Dichotomy and Dualism (Geography)

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Determinism vs Possibilism


Environmental Determinism (ED)

  • Man is a passive agent on which physical factors act and determine his attitude and his process of decision making => history, culture, living style, stage of development of a social group are governed by natural environment => variation in human behavior across globe can be explained through variation in physical environment.
  • ED phase was a passive phase of determinism and had extreme magnitude of rigidity in treating dominance of nature over man. Yet it was a reflection of reality as technological know-how was low.
  • Greek and Roman Scholars:
    • Strabo: Explained greatness of Rome based on its natural conditions and geographical location
    • Aristotle: Cold climate people of Europe brave but unintelligent (thus can't rule others)  and warm climate people of Asia intelligent but lack in spirit (thus ruled by others); climate of Greece, the middle place, is most apt and hence Greeks are born to rule (bias towards home, displayed by Huntington later)
  • Arab scholars:
    • They divided the world into 7 kishwars (terrestrial zones based on climate) and highlighted the physical and cultural characteristics of people in these regions
    • Al Masudi: People of water abundant areas are gay and humorous while those of water scarce areas are short-tempered
  • Immanuel Kant:
    • All inhabitants of hot lands are exceptionally lazy and timid => leads to superstition and slavery
    • Showed that change in environment led to change in attributes. e.g. brown squirrels that migrate to Siberia turn grey.

Classical/Geographical Determinism (CD)

  • Started with Humboldt and Ritter who established geography as a discipline in universities in 19th century. (Can be considered as start of professionalism phase in geography; Peschel is other alternative for this)
  • Aesthetic determinism of Humboldt and teleological determinism of Ritter.

Scientific Determinism/Social Darwinism

  • Emerged from Darwin's work in 2nd half of 19th century; was led by Ratzel; became dominant theme in American school at the turn of 20th century
  • Ontography of Davis:
    • Ontography, coined by Davis, is the organic half of geography (physiography+ontography=inorganic matter+organic response=geography)
    • Cause-and-effect generalization between inorganic elements as control and distribution of organic elements as response
    • Davis identified the core of geography as the relationship between the physical environment (as the control) and human behavior (the response)
  • Friedrich Ratzel: Anthropogeographie Volume I (similar location lead to similar modes of life. e.g. British Isles and Japan; systematic study of man)
  • Semple: Most staunch determinist; declared man to be 'dust of the dust' of nature in her work 'Influences of Geographic Environment' (1911); nature presents challenge and whispers solution
  • Climatic determinism of Ellsworth Huntington (Mongolian invasion to fluctuations in share prices, Civilization and Climate, etc).


  • Stop-and-Go determinism of Thomas Griffith Taylor (can accelerate development but only fools to deviate from the path)

Cultural/Social Determinism (popular in America)

  • As human interests, prejudices, desires, etc vary across space there is variation in cultural landscape and socio-economic development as well.
  • The perception of environment changes with changing culture and technology. As the technology develops the importance of environment does not decrease, but changes and becomes more complex.
  • Edward Ullman: Environment is essentially neutral and the role is dependent on culture, technology and other characteristics of society. e.g. mountain pass is neutral - its value depends on whether one possesses horse, automobile or a plane.
  • Cultural factors lead to different reactions of man even in similar conditions.
  • This philosophy is also as rigid as environmental determinism.


Classical Possibilism

  • Considers man as an active agent; mostly a qualification on determinism. Developed as a reaction to extreme generalization of determinism.
  • Natural environment provides options, the number of which increases with increase in technological know-how
  • Earlier possibilists:
    • Montesquieu: Man possessed free will
    • Comte de Buffon: Man as an agent of change (speculated that man could even change climate)
    • Kant: crypto-possibilist; influenced French school as well; considered man as one of the five agents of change (from Buffon's idea)
  • French possibilists presented the idea that people could put an environment to multiple uses but chose the options that suited their culture most (the idea emanated from Ratzel's Anthropogeographie Volume II in which Ratzel showed people carrying their cultural traits to new place with migration which influenced their decisions in the new environment -> this influenced Vidal Blasche)
  • Blasche: milieu externa is a partner and an adviser (but not a slave); nature sets limits and offers possibilities and man chooses option based on genre de vie
  • After Blasche the possibilist school became radical:
    • Lucian Febvre: There are no necessities but everywhere possibilities
    • H.J. Fleure: Formulated regions based on human characteristics instead of climatic-biotic regions (region of effort, region of hunger, industrialized regions, etc). In this he used the concept of struggle and selection.
    • Even similar response to similar environment was explained as the result of exploitation of similar possibilities.
  • Jean Bruhnes: Qualified possibilism
  • Elisee Reclus: Recognized that man could have negative impacts on environment.
  • Barrows: Human Ecology


  • Cultural landscape of Carl Sauer (though it is also considered cultural determinism)
  • Sequent occupance of Voskanyan Whittlesey
  • Isiah Bowman: Rather than location knowledge of man decides which activity is suited best to which location. e.g. spread of potato and maize to Europe


  • Put forward by OHK Spate as a midway between environmental determinism and radical possibilism.
  • Physical environment doesn't decide human action but exerts a considerable influence so that certain responses are more likely than others (=> inner margins of human choices).
  • Human action is a combined response to natural environment and technological advancement. Which possibility offered by environment will become reality is dependent on technological advancement.

Man-environment interrelations

Approaches to man-environment study:

  • Geocentric/Environmental determinism
  • Weocentric/Possibilism
  • Theocratic/Teleological approach
  • Environmental/Environmental consciousness

Evolution of thinking:

  1. Anthropocentric: Human wellbeing is dependent on that of nature
  2. Sustainable Development: Fulfilling today's needs without compromising needs of the future generations
  3. Sustainability: Consideration of rights of future generations of all species
  4. Environmental ethics: Questioning the human rights of exploitation of nature

The idea of environmentalism grew out of the social relevance movement under welfare geography.

Approaches to environmental management:

  1. Technocentric
  2. Sustainable utilization
  3. Gaianism


  • The environmental movement started in 1960s has shown that there is overall limit to certain kinds of human economic activities in terms of resilience of planet's ecosystem and ecology. There is an overall limit to growth.
  • Thus, at a very large scale we can be deterministic whereas at the more local scale we see the virtue of possibilism or cultural and social determinism.

Physical geography vs Human geography

Why dichotomy between physical and human?

  • Humans can't be subjected to quantified mathematical analysis. The subjectivity added due to culture, values, etc lead to any generalizations made about them to be only probabilistic rather than certain.
  • The methods of natural sciences can only be applied in physical geography. In fact, human element tends to make geography a humanities subject instead of science.
  • Natural science -> Social science -> Humanities (increasing degree of focus on human element)
  • Study of natural and human elements require such starkly different methods that no discipline can study them together.

Chronology of dichotomy

  • Phase of antiquity: Greeks saw man and nature in harmony with each-other. There was a dominance of physical aspects but with due regard to man. e.g. Eratosthenese declared geography to be the study of Earth as the home of man.
  • Age of voyages: Again physical dominated though both were documented.
  • Varenius: Human element is not objective => focus more on physical (started the dichotomy)
  • Reine geographers:
    • Considered only physical geography as geography
    • Philippe Buache (1752) and Johann Christoph Gatter formulated natural regions as river basins surrounded by mountains
  • Kant: Geography as chorology has to be a unified whole in a region, thus leading to inclusion of human element. He also considered man as one of the 5 agents of change (Buffon's idea) => no dichotomy. In fact, physical geography, according to him, included features on the face of the Earth produced by not only natural processes but also from human actions.
  • Humboldt / Ritter: Zusammenhang / Erdkunde, Unity in Diversity; Ritter was in fact anthropocentric
  • Crisis of identity in 18-19th century:
    • Voyages and colonial expansion had generated a lot of data for the systematic study of every phenomena separately. Thus, general geography got divided into many disciplines. (Rise of systematic sciences)
    • Kant's classification of knowledge gained ground in this environment.
    • Humboldt's idea that the exclusive domain of geography - the study of coexistence of different phenomena in harmony with each other instead of study of individual phenomenon - was also being rejected.
    • Rise of systematic sciences threw another concern: Study of natural and human elements require such starkly different methods that no discipline can study them together. The prevailing intellectual environment thus pushed geography towards physical geography.
    • Geography was so neglected that Ritter's chair remained vacant for a long time.
  • Oscar Peschel: Believed that physical and human geography constituted two entirely different sets of knowledge and could not be one science. He tried to project geography as science and thus considered only physical geography to be geography (Originator of dichotomy between physical and human).
    • George Gerland seconded him: he even suggested that as man could not be put to scientific analysis, he should be out of the scope of geography.
    • The emphasis on systematic studies divided geography in two parts - physical (natural science) and human (social science) - united only in the study of regions that hardly appeared to be science at all (Hartshorne, 1939).
  • Geography was made an integrated science again in the last two decades of 19th century. Ratzel and Richthofen were the most successful of those trying to integrate the discipline.
    • Ratzel: the father of modern human geography; laid the scientific foundation of study of man in geography in Anthropogeographie Volume I by subjecting him to systematic analysis; cultural/historical landscape
    • Richthofen: Highest goal of geography was to explore the interrelationship of man with the physical Earth and its organic components. He used chorological view as a means to an end: to solve the dualism between human and physical.
  • Hettner: Criticized Peschel and Gerland for equating geography with physical geography and also criticized Ritter for giving the central theme to humans. He opted for man alongside nature in the interrelationship formed in regional studies.
    • As per Hartshorne, if we divide geography on these lines we make the rest of the work illogical.
  • Now integration of man and nature can be seen more evidently:
    • Landscape studies: Pays, Compage, Landschaft, Cultural Landscape
    • Ecology: Human Ecology, Environmentalism and limits to growth
    • Contemporary: Welfare approach, mental maps, etc.


  • The dichotomy is artificial and physical and human are just two extreme ends of a continuum.
  • As per Hartshorne, if we divide geography on these lines we make the rest of the work illogical.

Regional vs Systematic Geography

A Brief Comparison

Theme Regional Geography Systematic Geography
Approach Idiographic/descriptive and synthetic Nomothetic/Law-making and analytical
Study matter Area/Region Object/Phenomena
Theme Uniqueness and differences Generalizations and commonalities
School Landerschaft of German school which became regional approach Systematisch (Humboldt) which became systematic approach
Development Hartshorne's Aerial Differentiation Schaefer's Spatial Analysis

Detailed Evolution of Dichotomy

Geographer and his work Views on Systematic Geography Views on Regional Geography Comments
Bernard Varenius

Geographia Generalis (1650s)

General Geography

Laws of natural science can be formulated

Special geography

Considered this aspect unique to geography

Considered general and special to be interdependent

But wasn't enthusiastic about human element

Immanuel Kant

Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

  • Chorology: spatial description
  • Exceptionalism: methodologically different
  • Grouping phenomena on the basis of areal association
  • Father of exceptionalism
Humboldt (1769-1859) Systematisch that developed into systematic geography Zusammenhang, i.e., hanging together of nature and humans together Systematisch -> Zusammenhang, i.e., systematic -> regional (seen later in Richthofen's and Hettner's synthetic approach)
Ritter (1779-1859) Not much attention
  • Unity in Diversity: Interrelationship of phenomena (Indicates regional synthesis)
  • Made studies in comparative geography which is also regional in character
Hettner criticized Ritter for pursuing purely regional studies
Ferdinand von Richthofen (1883-1905) Identified systematic approach also, but as a means to chorology. Geography is the science of the Earth's surface and the things and phenomena that are causally interrelated with it.
  • Regional synthesis
  • Revived the concept of unity of Earth
  • Chorography vs chorology
Chorography (description of region) -> systematic geography -> chorology (explanatory study of regions based on systematic studies). Both Richthofen and Hettner showed a return to Humboldt's method of study.
Alfred Hettner (1859-1941)
  • Nomothetic
  • As a means to an end which is idiographic studies
  • Idiographic: relating to particular processes, as against general laws.
  • Synthetic: causal interrelations
  • Exceptionalism: methodologically different.
  • Geography was not science of distribution (zoological geography vs geographical zoology); phenomena of interest to geography only if it gives any character to the area.
  • Humboldt's approach followed which allowed for synthesis
  • Used chorology to solve the problem of dualism between physical and human
  • Father figure in revival of chorology
  • Primarily a physical and regional geographer
Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) Part of the discipline, but not its core
  • Regional geography as the core of discipline.
  • Task of geographers was to study the unique areas on which the impact of nature on man and of man on nature had fused together (pays).
Idea of pays got obliterated after industrial revolution


  • The two approaches are extremes of a continuum. The new synthesis of geography embraces both. They are interdependent.
    • Considering nomothetic as a means to idiographic end is also erroneous as the discipline is not an end in itself. The end should be to serve humanity (welfare approach).
  • General and special characteristics exist in every phenomenon and they are interpenetrative.