The History of Geographic Thought

Geography 602

Fall, 2003

Professor: Bruce D'Arcus
Office: Shideler 234
Office Hours: M W F 11-12
Phone: 529-1521
email: <>


Meeting a friend in a corridor, Wittgenstein said: “Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth, rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend said, “Well, obviously, because it looks as if the sun is going round the earth.” To which the philosopher replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?”
— Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

The primary purpose of this course is to provide students with an overview of the philosophical and theoretical frameworks that underpin modern geographic inquiry. Specifically, we will focus on themes such as how “geography” has been conceptualized, what are some of the different epistemologies (theories of knowledge) that have shaped the practice of geography, how we use “geography” to make certain claims about the world, and how we decide that certain of these claims are more valid than others. The history of geographic thought has often been presented as hagiography (in which scientific ideas are presented through an examination of the “great minds” of the past), as developmentalism (in which the ideas of one age are presented as following from those of earlier times in a linear fashion, linking the past with the present), or as teleology (in which scientific knowledge is thought to develop out of its own internal logic). This course, in contrast, will present a contextual approach to geographical thought, by which is meant that it will examine how ideas developed at particular times in response to the changes and events taking place in the broader society. Implicitly, then, the course assumes an approach that sees knowledge not as an independent “thing” which, naturally, produces the “best” understanding of the world but, rather, as a cultural product which is always partial and contested. As the Stoppard quote above suggests the goal of the seminar is to force us to think about how we think about geographic knowledge.


The course is organized as a graduate seminar - it is expected that a substantial volume of reading and other work will completed outside of the scheduled class meetings. Reading assignments will be given at least a week in advance for each meeting and it is necessary that students come to class prepared to analyze and discuss the material assigned. Every student will also be expected to take responsibility for leading and directing these class discussions on at least one occasion.

The class participation component of the grade is earned by attending class, by carefully listening and by actively (and constructively!) contributing to discussion – demonstrating that you have completed the reading assignments. Participation also entails completing and turning in (by noon on the day of class) a synopsis sheet for the assigned readings. Each student will be asked to take responsibility for preparing and leading discussion of the reading assignment for at least one class.

Two essays are required. The first is a brief (3-5 typed pages) review essay relating the plot of the novel Mister Johnson to the central themes of the course. Each student will also produce a larger (12-15 typed pages) “thought piece” that compares and contrasts two epistemologies or approaches to knowledge (e.g., positivism and realism, or feminism and Marxism).

Each student will write a major paper that provides a critical account of how a particular concept or issue has been used in geographic thought. This paper should examine how an idea or concept has been used within geography, the circumstances surrounding its use (and perhaps how it has changed), how its application has shaped our understanding of the world, how the idea or concept has challenged, and has been challenged by, different ways of knowing, and the like. The topic for the research paper must be selected in consultation with the instructor.


Evaluation is based on:

  • Assigned readings, class attendance and participation (10 %).
  • Weekly written synopses of assigned readings and responsibility for leading class discussion (10 %).
  • A brief review essay relating Mister Johnson to themes of the course (15 %).
  • An essay critically comparing two epistemologies within geography (25 %).
  • A final paper critically evaluation of the development of an aspect of geographic thought (40 %).
  • Outline

    29/3A Contextual Approach to Geography
    39/10The Evolution of Modern Geographic Thought (Rubenstein)
    49/17The Social Context of Scientific Knowledge
    59/24Geography, Race and Empire (Yeboah)
    610/1Human Environment Relations as Process and Pattern (Medley)
    710/8Landscape as a Geographic Construct (Medley and Toops)
    810/15The Marxist Critique and Reformulation (Prytherch)
    910/22Geography and “Scientific” Realism (Yeboah)
    1010/29From Evolution to Equilibrium (Renwick)
    1111/5Coping with Chaos and Complexity (Renwick)
    1211/12Critical Geographies and the Politics of Knowledge
    1311/19Feminist Geographies (Ehrkamp)
    1411/26Thanksgiving Vacation - No Class
    1512/3Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism
    1612/10Final Projects Due