Placing the Enlightenment Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason
by Charles W. J. Withers
University of Chicago Press, 2007
Cloth: 978-0-226-90405-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-90407-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226904078.001.0001


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.


Charles W. J. Withers is professor of historical geography at the University of Edinburgh. He is the coeditor of Geography and Enlightenment and Geography and Revolution, both published by the University of Chicago Press.


"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."
— Choice

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


List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments

1 Introduction: The Enlightenment—Questions of Geography

The Enlightenment—Questions of Definition

Where Was the Enlightenment? Questions of Geography

Part One: 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 Two 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 Three 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