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Placing the Enlightenment

Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason

The Enlightenment was the age in which the world became modern, challenging tradition in favor of reason, freedom, and critical inquiry. While many aspects of the Enlightenment have been rigorously scrutinized—its origins and motivations, its principal characters and defining features, its legacy and modern relevance—the geographical dimensions of the era have until now largely been ignored. Placing the Enlightenment contends that the Age of Reason was not only a period of pioneering geographical investigation but also an age with spatial dimensions to its content and concerns.

Investigating the role space and location played in the creation and reception of Enlightenment ideas, Charles W. J. Withers draws from the fields of art, science, history, geography, politics, and religion to explore the legacies of Enlightenment national identity, navigation, discovery, and knowledge. Ultimately, geography is revealed to be the source of much of the raw material from which philosophers fashioned theories of the human condition.

Lavishly illustrated and engagingly written, Placing the Enlightenment will interest Enlightenment specialists from across the disciplines as well as any scholar curious about the role geography has played in the making of the modern world.

336 pages | 13 color plates, 26 halftones, 3 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography, Social and Political Geography

History: British and Irish History, European History


"An excellent contribution not only to geography’s history, but also to the history of science....An insightful study that confirms the valuable contributions of geographical practices."


What does it mean to ‘think geographically’ about the Enlightenment? Charles W. J. Withers proposes a complex answer in his ambitious work of historiographical synthesis....Readers will be stimulated to develop their own reflections on the relations between geography and history by Withers’s book, an accomplished work of historiography in the geographical mode. As a survey of recent literature, its extensive footnotes and bibliography will serve readers for years to come, though its coverage is limited to the natural and human sciences, ignoring other realms of Enlightenment culture such as politics, religion, literature, philosophy and the arts. The book is imaginatively illustrated, with a large selection of maps and other images that show how geography was studied and taught. Most of all, historians of science should be grateful to Withers for having made the work done in our field so central to his attempt to reconfigure scholarly understanding of this critical historical period."

Jan Golinski | British Journal for the History of Science

"[Withers suggests] that geography was essential to various facets of the Enlightenment project and is fundamentally relevant to understanding the Enlightenment historically. This book may be usefully read together with the immensely stimulating collection Geography and Enlightenment."

Larry Wolff | American Historical Review

"Withers has done an extraordinary job of elegantly combining historical data and theory, mostly from science studies. Particularly impressive is his ability to present a theoretically fortified argument with very little heavy discussion of theory. He is like a skilled bartender who slips something very strong, but at first undetectable, into every drink. . . . A first rate book that expertly combines historical geography, history of geography, and philosophy of science."

Jonathan M. Smith | Journal of Regional Science

"A pioneering study of the Enlightenment and its expanding perceptions of space and place. . . . It is thoroughly reseaached and well written."

Deninis Reinhartz | Imago Mundi

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1          Introduction: The Enlightenment—Questions of Geography
            The Enlightenment—Questions of Definition
            Where Was the Enlightenment? Questions of Geography
PART I            Geographies of the Enlightenment
2          The Enlightenment in National Context
            National Enlightenments?
            Enlightenment Margins?
3          Above and beyond the Nation: Cosmopolitan Networks
            The Enlightenment as a Republic of Letters
            Book Geographies: Translating and Receiving Enlightenment Knowledge
            Artifacts and Instruments: Collecting and Displaying the Enlightenment
4          Doing Enlightenment: Local Sites and Social Spaces
            The Enlightenment Locally: Sites of Practice
            Improving Spaces: Learned Academies and Scientific Societies
            Talking Places: Coffeehouses, Pubs, and Salons
PART II           Geographical Knowledge and the Enlightenment World
5          Exploring, Traveling, Mapping
            Encountering and Imagining
            Mapping and Inscribing
            Envisioning and Publicizing
6          Encountering the Physical World
            Putting the Earth to Shape
            Ordering the World of Plants
            Of Flood, Fire, and a Dynamic Earth
            On Oceans, Climate, and Meteorology
7          Geographies of Human Difference
            Physical, Moral, Natural? Explaining the World’s Human Geography
            Conjectural Histories, Actual Geographies: Stadial Theory and Human “Progress”
PART III          Geography in the Enlightenment
8          Geography and the Book
            Geographies of the Encyclopédie
            Geography’s Books and Textual Traditions
            Enlightenment Geography and National Identity: Jedidiah Morse, American Geography, and the New Republic
9          Geography in Practice
            Mapping and Measuring: Mathematical Cosmography, Military Geography, and the Capacity of the State
            Geographies of the Enlightenment Map World
            Diseases, Quadrupeds, and Moral Topography: The Environment for Medical Geography
10        Spaces and Forms of Geographical Sociability
            Knowing Places: Geography in the Learned Academies
            Teaching Spaces: Geography in Enlightenment Universities
            Geography’s Public Places
            Domestic Geographies and Practical Instruction
11        Conclusion: The Enlightenment—Questions of Geography
            The Enlightenment—Geographically
            The Enlightenment’s Future Geographies
            The Enlightenment—Our Geographical Contemporary

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