Perceptual Geography

TODAY, WITHIN THE GEOGRAPHER’S profession, the concept of landscape is recognized as a changing and mobile one. Moreover, amongst geographers landscape is increasingly regarded as a perceptual concept and a multiplicity of landscapes are recognised. The idea of landscape as a ‘way of seeing’ has overtaken the positivist idea of landscape as reducible to a series of objective physical traits. As Cosgrove has remarked:

“Landscape is not merely the world we see, it is a construction, a composition of the world. Landscape is a way of seeing the world.”[i]

And Yi-Fu Tuan notes whereas “in the early 1960s a new way of doing human-cultural geography emerged… it now goes generally by the name of perceptual”.[ii]

In the 1960s perceptual geography came of age. David Lowenthal, for example, argued that :

“Essential perception of the world , in short, embraces every way of looking at it, conscious and unconscious, blurred and distinct, objective and subjective, inadvertent and deliberate, literal and schematic. Perception itself is never unalloyed: sensing, thinking, feeling, and believing are simultaneous independent processes.”[iii]

[i] Cosgrove(1984) Social and Symbolic Landscape, 13.

[ii] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Language and the Making of Place: A Narrative-Descriptive Approach’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v.81, 4 (1991)’, 697.

[iii] David Lowenthal, ‘Geography, Experience, and Imagination: Towards a Geographical Epistemology’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v. 51, no.3, September (1961), 251.

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]

“Ideologically-Charged”

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.