Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Last Frontier: The Importance of Kant's Geography

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Last Frontier: The Importance of Kant's Geography

Article excerpt

Abstract. The first full English translation of Friedrich Theodor Rink's edition of Kant's Physical Geography was finally published in 2012, and several significant transcriptions of Kant's classroom lectures on physical geography are still forthcoming in volume 26 of the German Academy edition of his Collected Writings. Why has Kant's work on geography suffered from so much neglect? Contrary to received scholarly wisdom, I argue that the main cause of the neglect is not Rink's editorial sloppiness. Rather, Kant's Geography is simply not viewed as being as important as his ethics, logic, metaphysics, theology, and anthropology. In my paper I argue that Kant's Geography deserves our respect, and I present four key reasons for taking it seriously.

Keywords: Kant, geography, Friedrich Theodor Rink, geographical metaphors, science of space, anthropology

Introduction: the neglect of Kant's Geography

In 2012 the first complete English translation of Kant's Physical Geography (PG)--which first appeared in German back in 1802 (Rink, 1802)--was finally published in the Natural Science volume of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Watkins, 2012a). (1) The text of the Physical Geography, which runs 275 pages in the German Academy edition of Kant's collected writings (Kants gesammelte Schriftenf (2) and thus easily qualifies as a 'big' book at least in quantitative terms, is the only such work of Kant's never before to be translated into English. This long delay in translation is all the more surprising when one considers the fact--I quote now from the dust jacket for Natural Science--that Kant was instrumental in establishing the newly emerging discipline of physical geography, lecturing on it for almost his entire career". Why would a text of such significance, written by an author of Kant's stature, not warrant a speedier English translation?

But even though we now finally do have a complete English translation of Kant's Physical Geography, fastidious scholars are already complaining that the wrong text was translated. The work entitled Physical Geography is actually a compilation of different materials edited by Kant's colleague and former student Friedrich Theodor Rink, and the quality of Rink's editing work has been uniformly criticized for many years. The main criticism, first made by Erich Adickes over a hundred years ago and still widely accepted today, is that Rink's version of the lecture notes "consists of two parts of entirely different origin" (Adickes, 1911, page 278; see also Watkins and Reinhardt, 2012, page 435), a not-so-minor detail that Rink did not inform his readers about. (3) The first half (PG 9, pages 156-273) comes from lecture notes written in 1775, while the later part (PG 9, pages 273-436) stems from 1758-59 lectures. As a result, some commentators have concluded that Rink's edition is "hopelessly corrupt, and extremely problematic as the basis for any careful study of Kant" (Elden, 2011, page 5; see also Elden, 2009, page 8); and others go so far as to advise that it is "best avoided ... if we want to understand Kant's own thought on the subject" of physical geography (Bernasconi, 2011, page 298). Even Olaf Reinhardt, the translator of Rink's text, confesses that it "was unsatisfactory from the start and received poor reviews" (Reinhardt, 2011, page 103) (4) and that "there is no straightforward and unequivocal sense in which it can be taken to represent his [Kant's] actual views" (Watkins and Reinhardt, 2012, page 436).

One might therefore think that Rink's editorial sloppiness is the explanation for the neglect of Kant's Physical Geography--the consensus seems to be "this text is very untrustworthy, stay away from it." But while it is not my intention to defend Rink, I do not think that his work is the primary cause of the scholarly inattention to Kant's Geography. The problem is much larger than Rink. For Rink also edited other works of Kant's, including the Lectures on Pedagogy, first published in 1803, one year after the Geography (Rink, 1803). …

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