Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Charles W. J. Withers; Paul Wood | Go to book overview

3
Situating Practical Reason: Geography,
Geometry and Mapping in the Scottish
Enlightenment

CHARLES W. J. WITHERS

This chapter attempts to locate the practical concerns of geography, geometry and mapping on the map of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment Scotland. The chapter also has two more specific aims. First, I want to illustrate the public interest in geography in Enlightenment Scotland and in those other subjects with which it was allied (notably geometry), and to do so with reference to public lecture classes in geography and geometry, and to university teaching in those and related subjects. Second, I want to suggest that mapping and map-making and the public interest in geography should be accorded a more prominent place in our understanding of the intellectual character of the Enlightenment in Scotland than has been the case. Both aims reflect a longer-run intention to ‘recover’ the place of geographical knowledge as an intellectual and practical pursuit within the Scottish Enlightenment.1

Mapping and geographical knowledge were understood by Enlightenment commentators as expressions of national self-knowledge and as means by which one could secure accurate understanding of the shape and the state of the nation. For Sir Robert Sibbald, for example, a leading early Enlightenment figure and, from 1682, Scotland’s Geographer Royal, accurate maps were crucial to the proper ‘Geographical Description of our Countrey’.2 In his Essay on the Rise and Progress of Geography in Great Britain and Ireland (1780), Richard Gough equated the progress of geographical knowledge in Enlightenment Scotland with the improved nature of its mapping. The same philosophy underpinned John Thomson’s introduction to his 1832 Atlas of Scotland, where the author considered the improved understanding of the nature of the nation as the result of mapping endeavours between the late Renaissance work of Timothy Pont, through Blaeu and Sibbald in the seventeenth century and a host of map-makers in the eighteenth century, to his own 1832 work.3

What follows explores both the nature of mapping as a form of geographical knowledge in the Scottish Enlightenment, and the connections between the practices of geography and geometry as they underpinned such mapping. I understand mapping and these subjects as socially mediated and complex representational practices of the real world. I do not share the view expressed

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