Alastair Bonnett. Off the Map is an account of a set of places that defy our assumptions about geographical boundaries. There are islands of silt, pumice, ice or rubbish that come and go. There are cities that change identity (such as Leningrad), or are totally deserted by humans (such as Pripyat near Chernobyl). There are no-man’s-lands such as Bir Tawil between the Egyptian and Sudanese borders, or an inaccessible traffic island in Newcastle. There is an enclave within an enclave within an enclave in the ‘Chitmahals’ of an incredibly complex borderland between India and Bangladesh. There’s the monastic republic of Mount Athos in Greece, where no women are allowed. Then there’s the self-declared independent country called Sealand based on an abandoned Second World War gun platform off the coast of Essex, England.

It is tempting to be Romantic about such places, to identify with them as brave redoubts against the bureaucratising imposition of normal geographical expectations. Sealand, for example, was created by a man called Roy Bates, who created himself Prince of his offshore gun platform and refused to pay British taxes. But this example is also clearly one of unsustainable fantasy. Bates’ obsessions were those of negative metaphysics such as the love of freedom for its own sake, merely counter-dependent on the positive metaphysics of the despised normal state and its boundaries. Sealand can be an apt illustration of the perils of relativism.Sealand Ryan Lackey CCA2-0 If you absolutise your own independence you cut yourself lose from the values you relied on up till then. If you just deny your connection with your roots and their founding values and institutions rather than engaging in a critical relationship with them, you can end up in an unsustainable and vulnerable position. Sealand was first invaded at gunpoint, and then later exploited by others selling its passports from abroad at a massive profit.

Nevertheless, it is good to acknowledge many of the denied and forgotten places that Bonnett tells us about, whether they are empty cities in Inner Mongolia, remote Utopian communities in Russia, ‘dogging’ venues by an English lay-by, or children’s dens. The boundaries here are more about what we expect a community to be: populated, conventional, free of ‘private’ sexual activity, and known by adults. I think that provides one set of pointers towards a Middle Way geography. First we need to acknowledge that our ideas about places and boundaries are incomplete, riddled with holes and exceptions, and thus not absolute. But then we also need to acknowledge their provisional value in many cases. By looking a bit more closely, beyond the expectations either of an absolute boundary or of its denial, we find the messy uncertainties of experience once again.

What would that mean in practice for someone living in a more conventional city, town or village? Well, taking our political borders provisionally has implications for how we treat immigration, as I have argued in another blog post about the European refugee crisis. But beyond the political issues, Middle Way geography can also be linked to our attitudes to our own locality. If we treat it ‘mindfully’ (in Ellen Langer’s terms) by being  open to new distinctions in that locality rather than relating to it in terms of fixed categories, even familiar localities will always reveal new features. Here’s a little exercise you can try now: look up at whatever room or other environment you’re in, and just note one new feature about it that you haven’t noted before. There, you are already engaging in Middle Way geography, by challenging whatever positive or negative fixed beliefs you had about that place.

Geography can hardly be neglected in the practice of the Middle Way, because it is a key aspect of human experience. Whether you like geography or not, you have a geography. Just by being an embodied being, you inhabit a place, and you interact with that place on the basis of beliefs about it. That place is then spatially related to lots of other places, to which you also relate in varying degrees. Your thinking about all of these places can be absolutised, or it can be made increasingly adequate to conditions by avoiding such absolutisation. This may just offer an alternative approach to aspects of your beliefs that you would otherwise engage with from different directions, but it is nevertheless a rich one.

Picture of Sealand by Ryan Lackey CCA2.0