What is with the German Romantic passion for Alpine landscapes, Schwabian hamlets, winding rivers, and winter journeys? Could there possibly be a relation between Hölderlin’s most sublime poetry and “agriculture, horticulture, or forestry” (188)? Furthermore, was it mere coincidence that G. W. F. Hegel’s Lessons on the Philosophy of History
, which laid the geographical foundations of idealist philosophy, were conceived at the University of Berlin while, in an office next door, Carl Ritter was revolutionizing the discipline of geography by writing the Science of the Earth
? Covering a period that goes from Johann Gottfried von Herder’s philosophical anthropology of the 1790s, to Ritter’s study of the relation between earth and humankind conducted between 1817 and 1859, Chenxi Tang’s rich and informative book provides a convincing answer to all such questions: Romantic obsessions, botanic passions, and idealist syntheses seem to be all fruits of a new and “distinctively modern concept of geography” (3) which formed in Germany in the intellectually fecund “decades around 1800” (21). A new geographic imagination, in other words, was at the basis of a pre-Romantic and Romantic Weltenschaung
— from philosophy to poetry, from the figurative arts to cartography, and from politics to ethnography. In a language reminiscent of Kuhn’s paradigmatic revolutions and Foucault’s epistemic breaks, Tang’s use of “distinctively modern” means that the Romantics transformed geography—a science as old as Herodotus and Strabo—from an ancient, static, and descriptive “topical” science, into a new, dynamic, “cultural” one (46). In Tang’s own words, the Romantic understanding of place, space, and, by extension, geography, managed to overcome “the fundamental rift between the human and the earth, which ran through the geographic discourse of the previous centuries” (21). Whereas old geography advanced from a fundamental dualism of earth and human, object and subject, Nature and Reason, modern geography rejected the view of earth and human society as two realities or essences, separated in the manner of object and subject. Instead the earthly and the human came to be seen as parts of a single whole, each engaged in an unceasing process of mutual interaction and reciprocal determination. Old geography thus reduced its task to making an inventory and an objective description of places carried out from the point of view of subjects who were assumed to be external to, and independent from, the physical reality they would describe and catalogue according to reason; modern geography, by contrast, presented itself as cultural
geography, and tried to imagine the reciprocal and dialectical relation of subject and object, human and earth, on each other. What is described here is the paradigmatic shift from philosophical dualism, up to Immanuel Kant, to monistic idealism; what Tang adds to the usual story, is the centrality of geographic method and discourse in this paradigmatic and epistemic shift that occurred “around 1800.” In those years, Tang insists, were born not only modern science, but modern aesthetics as well — both built on a modern understanding of geography as the “conceptual matrix for understanding culture and society” (1), and both striving to “bring to light the ways in which terrestrial space, with its land and water, mountains and valleys, plants and animals, relates to the customs, religions, and forms of government” (49). The most compelling pages of The Geographic Imagination
are devoted, accordingly, to the parallel evolution of geographic science on the one hand, and aesthetics on the other. From a traditional understanding of landscape (poetically exemplified by Albrecht von Haller’s “The Alps,” 1728) in which “[t]he viewer is reduced to a disembodied eye” (63), pre-Romantic texts like Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s “The Lake” (1775) re-conceive landscape ...
Roberto M. Dainotto is Professor of Romance Studies and of Literature at Duke University. His publications include Place in Literature: Regions, Cultures, Communities and Europe (in Theory), and he has edited Racconti Americani del ‘900. His new research project is a book on the debate on the "philosophy of praxis" from Labriola to Gramsci.