Landscape as Object of Scientific Enquiry

IN 1925 CARL SAUER advanced the idea of landscape as a “static, determinate object of scientific enquiry”.[i] However, eventually even those geographers keen to develop landscape as a “strictly scientific term” found it necessary “to recognize the subjective meaning implied by artistic and poetic usage of landscape”.[ii]

Cultural geography was an attempt to recognise the affective dimension of landscape. However some geographers argued that this was insufficient because it ignored the symbolic dimensions of landscape.[iii]


COSGROVE ARGUED that landscape was an ideological concept; indeed, with respect to ‘landscape’, “we are dealing with an ideologically-charged and very complex cultural product”.[iv]

During the 1970s several geographers began to reorient the subject away from the social sciences and towards the humanities.[v] Humanistic geography examined the philosophical premises of geographical inquiry “at a time when the discipline was still preoccupied with technique and method” rather than with more fundamental questions of meaning, or epistemology.[vi] There was also a focus on landscape, on ideas of Nature and on human consciousness itself within the longer tradition of human inquiry.

[i] Carl Sauer, (1925) ‘The Morphology of Landscape’ (University of California Publications in Geography 2), 19-54. See Peter Jackson, (1989) Maps of Meaning – An Introduction to Cultural Geography (London: Unwin Hyman), 13. ‘Landscape’ was defined as ‘the unit concept of geography’, a ‘peculiarly geographic association of facts’. Genetic morphology was used in historical, cultural and physical geography, all of which have employed the landscape concept extensively.

[ii] Denis E. Cosgrove (1984) Social and Symbolic Landscape, 17. Cosgrove refers to Carl Sauer’s 1926 printing of ‘The Morphology of Landscape’ reprinted in J. Leighly (ed.), Land and Life: Selections from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer (University of California Press, 1963). Cosgrove argues that “Carl Sauer (1926) … acknowledges … that there remains an aspect of meaning in landscape which lies ‘beyond science’, the understanding of which cannot be reduced to formal processes”(p.17).

[iii] Ibid, 17-18. Peter Jackson (1989) Maps of Meaning, is in agreement. According to Jackson, cultural geographers who followed Sauer adopted an unnecessarily truncated view of their subject and confined themselves to mapping the distribution of culture traits in the landscape. (p.19). Jackson argues that an extreme version of this disciplinary myopia is found in Wagner and Mikesell’s introduction to their very influential Readings in Cultural Geography (1962). Since the 1970s, this Sauerian view of cultural geography has been extended in new directions.

[iv] Cosgrove (1984)Social and Symbolic Landscape, 11.

[v] Most notable in this regard was Ley and Samuels (eds.) Humanistic Geography (London: Croom Helm, 1978).

[vi] Jackson (1989) Maps of Meaning, 20.

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