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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Theories of geographic influence historically have
played an important role in the study of culture. They
appear in secular form, but they are amenable to the
first, the teleological, idea because of the vital role of
adaptation, and they may be combined with the third,
the idea of human agency, in studies of reciprocal
influences. The idea that cultural differences may be
caused by environment appears first in elaborate form
in the Airs, Waters, Places of the Hippocratic Corpus
(the ideas probably date from the fifth century B.C.).
Judging by this essay, speculation about the influence
of environment was stimulated by the cultural diversity
of the eastern Mediterranean and regions accessible to
it—the Greeks, the non-Greeks of Asia Minor, the
Scythians, the Egyptians, and their varying environ-
ments. The thought progression in Airs, Waters, Places
and other texts of the Hippocratic Corpus such as
Ancient Medicine seems to have been (1) denial of the
divine cause of disease, (2) the effect of natural condi-
tions, of the atmosphere, of waters, and of places on
the causes of disease, (3) their effects on the mind, and
finally, (4) extrapolating these effects to whole peoples,
thus formulating early generalizations about the rela-
tion between environment and national character. The
essay does not deal with environmental questions alone,
although these influenced later thinkers, climate often
being especially singled out; cultural differences are
also ascribed to occupation, government, and custom.
Many classical writers commented, seldom with any
depth, on these matters: some mentioned the role of
the environment in creating areas of isolation where
peoples, deprived of cultural contact, preserved their
old ways; others remarked on cosmopolitan—often
wicked—areas like harbors on the seacoast where peo-
ple could mix and learn one another's vices. Some
thinkers, among them Herodotus, Polybius, and Strabo,
pointed also to the force of custom in the molding of

In the Middle Ages, milestones in the history of these
environmental theories are the De natura locorum of
Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas' On Kingship,
To the King of Cyprus.
Both are of interest mainly for
showing continuity with classical sources; environ-
mental influences are secondary causes operating on
an earth which is the handiwork of God and under
His continuous governance. The Methodus (1566) and
The Republic (1576) of Jean Bodin (especially the for-
mer) are valuable sources for such ideas and their
influence in the Renaissance. Bodin is important as a
comprehensive expositor of classical ideas and medie-
val echoes rather than as an innovator; he, however,
applied his principles to contemporary life, for like
Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and later Montesquieu, Bodin
thought that knowledge about the environment is vital
for rulers seeking wisdom in governing. In Bodin the
thought is complicated by large doses of astrological

Speculations continued unabated from the publica-
tion of Bodin's Methodus to Montesquieu's esprit des
(1748). In Books XIV-XVIII Montesquieu restates
the case for the influence of climate, soils, and physical
configuration, relying in part on John Arbuthnot's An
Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies

(1733) and on classical traditions, based mainly on
Hippocrates. In pithy and often witty sentences,
Montesquieu ranged widely to show the force of these
influences on national character, religion, the position
of women, slavery, diet, and even on the opera.
Montesquieu's forceful arguments made strong friends
and strong enemies, and for good reason: he posed very
clearly and trenchantly the questions based on envi-
ronmental versus social causation. Does climate influ-
ence religion? Are society's ills to be blamed on climate
or on the deadweight of custom, and on oppressive
governments and religions? It was in answer to
Montesquieu that Voltaire, in one of his milder dissents,
said “climate has some influence, government a hun-
dred times more; religion and government combined,
more still” (“Climate,” usually printed in the Philo-
sophical Dictionary
). Montesquieu indeed became a
source for what was already a body of thought in its
own right, but he was equally important for the criti-
cism his ideas evoked, not only from Voltaire, but from
Hume in his essay “Of National Characters” (1748),
both emphasizing the force of moral causes. These
books read alone, however, overemphasize the deter-
ministic character of Montesquieu's thinking; his treat-
ment of population in Book XXIII, one of the best in
his work, brings out clearly the social and religious
influences on human compared to animal populations.

Herder's Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of
(1784-91) sets off in new directions; one could
maintain that modern cultural geography started with
him. He considered the whole earth and all mankind,
past and present. Whereas Montesquieu, like his pred-
ecessors, was more interested in correlations, Herder
stressed organic ties and blood relationships between
man and the earth. Herder's view of man and nature
was typical in more than one way of many ideas of
romantic thinkers. He used the design argument to
show that the earth is a fit environment for mankind
whose unity he assumed and whose cultural differences
he explained by the “situation and wants of the place,


the circumstances and occasions of the times and the
native or generated character of the people” (Book XII,
Ch. 6). But Herder also noted that man takes an active
part in reshaping and transforming the earth, for as
a student of Europe's past Herder had also read ac-
counts of the clearing of the woods of the New World
(Glacken, 1967).

Carl Ritter is conventionally regarded along with
von Humboldt as a founder of modern geography, but
if one comes to Ritter after Herder there are few
surprises. In his Comparative Geography (1852), Ritter
presented the all-embracing design argument in the
tradition of Leibniz, Ray, and Herder. Ritter greatly
admired science and the scientific method, as they
increased knowledge and helped in the explication of
final causes. Like Herder, Ritter strove to show the
deep ties between man and nature. Both illustrated
very well how the idea of design could embrace con-
cepts of environmental influence, of man as a modifier
of nature.

The humanistic writings of Alexander von Humboldt
are of far greater interest than those of Ritter; he was
at home in the thought of the Enlightenment, the
pre-romantics, and the romantics, and many of his
ideas were based on personal observation made in his
travels; e.g., his (and Aimé de Bonpland's) Essai sur
la géographie des plantes
(1805), which is a miniature
human geography: man's modifications of heath vege-
tation; comments on the absence of pastoral nomadism
in the New World; contrasts in mountain settlement
between the Alps and the Andes; human beings as
world disseminators of plants; the influence of plants
on man's imagination and sensitivity.

Von Humboldt also saw the fundamental importance
of the history of ideas. In the Kosmos, he made mag-
nificent surveys of the history of the subjective con-
templation of nature, stimulated by descriptions of
nature in literature, by landscape painting, and by
exhibitions of exotic plants; and then of the objective
understanding of nature attained through meditation,
reason, enlarged horizons resulting from exploration,
and invention. Von Humboldt is loath to divorce the
humanistic appreciation of nature through poetry,
travel, and landscape painting from the objective sci-
entific investigation of nature's laws. The two, aesthetic
appreciation and scientific understanding of nature, are
not antagonistic; they reinforce one another. He was
encouraged that a modern literature concerned with
the psychological interactions between men's minds
and the external aspects of nature, the power of natural
surroundings to evoke moods and feelings, was coming
into being, stressing, as Buckle did later in the intro-
duction to his History of Civilization in England (Vol.
I, 1857), the differential character of environments in
their ability to overawe men.

There is good reason for distinguishing between
environmental theories current before and after
Darwin. The Darwinian theory, inspired in part by
Malthus, in pointing to the enormous reproductive
power of living things compared with the food avail-
able for their sustenance, called dramatic attention to
the survival value of adaptation of organisms to the
environment. Nature, the physical environment,
acquired a new and dynamic force. In her Modern
(1911, p. 11), Marion Newbigin wrote that
evolution was a great unifying principle: Darwin had
shown that there is a delicately adjusted balance be-
tween organisms and their surroundings. Throughout
earth history, slight changes in physical conditions and
the effort of organisms to readjust to the disturbed
balance have been factors in evolution. Thus in part
at least the characters of organisms can be explained
by the nature of their surroundings. In this respect
human societies and settlements, she argued, behave
like organisms. Cultural differences can therefore be
explained, at least partially, by minor differences in
physical conditions. This unifying and coordinating
principle, she thought, has enabled geography to com-
prehend vast accumulations of facts, and for the first
time raised it to the level of a science. The new princi-
ple also reinforced older ideas of environmental influ-
ence; it led in geography to concepts of the struggle
for “living space,” the roots of twentieth-century geo-
politics, as it did in sociology to a literature now called
Social Darwinism.

Friedrich Ratzel's criticism of Darwin is most in-
structive in this connection: Darwin erred in his con-
ception of the struggle for existence in nature, for
“nature” concealed the fact that the earth was not
uniform, but consisted of all kinds of environments,
some far more favorable to life, to progress, and to
survival than others (Ratzel [1899], Vol. I).

Ratzel in fact introduced a new era in environmental
thinking; we may single out one of his key ideas, the
importance of movement or of migrations in history.
Two great forces are at work here: the mobility of man
and the stability of the earth. Migration is especially
characteristic of the earlier stages of human culture;
it is limited and in fact controlled by the physical
configuration of the earth which provides distribution
routes by land or sea, thus exercising a decisive influ-
ence over where men go, on the density of population,
and ultimately on the world distribution of man. As
mankind develops, however, into a life less migratory,
more sedentary, the process of becoming rooted in the
soil (Einwurzelung) begins, and the higher the devel-
opment the greater and deeper is this binding rela-
tionship. A people and its land are indivisible; one
cannot be understood without the other. Ratzel thus
set himself firmly against any philosophy of history that


sees progress in terms of a gradual divorce from the
controls of nature characteristic of the earlier stages
of human development. It is only fair to add that Ratzel
was not a systematic environmentalist; he saw clearly
that the powerful forces of human agency were at work
in his own times and in the past, but this body of
thought did not achieve the organization and coher-
ence in his thinking that ideas in the environmental
tradition did.

To a considerable degree Ratzel's influence in the
English-speaking world owed much to Ellen Semple,
his American student, who consciously avoided many
of his more speculative and mystical ideas like the
organic theory of the state; her Influences of Geo-
graphic Environment
(1911), an independent work
based on the principles of Ratzel's Anthropogeographie,
reveals on almost every page the influence of evolu-
tionary theories as unifying principles in explaining the
relation of culture to environment.

The period from Ratzel's day to the present resists
summarizing; during that time materials pertinent to
our theme have accumulated in greater volume and
wider scope than in all previous periods combined. We
may, however, hazard certain broad generalizations.
There has been a loss of faith in environmentalistic
explanation, but this should be qualified by saying that
even among the most deterministic thinkers there had
always been loopholes for nonenvironmental influences
(Claval, 1964; Hartshorne, 1959; Taylor, 1957). The
partisans of environmentalism simply did not select the
human factors for special study. The shifts in interest
and the trend away from environmentalism have been
sensitively described by Carl Sauer, himself a leader
in a new conception of cultural geography (Sauer,
1931). The disenchantment with environmental the-
ories led to greater emphasis on man—his culture and
his power to modify nature. The best known example
of this shift is the work of the French geographers,
Paul Vidal de la Blache, Jean Brunhes, and Lucian
Febvre, whose Geographical Introduction to History
(1925) is a skillful exposition of their philosophy. The
rejection of environmental determinism, the insistence
on the permissiveness of the environment—it offered
possibilities and opportunities, not commands, hence
the association of this school with the word “possi-
bilism”—were not bold and revolutionary manifestos
but evidences that academic discussions of culture and
environment could no longer ignore what was obvious
to an intelligent and open-eyed observer. It was absurd
to emphasize man's adaptation to the environment
when overwhelming evidence from all over the world
showed that the human transformation of the environ-
ment, now being seen in better historical perspective,
was one of the great processes in human history, that
changes were accelerating at an unheard-of rate. Dis
tinct ways of life (genres de vie) developed in various
parts of the earth due to such factors as environment,
traditional occupations, and historical circumstances.

Second, holistic concepts of environment, based on
some form of ecological theory, a trend already appar-
ent in Ratzel's Anthropogeographie, reflect the growing
importance of biogeography and ecological principles
upon which it is based. The concept of natural regions
among the French geographers, for example, is based
on biogeography and ecological theory as they were
understood around the turn of the century (Febvre,

Despite the widespread rejection of environ-
mentalism, the writings of Ellsworth Huntington,
Arnold Toynbee, and other contemporary writers in
their reexaminations of concepts have kept alive these
persistent and vexing questions concerning the nature
of environmental influences. Huntington was con-
cerned basically with two broad fields: (1) the relation
of the distribution of civilization (as he defined it) to
the geographic distribution of climatic areas favorable
(again by his definition) to high energy, creativity,
productivity, and the like; and (2) the role of climatic
change in the history of civilization (Huntington, 1945).
Huntington's work was not done in isolation but in
the mainstream of wide-ranging research which had
been conducted vigorously since the latter part of the
nineteenth century on the relation of environment
—particularly climate—to health and disease, diet,
creativity, labor efficiency, mental diseases, genius and
intelligence, race, social and political organization,
national character, the suitability of the tropics to
white settlement, and climatic factors including cli-
matic change in the rise and fall of civilizations
(Glacken, 1956, on climatic change).

Huntington was not an environmental monist, nor
did he deny the operation of many other factors. It
was the climatic factor that enchanted him. His influ-
ence extended far beyond his own discipline; like
Montesquieu, Buckle, Spengler, and Toynbee, not the
least of his merits was the exegetical literature his many
books produced.

More recently, Arnold Toynbee, examining the
question whether certain environments present condi-
tions favorable to the genesis of civilizations, has dis-
missed the environment as a causative factor; he has
also rejected race. His discussions, however (1961), of
“the challenge of the environment” (the stimulus of
hard countries, of new ground, of blows, pressures)
have provoked charges of environmentalism, for ex-
ample, by O. H. K. Spate in an article on Toynbee
and Huntington (Geographical Journal, 118 [1952],

In the years following World War II, British and
American geographers, especially, have shown consid-


erable interest in analyzing the semantics of environ-
mental theory, and the meaning of such words as “en-
vironment,” “possibilism,” and “determinism.” This
discussion has grown out of the vagueness in usage,
the accretions of time, often inconsistent with one
another, and out of the fear that a cultural was sup-
planting an environmental determinism. Fear also of
being accused of environmental determinism meant
that important and legitimate areas of inquiry were
ignored or at best neglected (Lewthwaite, 1966; Spate,