John K. Wright and Human Nature in Geography

Article excerpt

JOHN K. Wright was one of the intellectual leaders of the American Geographical Society (AGS) during the second quarter of the twentieth century. As librarian from 1920 to 1937, he designed the AGS research catalog, a bibliographical retrieval system organized exclusively for geographical purposes, and he was director of the society from 1938 to 1949. A prolific writer, he published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. His career has been described as "one of the most fruitful and illustrious in the history of American geography" (Lowenthal 1969, 598). In 1946, he served as president of the Association of American Geographers and presented the annual presidential address with its traditional focus on geographical thought and methodology.

His address, "Terrae Incognitae: The Place of the Imagination in Geography" touched on several topics, including geosophy, which he proposed to be a new subfield of geography. Geosophy was to encompass "the study of geographical knowledge from any or all points of view" and to deal with "the nature and expression of geographical knowledge both past and present" (Wright 1947, 12; 1966, 83). Although Wright did not coin the term geosophy, his definition of it is the accepted one (Dunbar 1980).

Wright's address is now accepted as a seminal contribution to geographical thought, an important starting point for the study of the subjective in geography. Yet the concept of geosophy remains obscure at best, familiar to a few geographers but unknown to most. Only about half of the dictionaries of the discipline deem the term worthy of inclusion. There is little need for such an entry; the word has probably never been published without an accompanying definition.

In this article, I trace the concept of geosophy from its inception to the present day. In doing so, I assess the importance and current influence of Wright's work. Moreover, I hope to gain some insight into the processes by which geographical thought progresses and is refined. Examination of the evolution of geographical theory and methodology is increasingly abundant, but attempts to study the course of a single concept are relatively rare. A study of the evolution of sequent occupance by Marvin W. Mikesell (Lowenthal and Bowden 1976, 149-170) serves as a partial model for this article.


Today, when human perception of place and environment are common themes in geography, it is perhaps difficult for geographers to comprehend that their discipline once ignored the role of subjectivity in the formation of human patterns. Yet such was the case well into the 1950s. Geography had emerged as an academic discipline with environmental determinism as its central focus in interpreting the human component (Cloke, Philo, and Sadler 1991, 4). This doctrine, which held that natural environments exerted determining forces on human societies and actions, left little room for the role of the subjective, behavior, or perception. In the subsequent decline of environmentalism, most of the ideas proposed to replace it remained equally entrenched in the objective. Determinist approaches, in which all aspects of human life seemed to stem inevitably from the events and conditions of the past, continued to dominate geographical inquiry and exposition (Platt 1948, 126). Human subjectivity was alien to that paradigm.

"Foreword to Historical Geography" by Carl O. Sauer (1941) is often cited as one of the earliest recognitions of the importance of perception in geography (Ernst and Merrens 1978). Sauer (1941, 8) wrote, "Every culture or habit must be appraised in terms of its own learning; and also habitat must be viewed in terms of the occupying group." Study of a culture's learning was secondary, because the "all-inclusive objective" of research was "spatial differentiation of culture" (Sauer 1941, 9). Relevant geographical knowledge was not that held by individuals or by groups in a society, but by a culture as a whole. …