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Epistemology and the history of

geographical thoughtt
by Paul Claval

I Epistemology and the progress of geography

1 The birth of epistemological consciousness

T h e current popularity of epistemology reflects new concern about the

validity of scientific method. T h r o u g h o u t the nineteenth century science
produced such seemingly satisfactory results that to question its certainties
seemed unnecessary. Epistemology adopted an inductive approach: it
followed science describing its methods and indicating the procedures
needed to establish facts and justify the proffered interpretation of them;
subsequently it drew up a conspectus of the principles gradually
established by science.
From the beginning of the twentieth century the situation changed: in
the fields of mathematics and logic many of the results which had seemed
definitively established were called into question. Alongside Euclidean
geometry non-Euclidean geometries had been invented. Alongside the old
Aristotelian logic and the law of the excluded middle, new multivalued
logics appeared. This type of work, far from remaining purely speculative,
proved indispensable to the progress of physical theories. Consequently
epistemological research was no longer seen as fundamentally inductive. It
was no longer content to follow the movement of science: it undertook to
precede science by indicating which tools should be used to make the best
progress. This was the atmosphere which characterized neopositivism:
some concern was already apparent, therefore, but epistemology was still
only partially critical. Its role was still more prescriptive.
Nowadays there is an awareness of the philosophical shortcomings in
the two previous attitudes: objective knowledge cannot be based on itself;
what are the presuppositions? How does it justify its own validity?
Epistemological thought is no longer intended to be mainly
prescriptivethe sciences establish their own rulesit is critical, it

tCopyright Basil Blackwell Publisher, forthcoming from Geography, science and social concern,
edited by D . R. Stoddart.
372 Epistemology and the history of geographical thought

questions the explicit and usually implicit principles behind the

approaches taken. Epistemology teaches one to doubt certainties. It
illuminates disciplines from inside and emphasizes how they limit
themselves from the start by the presuppositions they accept.

2 Modern prescriptive epistemology

T h e nineteenth-century approach to epistemology is obviously of little
interest to the researcher: it appears to consist of a wordy commentary on
what he is doing; it is the work of philosophers who have not even taken
the trouble to learn the subject and who claim to judge from the outside.
It does not and cannot contribute anything and does not always
understand wherein lies the real value of the methods used.
Neopositivist epistemology has quite different qualities: it makes sure
that the instruments a priori necessary for the formalization of procedures
are valid; it is inextricably linked to the new forms of logic and
mathematics. It is not merely a codification of well-tried methods, it
proposes new ways and tests the coherence of the methods already in use.
A large proportion of the quantitative revolution and the new geography
is modelled on norms laid down in the 1950s by epistemologists for the
practice of the social sciences (Harvey, 1969). For example, the
exceptionalist point of view which made geography a special case was
rejected, and it was conceived on the model of the other social sciences.
Great account was taken of K a r l Popper's ideas (Popper, 1945a; 1945b);
his refutation of the historicist points of view which were one of the bases
of exceptionalism at the level of the humanities as a whole was accepted.
(His point of view was not, however, as reductionist as that of most
members of the Vienna circle, since he was aware of the difficulties of
prediction in the social realm.) Care was taken, following his critics, in
theorizing about class actionthis was seen as existing only in the case
where the individuals comprising the class or group were caught u p in the
same situational logic. O n e learned to distrust grand revolutionary ideas
and to make the social sciences the privileged tools of piecemeal social
engineering by which the course of events and the functioning of society
could gradually be altered. All this goes hand in hand with the
importation of more rigorous techniques than those used previously:
progress made by operational research or by systems theory has been so
rapid since the second world war that there appears to be an
inexhaustible reservoir.
Some marxists also follow a prescriptive epistemology (Levy, 1975).
T h e y expect it to establish a system of key concepts in the humanities;
these have been suggested by the critique of political economy; they only
need revamping and a modification of their field for them to be applicable
to other h u m a n sciences. From this point of view, epistemology is not in
control of methods. T h e theory of thought concrete and real concrete
Paul Claval 373

justifies the use of purely formal analysis in establishing key concepts; they
already contain all universal truth; all that is needed to explain the world
is to let their potential be developed. This is a reassuring concept since all
knowledge is already potentially discovered and only the minor
consequences remain to be stated; but it is also discouraging because it
reduces present-day humanity, contemporary researchers, to mere
successors to a way of thinking which has already overcome all obstacles.

3 The epistemological break and scientific revolution

Reflection is much more often critical questioning than stated certainty.
C a n one be sure that all the results produced by scientific progress are of
equal value? Are there universal criteria available to determine truth?
W h a t is the basis of the best constituted branches of learning? In the past
fifteen years, what used to occupy the thoughts of a few isolated
individuals has become a burning question for everyone. T h e nature of
progress is hard to define. In nearly all disciplines the idea was that
results were increments to a growing store of knowledge; science appeared
to be a process of gradual and continuous construction. T h e n people
started to stress the importance of the discontinuities. Before the second
world war, Gaston Bachelard (Bachelard, 1934; 1938), who in
French-speaking countries holds a position parallel to that of the
neopositivist school in the Germanic and English-speaking worlds, showed
that each science arises from an epistemological break; this calls into
doubt the evidence of perception and constitutes the objects on which
scientific reasoning can attach itself. Gradually, this model of
discontinuities was accepted by French philosophers. Althusser gives it
authority by applying it to the thoughts of M a r x . J u s t as Galileo founded
the 'physics continent' of science by breaking with the scholastic notion of
force, M a r x formed the basis of the 'history-continent' of science, i.e. the
possibility of social science, by breaking with the too obvious categories-of
classical analysis, price, supply, d e m a n d , and substituting for them a
'scientific' object, work (Althusser, 1969, 6-7). Marxists are therefore
divided between the certainties presented by positive epistemology
inspired by the categories of Capital, and uncertainty as to whether the
epistemological break on which their discipline is founded has yet
Among the neopositivists a mutation similar to that caused by
Bachelard's thinking in France took place in the 1960s when T h o m a s
K u h n ' s work ( K u h n , 1962) on the structure of scientific revolutions was
published. All disciplines were thenceforward condemned to ask questions
about their past, to trace the discontinuities which m a d e them possible,
and to draw up a list of the paradigms on which the disciplines were
subsequently based. K u h n put forward a series of simple notions, easily
applicable to all disciplines. T h e impact of these notions was considerable.
374 Epistemology and the history of geographical thought

H e m a d e people aware of the novelty of the currents which had been

stirring u p geography since the 1950s; he explained the growth of interest
in paradigms a n d even foreshadowed the success of the term 'new
geography' proposed by Peter Gould in 1968. I n practice, however, the
instruments of analysis thus popularized turned out to be a little
disappointing. W h a t is a paradigm? Do all scientific revolutions take place
at the same level? Beyond the discontinuities must one not ask questions
about deeper permanences? I n spite of scientific revolutions, there are
cases of continuous development a n d incremental progress.
Foucault-style epistemology (Foucault, 1966; 1969; 1975) belongs to the
same group as Bachelardian epistemology: like Althusser's it is based on
putting the fundamental breaks and discontinuities into perspective. This
type of epistemology takes an overall view of the great revolutions in
scientific thought, b u t does so using methods different from those of
T h o m a s K u h n . U p to now geographers have made little use of Foucault's
work, while Foucault himself ignores the discipline of geography.

4 The value of historical epistemology and its significance for the history of
geographical thought

T h e history of geographical thought can be seen in two ways: it can be of

historical inspiration or of epistemological inspiration. In the first case it
attempts to re-create the past, to work out what made geography
successful in any particular period, or what linked it to the society in
which it was flourishing. In the second case it attempts to work out the
logical development of ideas; in order to interpret a movement it does not
hesitate to bring together what did not seem to be coherent to people at
the time; it makes room for the first economists, for statisticians and for
demographers alongside travellers and geographers in the strict sense
when it wishes to assess eighteenth-century geographical awareness. It
therefore becomes problematic, because it aims not simply to recount the
emergence of ideas, but also to explain why what seems to us to spring
from the same logic was not recognized as such in the eighteenth century.
It therefore questions knowledge by going beyond the statement of facts: it
wonders w h a t authority was behind them a n d penetrates the development
of the discipline from the inside.
T h e history of geographical thought, as it has developed over the past
15 years in France or Germany, for example, has close links with
epistemology. T h e works of Dietrich Bartels (Bartels, 1968) or Gerhard
H a r d ( H a r d , 1969; 1970) on the one hand, a n d those of Josef
Schmittenhusen (Schmittenhusen, 1970; 1976) on the other, take this
approach. I wrote my Essay on the development of human geography as a
critical exercise with the intention of demonstrating the logic of different
types of h u m a n geography and their development in time. Alain Raynaud
Paul Claval 375

has studied the coherence of geomorphology, and the mythical

background to the geography practised by the average geographer in
France in the mid 1960s (Raynaud, 1971; 1974). In the United States A n n
Buttimer has studied French geography (Buttimer, 1971). However, the
archetype of all these epistemologically oriented studies of the history of
thought is the classic work by Richard Hartshorne, The nature of geography
(Hartshorne, 1939), and also the commentary which he did 20 years later,
Perspective on the nature of geography (Hartshorne, 1959). These studies have
greatly contributed towards the regeneration of geography. T h e y are,
nevertheless, prisoners of a limited field: they ignore the evolution of
thought in parallel disciplines. It is interesting to compare the approach of
historians of geographical thought with that of epistemologists whose
inspiration is critical: there is undoubtedly no better way of opening u p
research to new concerns, a n d at the same time relating it more
profoundly to the other social sciences. From this point of view, the work
of Michel Foucault can serve as a test.

II The epistemological categories of Michel Foucault

What are the idees-forces of Michel Foucault? We shall consider them as

they are presented in Les mots et les choses (Foucault, 1966), the work where
he gives a general interpretation of the history of sciences a n d in
particular of humanities, in L'archeologie du savoir (Foucault, 1969), in
which he justifies his epistemological undertaking, and in Surveiller et punir
(Foucault, 1975), where his research turns away from sciences to the
knowledge which makes them possible and the practices which enclose
them. These three works published between 1966 a n d 1975 indicate a
general epistemological reflection on the humanities undertaken between
1955 and 1970, followed by a new orientation in which the author, taken
up with the adoption of a new episteme and anxious to break with what -he
considers to be the ambiguous aspects of sciences or humanities, studies
them from the new angle of the institutions and behaviours which make
their discourse possible.
T h e positivist epistemologies have been built on the idea that it is
possible to express that which escapes direct perception but explains
phenomena in depth. Concepts of language have no part in the theory of
knowledge as built up in the nineteenth century or as we continue to
comprehend it through the heritage of positivism and neopositivism. From
this point of view, the value of science can in fact be reduced to the
effectiveness of its means of apprehending reality. In order to understand
the evolution of scientific thought better, we should stand back from a
situation which still impinges too closely. Michel Foucault does so by
showing that the relationship between words and things has varied during
the course of modern history (Foucault, 1966).
376 Epistemology and the history of geographical thought

1 The Renaissance episteme

In the sixteenth century words and things were both perceived at the
same level. Words formed part of the world; they were its symbols, but at
the same time they directly signified the world. Reality was all on one
plane; there was no separation between the world and the discourse which
tried to apprehend it. T h e world revealed itself through worlds by the
interplay of similarities, analogies or identities which, on a real level,
related one object to another in accordance with a universal sympathy
between things. Explanation was seeking in each successive symbol the
element to which the symbol referred, so that gradually reality became
universally transparent, present both in texts and in the world, only
undefined gymnastics of interpretation and deciphering were needed.
Sixteenth-century knowledge is therefore determined by the concept of
worlds and things that people accepted at that time: the logic of particular
explanations cannot be understood without this analysis of relationships
between the world, language and the speaker; scientific discourse has a
logic which is circumscribed by the epistemological basis thus defined. T o
adopt the vocabulary of Michel Foucault, the sixteenth century has a
certain episteme. This is not, as a summary analysis would . suggest, a
Weltanschauung, a certain colouring of the world characterized by the
prevailing dominant values and the common ethical, aesthetic or
philosophical preoccupations: it depends rather on the role given to each
of the fundamental instruments of knowledge, words, concepts, discourse.
There is a considerable gap between this formulation and analyses
conducted in ideological terms: to understand the nature of thought it
must be freed from that which makes it prisoner of the classes or groups
of which society consists, it must be assessed through the logic of the
instruments which express and condition it.

2 The classical episteme

In the first half of the seventeenth century the Renaissance system of

thought was overthrown by the classical system: from then on western
intelligence ceased to perceive things and words at the same level. It
established a break between the universe and the representation of it, and
formed an idea of representation which underlay every effort of
comprehension at that time. In its view, the symbols have lost their
circular correspondences, their signified are no more other symbols, but
the real world so they have the property of giving a fair account of the
ordering of phenomena: instead of a system on one plane, there was a
system on two planes without depth, so that the representation could be
superimposed perfectly on reality. T h e problem of science was to find a
language which truly reflected the ordering of the worldthe language of
mathematics a n d mechanics for those in the Galileo and Cartesian
tradition concerned with physical realities, the vernacular for those trying
Paul Claval 377

to penetrate the general system of nature. In both cases it was a question

of showing u p the ordering of reality through the structuring or
manufacturing of a language. T h e ideal of universal science was embodied
particularly well in Adamson, Tournefort and Linne's botany where it
appeared in a pure linguistic form which was elsewhere beneath the
T h e classical episteme was therefore built on a certain concept of
language, its functions and its aptitude at apprehending reality. It did not
look for causes in the real world, it did not try to give an account of
things through other things, it tried to place them in nature's grand
design, or to understand them in terms of what preceded and what
followed them, as in a 'tableau anime'. T h e sciences were homologous
with general g r a m m a r which in one sense was their model; they included
an analysis of the proposition, the articulation, the origin a n d the
derivation, which in botany took the form of an analysis of the structure
and the determination of the generic characteristics.

3 Modern episteme: one or more?

As a result of a profound change in all concepts of knowledge, the

classical episteme was replaced at the beginning of the nineteenth century
by the modern episteme. In its movement towards in-depth study at the
end of the eighteenth century, science discovered organic similarities"
behind analogies of form. It became more interested in functions than in
appearance and learned to read life's d a t a in sequence. At the same time
the study of languages finally passed the stage of general g r a m m a r :
comparative study of languages led to the formulation of laws about the
development of words and g r a m m a r . Philologists became aware of the
autonomy of linguistics: languages are not transparencies of reality, they
are not to be confused with the logic of things, they have a logic of their
own. Science was no longer identified with the making of a language, b u t
with the exploration of a reality outside language, of which language, in
its dense, imperfectly transparent state, subject to historical development,
could give an account only with difficulty. T h e epistemic basis
henceforward brings in not words and things, but the subject observing,
the things of which he apprehends the links, the structures, the being itself
and the underlying forces modelling realityFoucault points out the
sudden attention given to life, work and words. In this context the
sciences concerned with m a n and society found themselves invested with
special status: they were caught in the dialectic of the subject observing
who is at the same time the object of study. Foucault shows that such an
undertaking is conceivable only if it is thought possible to constitute a
science of m a n not very far removed from philosophical anthropology; he
sees there one of the most original elements of the episteme which arose in
the first half of the nineteenth century.
378 Epistemology and the history of geographical thought

4 The post-epistemological phase of Foucault's reflection

Analysis of the succession of epistemological bases since the sixteenth
century shows u p the role of discursive practices in the history of
knowledge, L'archeologie du savoir (Foucault, 1969) takes as a model the
serial analysis of contemporary history. Instead of reading the history of
thought as the history of ideas, their diffusion and their social
conditioning, Foucault sees it as an accumulation of discourses. J u s t as, at
the beginning of the nineteenth century, philology perceived the historical
n a t u r e of language, Foucault shows the historical nature of discursive
practices and their succession.
In Les mots et les choses, attention was centred exclusively on scientific
knowledge, but as soon as one tries to apprehend the status of discourses,
what makes them possible, what constitutes their logic, one is naturally
led to moderate the usual opposition between science and other forms of
knowledge. Discourses modelled on the reality constituting science cannot
be constructed without a certain economy of discourse and without certain
practices of observation which are also reflected in the knowledge
surrounding science. They do not have the same exactness, but are quite
different from an unstructured mass of precepts or ideologies dictated by
interest. Surveiller et punir (Foucault, 1975) establishes how the legal and
medical sciences were developed at the same time as the development of
the detailed techniques of observation which fed them with facts and
m a d e them possible.

Ill Geography and 'l'archeologie d u savoir'

W h a t can the analytical a p p a r a t u s proposed by Michel Foucault

contribute to the analysis of the development of geographical thought? In
our opinion it offers a framework for relocating the researches already
undertaken in the intellectual environment which sustained them and it
poses a n u m b e r of questions on the development of modern geography
from the end of the eighteenth century.

1 Examples of Renaissance and classical epistemes in geography

Epistemological history of thought is often criticized for being too
exclusively preoccupied with the questions of our time when trying to shed
light on the past, so that the internal logic of development is in danger of
eluding the researcher. This is a common fault of those who are anxious
to restore the past in all its dimensions: they are often prisoners of
contemporary logic and cannot see those qualities of old works which
cannot be integrated into our system. Reflections on the episteme invite
one to examine the past using its own eyes. T w o examples can be given
for this, for the Renaissance and for the classical period.
Paul Claval 379

Brian S. Robinson (Robinson 1973) has recently published a very

curious article on Elizabethan society and its place names. In it he shows
how we should understand the logic of everything which appears in the
curious compilations of William C a m d e n or Richard Carew who felt
obliged, in mentioning Hibernia or Cornwall, to a d d a whole lot of waffle
which seems to us to bear no relation to our discipline. O n e finds there a
hotch-potch of etymological notesusually absurd and uninterestingon
the relationships of the names and forms of settlements and on heraldry
and myths. Robinson's study is largely inspired by Claude Levi-Strauss
and E d m u n d Leach's reflections on primitive thought and methods of
classificationwhich means that the sources are close to that of Michel
Foucault. Robinson notes of manufacturers of Elizabethan topographies
exactly what Foucault views as the general characteristic of the thought of
the time, the habit of rating equally anything to do with facts and
anything to do with names, of putting in the same place natural and
physical notes and those which belong to folklore, etymology, history and
its symbols. Eva G. Taylor's researches into Elizabethan geography are
mainly concerned with topographers and their methods of surveying, with
travellers and with teachers. She unintentionally retained of the geography
of the period only the matters with which our discipline is concerned. T h e
j u m b l e of information on place names seems to us to be outside the
scientific field. Foucault shows us that at the time it had just as much
relevance as what continues to interest us today: it was part of what the
episteme of the time indicated was knowledge.
A. Downes (Downes, 1971) has written about the Bibliographic dynosaurs
of Georgian geography, 17141830. T h e eighteenth century was the century of
encyclopaedias in England, where the movement started, even more so
than in France. Among these publications, the great universal
geographical compilations have pride of place. T h e y are surprising to
uswhy such enormous accumulations of facts? W h y this endless
repetition of the same themes? W h y this effort so totally devoid .of
misgivings and of any need to explain facts in a geographical way? W h y
the lasting commercial success of undertakings which to us seem absurd?
Again it is through a lack of intellectual agility and through ignorance of
the logic of the time that we cannot get into these works. T h e y
corresponded, at a spatial level, to the desire to put things in order, to the
concern with drawing u p a coherent picture of the universe which led
naturalists to write natural histories at the time; the latter noted all the
differences enabling minerals, plants and animals to be n a m e d and
classified, just as the geographers placed on the world m a p everything
worth knowing. Cartographers continued their incessant labelling j o b and
manufacturers of encyclopaedias and bibliographic dynosaurs attached a
short note to each place.
Episteme analyses must facilitate studies which, in the image of the two
we have just mentioned, situate a work in what provides its logic a n d
380 Epistemology and the history of geographical thought

necessity. Foucault's schema is useful for understanding the position of the

discipline from the Renaissance to the seventeenth or eighteenth century.
It shows how the aspects of the geography of former times which have
become obsolescent were j u s t as necessary to its implicit presuppositions,
just as inevitably inherent in the epistemological base, as the aspects that
have survivedfor example, the techniques of cartography and the
concern for the precise description given by travellers. For the nineteenth
century and modern times, Foucault's frameworks are unfortunately less
easy to interpret. However, the questions which his discussion poses for
geography are capable of better illuminating the development of our
discipline. It is also worth exploring the reasons why geography has so
low a status in his works, despite his interest in spatial problems: it offers
an insight into the attitudes that the intelligentsia generally adopt to our

2 Modem episteme and the study of forces in geography

T h e modern episteme is characterized by the search, through the
exploration of the underlying layers of reality, for causalities which express
the fundamental play of forces (Foucault, 1966). Foucault's reasoning
depends on the study of three disciplines which seem vital to him: the
natural sciences and biology, g r a m m a r and linguistics, and political
economy. For the three subjects, it is the same principle which enables
one to pass from the ordered pictures of the classical age to explanation
that enables one to see beneath the surface of things the logic of their
functioning and stresses, in their respective fields, the importance of life,
work a n d language; so this principle stresses the finite nature of man,
enclosed in each field by a boundary which limits and crushes himlife
by the foreknowledge of death, work by the desire which motivates and
overtakes it, language by the diversity of what it must express and the
imperfection of its means. T h i s finitude gives these disciplines their
historicity, leads to natural evolution, economic history and comparative
linguistics. Michel Foucault shows very well how all modern thought
belongs in the same movement through the awareness of finitude and the
idea of the flux of forms and of time.
Foucault's analysis thus has links with Bachelard's and
Althusser'ssince it stresses the importance of the epistemological breaks
which give rise to new sciences by moulding and constructing new objects.
W e can also see what Foucault owes to marxismwork to him seems to
be the profound structuring reality of all social life. But the schema he
suggests is more subtle than that of his predecessors in that it shows both
the themes chosen by the new disciplines, life, work, or language, and the
privileged p a t h they takethat of historical analysis.
Not all social sciences are equally advantaged by this transformation:
those which prosper are those which can easily find a place in an
Paul Claval 381

evolutionist framework. Take, for example, political economy: it had

studied spatial problems in great detail in the mercantilist period; but
from Ricardo onwards it concerned itself with the development of
production through time.
It was not therefore with the social sciences that the new discipline of
geography could find a place in the system of knowledge as it was at the
time. In the field of life sciences things were different: as Foucault rightly
shows, from the time when, with Cuvier, the logic structuring organisms
was understood, one could not avoid, in order to explain their functioning,
looking towards the outside world: the organism adapts to an environment
which it needs but which threatens it by multiple pressures. So one learns
to seek out the relationships between the being and the environment; and
in this geography has its place. H u m b o l d t was the first to feel this. He
wrote, on 5 J u n e 1799, in the boat which was ready to take him from
Corunna towards America: T shall try to find out how the forces of nature
interact with one another a n d how the geographical environment
influences plant and animal life. In short, I shall discover what makes the
unity of n a t u r e ' (quoted by Botting, 1973, 65). So, from the outset,
geography, which also discovers problems of organization and structure,
was seen more as an environmental than a h u m a n science, although the
seventeenth and eighteenth-century traditions and the works of
mercantilists and statisticians could have m a d e it swing to the side of

3 Geography and the problem of discontinuity in the modern episteme

Michel Foucault notes a change in perspective midway through the
modern period of the episteme (Foucault, 1966): the assumptions
controlling intellectual progress as a whole are not called into question,
but they are no longer applied in the same way. From then on the
insistence is on the notion of the norm rather than on function, on the rule
rather than on conflict, on the linguistic system rather t h a n on meaning.
O n e goes from a world where the historicist preoccupation is d o m i n a n t to
a world which is more interested in the articulations of reality, in control
mechanisms and in structural assemblages. In such a climate, curiosity
about space once more predominates: such curiosity is no longer limited
to the question of the relations between the being a n d the environment; it
can take the broader approach of the spatial constraints affecting m a n ,
and give the social sciences new coherence.
The chronology of this change is indicated in a very vague way by
Foucault: he sees the first signs of it in some late nineteenth-century
philosophers, Nietzche, for instance; however, as regards modern times, he
is unfortunately m u c h better informed about philosophical development
than about the evolution of the social sciences. Moreover, he does not hide
the fact that he has small regard for them: they cannot all achieve the
382 Epistemology and the history of geographical thought

status of rational and objective knowledge. H e therefore compares the

trilogy whose evolution he chose to follow from the seventeenth century
(life sciences, linguistics and economics) with sociology, history and
ethnology, for example'. H e considers the first three to be true sciences
because they have been able to create a perfectly definable object, which
is by nature objective: life, work, language in its material manifestations.
T h e latter three are closely related to these but in fields where man is no
longer absent and where the problem of explanation and comprehension
arises from the outset. In this area, Foucault thinks it is not possible to.
design sciences with firm structures, but it is essential to see that
structured knowledge is involved.

4 The quest for power and its application to geographical epistemology

T h e analysis which Foucault proposes undoubtedly contains an element of
the arbitrary. T h e comparison between economics and social sciences will
not convince those practitioners who find it more and more difficult to
understand either without constantly passing from one. field to the other.
Foucault remains the prisoner of a certain marxist viewpoint and has not
succeeded in breaking free from the presuppositions of the analysis of the
value of work. But that does not at all detract from the scope of his
proposal. By placing the originality of humanities on a different level to
that of the traditional explanation/comprehension comparison, he
overcomes a problem which has long been an epistemological obstacle to
these disciplines: he invites their analysis as forms of knowledge, i.e. as
disciplines constructed on practices, and on perfectly defined and coherent
techniques, even if they do not have the support of a perfect base for the
epistemologist. And thus he is launched on his great quest for the hidden
relationships between power, social order and the social sciences. Surveiller
et punir (Foucault, 1975) is his first major contribution in this direction.
Even if it is largely outside the geographer's usual sphere, everything he
says on the techniques of partitioning space, observation or on Bentham's
panopticon economics leads us in the direction of the unjustly forgotten
reflections of the statisticians, legal writers and political economists by
which western society gradually obtained the instruments of action
necessary to it and which at the same time gave rise to the correlative
scientific disciplines.
So Foucault's analysis invites one to go beyond the history of
geographical thought, far beyond the academic spheres of economists,
historians or ethnologists: it leads one to evaluate the spatial practices of
European societies, to determine the way in which statesmen, soldiers,
financiers and tradesmen think about space, use it and transform it: such
is the stuff of geography. From the outset it has been intimately bound up
with the action it has guided. (The problem with academic geography is
often to explain why concepts and theories have lagged behind practice,
rather than the reverse.
Paul Claval 383

W i t h this bias, the history of geographical thought converges on the

other area of m o d e r n epistemological concernthe one opened u p by
G u n n a r Olsson (Olsson, 1975) in his investigation of the logic of
geographical practices a n d the difference between axiological reasoning
and explanatory reasoning in which u p to now critical thought h a s been
too exclusively interested.

Department of Geography, University of Paris

After drafting this article I discovered the study by Robert D . Sack (1976)
which appears in a recent issue of Annals of the Association of American
Geographers on magic and space: that is the best illustration of Foucault's
themes of epistemology with regard to geography in the framework of the
episteme of the Renaissance.

IV References

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