Squinting Back at Strabo*

By Koelsch, William A. | The Geographical Review, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Squinting Back at Strabo*


Koelsch, William A., The Geographical Review


Geography straddles an intellectual dualism that was first evident in the writings of ancient Greek scholars. They furnish us with two ideal-typical models for the realm of knowledge we call "geography": the Ptolemaic and the Strabonic. "With Ptolemy," Christiaan Van Paassen wrote nearly half a century ago, "'geographical' means 'cartographical'" (1957, 2). Since the 1960s the Ptolemaic locational, or cartographic, model has largely dominated American professional geography, although geographers of this persuasion seldom embrace Ptolemy's world reach. Geographers who work under this rubric have increasingly emulated the mathematical and more quantitatively and theoretically oriented social and behavioral sciences, refined the process of quantification, and adopted methods, ranging from aerial photography to satellite imagery and global positioning systems, to record a world of locations far more accurately than any Ptolemy could have imagined. The model finds its latest manifestation in the development of Geographic Information Science (GIS) programs, with which some enthusiasts would like to replace departments of geography (Koelsch 2001, 269).

"Both geographers [Strabo and Ptolemy] studied the oecumene," Van Paassen wrote, but their way of dealing with it "differs so much that one might say that two totally different spheres of reality, two totally different sciences are gathered under the same nominal cover, having in common only the outward characteristic of both being active in the dimension of space and of both being concerned with the location of places" (1957, 23). Clearly, in the Ptolemaic model method as an end is largely privileged over substance. As Alexander von Humboldt wrote of the original Ptolemy, he is "more mathematical and more tabularly concise" but "almost wholly wanting in views of a truly physical character" (1860, 190). In nineteenth-century geographical usage, this means that Ptolemy dealt in only minor ways with the world of nature and of humans and their works (Hartshorne 1939, 43).

The Ptolemaic model has brought us a great deal, including much interdisciplinary recognition. It has bolstered the morale of those who think geography should be more of a "science." It has also brought jobs: in the 1970s, in cartography, remote sensing, and quantitative methods (Haigh 1982, 187). In the 1980s, the largest employer of geography graduates was the Defense Mapping Agency (Smith 2003, 3). More recently, major entry-level jobs have gone to geographers proficient in GIS, now the preferred specialization for new hires (Rediscovering Geography Committee, 1997, 210-211).

But though the Ptolemaic model may be a necessary, it may not be a sufficient approach to the reinvention of geography in a post-9/11 world. Classical scholars are currently reinterpreting the model put forth by Strabo (ca. 64 B.C.-ca. A.D. 23)--arguably the ancestor of world cultural geography--after a long period of relative neglect in the English-speaking world (Clarke 1999, 74ff). Sarah Pothecary, a classicist at the University of Toronto, maintains a web site listing this recent Strabonic scholarship (2005). A "Google" search using that title will yield nearly 4,000 references. Pothecary includes a useful beginner's page, "Getting Started with Strabo."

For most geographers, of course, the history of conceptions of geography is not a priority; still less are developments in classical scholarship. Yet the two have intersected at points in the history of humankind, most notably during the Renaissance. In writing about that period, Denis Cosgrove neatly encapsulates Strabo's continuing relevance: "Strabo's Geography outlines a global science, inventorying the human habitation, alteration, and exploitation of the earth" (2001, 47). The argument of the present essay is that geographers need to look once more at the Strabonic, place-based, cultural-historical model of the world and, in so doing, bring the two alternative emphases into a more balanced relationship. …

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