Reply To: Human geography

  • Encyclios

    April 24, 2023 at 9:49 AM

    The humanist current

    Many geographers, however, are not convinced of the veracity of these theses. In the early 1950s an isolated scholar, Eric Dardel, gives a different approach to our discipline, but his short, admirable essay L’homme et la Terre goes unnoticed and is discovered only twenty years later, in Canada. True, Dardel’s proposals are very advanced: for him, the Earth is no longer the main object of geography, as it had been since antiquity, and the essential problem becomes that of its place in human experience. As a disciple of Heidegger, Dardel believes that there is no human experience other than that of being there, of existing in this world; as a Protestant, he believes that each individual must put his faith into practice by making the world more Christian. The desire to translate religious experience into reality is universal, even if it does not always take the same form: in his surroundings, man sees supernatural forces and beings at work, or he reads the Creator’s intelligence in them. Studying geography means not only compiling the material inventory of observable forms on the planet, but also grasping what men experience from birth to death, in daily life or on great occasions; it means seeing how they conceive of their origin and becoming, assessing the purposes they set for themselves, understanding what meaning they attribute to nature.

    We are thus faced with a profound departure from naturalistic and neopositivistic attitudes. Dardel does not deny that knowledge of natural forces and social mechanisms is necessary, but he believes that it must be preceded by a more important stage of study: in order to grasp the true essence of geography, it is necessary to start from what is most human in man and to base oneself on what the testimony of his senses offers him.

    The theoretical developments in vogue in the 1960s did not satisfy either the devotees of historical or cultural geography or those whose religious beliefs led them to think that our discipline does not take enough account of man and his endeavors. Among the former is Yi-Fu Tuan, who is fascinated by cultures; to the latter group belongs Anne Buttimer, whose passionate search for a less mechanistic interpretation of man is certainly guided by her Catholic faith.

    For the humanist current, human geography is concerned with the way humans live out their earthly condition, conceive of nature and the world and relate them to the afterlife, ascribe to places a particular character – sacred or profane, authentic or artifact, original or mundane – and translate their dreams, aspirations and sensibilities into the realization of certain structures. The research is based on the history of ideas, the science of religions, and the analysis of the value systems to which people refer or which are manifested in their actions. Participatory inquiry is seen as one of the privileged tools of the new approaches, without which it does not seem possible to grasp what is original and specific about each cultural group’s own view of life and the world.

    The humanist approach gives the researcher a lesson in modesty: in the social sciences one cannot tap into the essence of things if one treats humans as objects and rejects a priori their ways of seeing and thinking. One must not passively accept their ideas, but neither is it possible to ignore them, insofar as they are at the heart of the experience one seeks to understand and insofar as they affect reactions, attitudes and projects. Objective methods of mapping the world and understanding reality have enabled Western thought to explain the workings of ecological pyramids or the interplay of social and economic mechanisms that contribute to the shaping of space. But these methods overlook an essential element, for they ignore the motivations of individuals and do not attend to what they are trying to do in and of the world. Alongside the strongly neopositivist-inspired approaches in vogue for the past thirty years or so, there is thus room for procedures that are more sensitive to the diversity of humans and cultures. Each human group shapes its own geography: the inventory of ethnogeographies is one of the main tasks to which researchers must devote themselves today.