Les Annales

Geography in the light of the Human Sciences

By Fernand Braudel

Source: Annales, 1951 Vol 6, no. 1;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2009.

Important books are rare and courageous books even more so. We thus greet with gratitude the lively and daring essay that Maurice Le Lannou has just published on “Human Geography” in the Bibliotheque de Philosophie Scientifique with the familiar red cover of Flammarion. We here have once again the opening of a great debate that is certainly occurring at an opportune moment.

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No one will deny that there is currently (in France especially, but elsewhere as well) a serious crisis in so-called “human” geography. At the French level minor reasons for this can be guessed at: the replacement of those geographers who are disciples of Vidal de la Blache by a new generation that is provisionally less illustrious, the bankruptcy of methods and points of view that were yesterday still valid, the rapid increase in knowledge, the increase in a physical geography that doesn’t cease to find its spoils in the progress of neighboring sciences... Reasons even more minor still: the constituting of geography, graced with a special degree, in too-closed off a small scholarly world. Add to this the habit of demanding that the geographer, this “jack of all trades,” show himself to be “physical” as much as “human.” But the physical is not the human... “Too many young geographers,” one of our colleagues (an illustrious teacher) confided in us, “are systematic.” Too bad for human geography and the real man, this complex always struck with contingencies, this man who must be observed with so much care, and who Maurice Le Lannou restores to us, often with talent; man as he is in marvelous Vidalian thought, at the dawn of French geography...

French reasons for the crisis; minor reasons, we said, pretexts for petty quarrels and mean, unfair language for which I personally have no taste. But the crisis is not only French. Even more, it isn’t only the lot of a human geography that is desperately young, stammering, and which is growing poorly. Is there not as well a crisis in history, a crisis in sociology and political economy? Life today once again puts in question all human sciences, united to each other, inextricably mixed together. Geographers are attentive to what they obstinately grab up from the sciences of nature and man (from the latter more than the former, incidentally), but nevertheless geography itself is pillaged, assimilated in turn by the conquering human sciences. Think of the geographic history that we have attempted to promote and to baptize geo-history; think of the demo-geography of Abel Chatelain, not to mention geopolitics, which it is too easy to judge based on the deformations of the Munich school; or the geographic economy that it is being developed, or the geographic sociology that is being created without saying its name, even if it is only in the admirable investigations of Gabriel le Bras on religious practice in France; think of the geonomy which Maurice Rouse is striving to create without sufficient obstinacy.

All the creative force of geography has been diffused. I don’t want to say that it has been impoverished, emptied of substance. But all its borders – if borders there are – are dismantled, transgressed. Is this then the moment to go backwards, to speak along with Maurice Le Lannou of the autonomy of geography, of its unique object, of its distinct vocation? For such is the goal of this combative book, without it stating or wanting to state this, without its placing the debate within the general crisis of the human sciences or occupying itself with the rethinking of the new framework in general, and thus liberating itself from the dearest particular heritages and dangerous professional formations... How should we greet this return to order, to clear and peremptory definitions, this desire to once again surround oneself with bars and to reconstruct fences?


The essay is quickly read and is designedly simple, direct and colorful, addressing itself to specialists as much as the wider public, for whom geography is voyages with stopovers, landscapes in color, and itineraries that are not too disconcerting. Since polemics are not his strong point, the author gives wide room to the most varied ideas. With generosity he puts forth and makes shine the ideas of others, those of Vidal de la Blache, Lucien Febvre, Maximilien Sorr, and André Cholley. In the case of the latter he has brought together judicious citations with articulations that are important for his reasoning. More than a philosophical essay or, as the author says, an essay in method, the work is often a confession; by which I mean the attentive reflection of a worker on his own craft within the framework of his own experiences. It is with his home as the starting point (and he explains this with kindness) that Maurice Le Lannou imagines the universe and sees the man of universal geography through the lens of his native Armorica, the Veneto Giulia where he “formerly had the charge of assisting the builders of the world to light their lanterns,” the Sardinia about which he wrote a concise and precious thesis whose merits Marc Bloch spoke of in this very place, and finally Brazil, where a recent voyage allowed him to both feel foreign and become familiar with the place.

There are many occasions for the example to come to the rescue of the argument and to hide it a bit. Especially since our guide, in keeping with the incomparable tradition of the French geographic school, knows how to describe and suggest. Striking examples illuminate the text. With all this, should we be surprised that this book is lacking in the inspiration, the breadth, the complexity of philosophical language? Geographers or historians, as soon as we philosophize on our craft we are betrayed by our concrete and too clear. An ineluctable rule: this rapid book hides its ideas or, what is the same thing, clarifies them with too much cleverness. From which flows the need for an effort in order to truly grasp it. If we are scrupulous, we read it once, twice, or three times before grasping its exact and rapid measure.

Everything, unfortunately and fortunately, is not clear, and the peremptory definitions – for which, from experience, we at the “Annales” have no taste – change nothing. We read at the beginning of the book with some fear: “A clear definition of human geography is not particularly difficult to establish: human geography is the science of ‘man as an inhabitant’.” Any intelligence that is even slightly critical and without a taste for quibbling would hesitate before each of these simple words: science, man, inhabitant... Science? But what, dear friend, is a science incapable of rising to the general, to laws, to tendentious rules, to experimentation, to precision... See what you yourself say on the subject of a general human geography when, in repentance, you write: “I nevertheless don’t think that we must suppress general human geography, but I would like to put it back in its place. “ So be it. There is no more a general human geography than there is a philosophy of history. And so, so much for a geographic science. You then say “man” instead, I imagine, of saying “men.” But by this must we truly understand collectivities, societies, economies, civilizations; and how should we differentiate between human geography and social geography? As for the inhabitant. Substantive or present participle, the word leaves us undecided. Is it a matter of the man who inhabits today or who inhabited yesterday? A question posed without any wickedness, but by a slightly worried historian. And what, precisely, is inhabiting? “It is,” you say, “living on a part of the planet, drawing from it what is needed to satisfy the nutritional needs of existence and, in a variable measure, a certain number of acquired needs or superfluous commodities.” Let us be reassured and not criticize without equity; Maurine Le Lannou will spend many pages of his book clarifying his definition, or rather enriching it, and in doing so he obscures it when defending his “man as an inhabitant “ I remember a renowned economist who defined political economy as “the study of exchanges in an onerous way.” Everything was defined. All that remained was to specify the onerous; the word had concentrated within itself all the obscurity of the debate. And so with “man as an inhabitant.”


There are three parts to this book, unequally developed but strongly connected. The first, brief and a bit traditional (“Personality of Human Geography”) could be entitled: “On the Frontier of Human Geography.” The second, under the title “Complexity of Human Geography,” shows the internal contradictions and difficulties, if not impossibilities, of the discipline put in question. The third, “Vocation of Human Geography,” far and away the best, assembles, from among all tasks, those that are most appropriate for the vocation and effectiveness of the geographer.

It is pointless to say this at length: the first of these three parts is the one that was the least convincing. Following our guide, let us accept that geography is, without any possible discussion, the study of man as an inhabitant and that it has its borders. Restricting himself to the essential, Maurice le Lannou specifies its limits with ethnology, sociology, and physical geography. Each time, what he takes away from these sciences of man is, if I am not mistaken, the human habitat which, in the rest of the book, he will more frequently call the geographical environment. Not the natural environment, but taking this as the starting point the human environment that man has created and that he continues to create or maintain. That this human environment is the zone par excellence of research in human geography, that man isn’t caught in what was yesterday called the natural environment, this is doubtless one of the great affirmations of this book and its program. But is not this human environment also the object of ethnology (if not, what would cultural zones correspond to?), or sociology (if not, what is to be done with that social morphology which, under the name of the material envelope of the social, also shows an interest in the living environment in which man is inserted?). I don’t think that we can simply say that ethnology has historical preoccupations “except for this narrow strip of modern civilization” and add to this disputable remark of Leroi-Gourhan’s: “this narrow strip is geography’s domain.” These out of date partitions and tips of the hat from specialist to specialist do nothing but obscure the debate.

But let us continue. Let us suppose that Maurice Le Lannou is correct in his three essays in boundary marking in the light of ethnology, sociology, and physical geography. With all that, has the fence been completed? Nothing is said of the borders with political economy, with the ecology that American sociology dreams of, with statistics, with demography, with history. These problems are evoked, but are not treated in the course of the book. For history – in regard to which the author manifests a lively sympathy – the debate is badly begun. I admit that I am perplexed when I read that history has the same object as geography, but that we work on the past and geographers on the present. What a fallacious distinction! We historians protest against this view of history. The present also interests us: the present is history. But what should we say about a geography thus situated in unstable current events, in their false duration, in their false factual lesson? Let us change the shelf on which is placed the 1905 “Picardie” of Albert Demangeon. In truth, Maurice Le Lannou cannot possibly adhere to this disconcerting declaration. But his desire to limit human geography impels him to find solutions whatever the cost.

He is much more inspired when he demonstrates the close relationship between the two geographies, physical and human (though I don’t especially like his constant mentions of the unity of geography). But the entire chapter is excellent: Maurice Le Lannou strongly states what is necessary (and also what is abusive and dangerous) in the union of the physical and the human, as much by what he suggests as by what he affirms. After having read him one surprises oneself in liking Jean Brunhes who, as a human geographer, at least went from man to things and not, like the “physicians” from things to man, getting bogged down in the realties of physical geography. Such a chapter on its own would justify an entire book and ensures its high quality. But it must be noted that this time Maurice Le Lannou doesn’t barricade himself. He proposes a customs union, and this is better.


In the second part we find ourselves at home in our human geography. What are we going to find in these lands? Our guide, in regard to the “complexity” that serves as a general title, will indicate to us what it isn’t and what it can’t be, and then, though not yet clearly, what it can be. To be sure, neither fatalism nor determinism à la Ratzel , which would strongly and simply connect the physical and the human, nor the global determinism which Lucien Febvre definitively put in question in his “Terre et l’évolution humaine.” Nor is it the seeking for laws or rules: Maurice Le Lannou is too happy to criticize geographical pseudo-laws (on islands made by sailors, or terrains which, permeable or not, bring with them or don’t the dispersion or the concentration of the habitat) to believe in a possible “general human geography” which would be the pendant to the classic “Traité de Géographie générale” of Emmanuel de Martonne. At the very least , the arranging of a vocabulary would not do for him. Defining words, seeing them clearly: always the same chimeras and traps! To be sure, but how can one express the sympathy one feels for the author in this key and difficult passage, where his attack makes no headway, retreats, starts up again, where he aims to be objective, honest, prudent...No there is no general human geography; there barely exist frameworks for classification and research: those of Jean Brunhes, pioneer of the first hours, unusable today, or those laid out by Albert Demangeon. There is nothing that says that the classifying of our knowledge will be done with ease.

What then remains? The study of the geographic environment, by which I mean the environment of living man, ceaselessly modified and arranged by him, and not the natural environment. Nature is almost left out of this book dedicated to man. But how should we study this geographic environment, whose complexity, fantasies, aberrances, and inertia we are told of (these remarks, linked to the ideas of Maximilien Serre are remarkable); this environment, whose overflowing they are happy to demonstrate to us, poorly hides and outwits the natural imperatives. And is it, incidentally, the major problem of human geography, or perhaps the only one, of which the others are only particular cases?


These are the stakes of the third part. Its dense, closely reasoned text demands all of our attention. Here is the heart of the undertaking.

In substance, our author said that there is no general human geography, at least in the immediate. If geography wants to be independent and active it has no choice but to turn again to tasks that are less ambitious, more within its scope. In the geography of Maurice Le Lannou man will only be touched upon in a specific fashion. And does this measured ambition require frameworks for research and meaning? The “natural” region: the adjective makes our guide smile. He prefers the “human” region. For Maurice Le Lannou, like Jean Brunhes, intends to use man, his collectivities as his starting point in order to arrive at the regions modeled by him, some urban some rural, the former economic, the latter political. And then he will see in what way these human regions project themselves in space, expand, adhere, producing the human substratum which André Cholle speaks of. It is only when we’ve gone beyond this meticulous inventory that we will see the laws of the human and the physical where Maurice Le Lannou instinctively and nostalgically re-places the consistency, the connections of a determinism that he combats and sorely misses at the same time.

So here we are, as unlucky soldiers would say, in fallback positions prepared in advance: the multiform “human region” oabout which we can say, like the Abbott Chaume de Bourgogne, that we grasp the center, if not the limits. A position whose richness and uncertainty we see more than its solidity. Maurice Le Lannou’s Sardinia, that of his shepherds and peasants, is it a “human” and not a “natural” region? I clearly see what an urban zone might be, and even more a political zone. Maurice Le Lannou has written some excellent pages on today’s state, a factor in the geographic model of the world. But the so-called rural human region? And the silence on what I will call, without excessively fixing my terms, either agrarian civilization or the geography of rural civilizations? What is an economic-geographic region? I fear we aren’t advancing in the fog...

The human region is an old dream. Is the seeking of an appropriate shelter perhaps a weakness, that of habit? For the “historic” region Vidal de la Blache and his disciples have substituted the “human” region. I am afraid that here too this is a falsely convenient framework, a problem falsely alive.


Have I summed up as I wished, and with fairness, this book that I have so fiercely fought? A non-specialist, I confess to not seeing human geography with the same eyes as our colleague from Lyon, which doesn’t mean that I am right and he is wrong. I am grateful to him for having given me in so stark a fashion the feeling of a difference. But I must explain myself now.

For us there are no limited human sciences. Each of them is a door opened on the whole of the social and leads to all rooms and all floors of the house, on condition that the investigator not halt in his march in reverence for his neighboring specialists. Let us use their doors and stairways. What every “social” science has that is unique to it are its points of view and methods. It is, to use one of Ch. Morazé’s favorite ideas, the methods, the techniques of history or geography or political science that are “scientific.” But points of view and techniques are limited weapons. At its base geography is cartography, investigation on the ground, reflection in the light of landscapes. One on our geographer colleagues said to me: “A geographer is an eye,” a way of seeing and understanding the world, men, society, their multiple problems, and not seeing everything and understanding everything: on this we are all in agreement. Except that we add: but also not to just see one sector and not another! For us, the geographic explanation does not concern this thin slice of current time, but all of man’s time. Nor is it strictly concerned with the problem of the substratum or the human habitat. There is not a geographical bark of human problems, to speak in the style of a certain social morphology, a bark which with little difficulty we could skin from social matter itself. With its unique rays, the geographical investigation must with cut through the entire thickness of social questions. This said, our malaise before “man as an inhabitant” – a kind of homo geographicus relative of homo economicus – will be understood. For pity’s sake, give us living, complex, puzzling man as he is... Man, which geography, like all the sciences of the social, must not cut up in slices, however skillful or artistic the cutting.

So we are happy to see geography at work, in the place where the most imperialist of our colleagues don’t always see it: at the heart of all research into the lives of men of the past, the present and the future. If I try, following perhaps ill-informed authors, to connect the populations of okoukes in Atlantic Africa with the old slave routes, as a historian I must carry out a geographical investigation. In the same way, the geographic approach is called for in all the twistings and turnings of social research – or should. I would not hesitate to say that any ethnologist, cultural anthropologist and scholar interested in the history of civilizations who, arriving at a cultural area, doesn’t consider it a natural and human space that must be studied at whatever cost, commits a crime against the intelligence. And many others as well in a thousand other tasks. Henri Pirenne, for example, arriving at the Mediterranean, seeing it open and close to ship traffic but not studying it in its reality, in its physiology, if we can phrase it thus, Henri Pirenne also committed a sin against the intelligence.

How can you want to constitute geography as a scientific nation when all the human sciences, each encroaching on the other, converge towards a common task? We don’t believe that there is an “autonomous” history. The unity of geography, this science (if it is a science) that is growing crookedly, is even more arguable. It can do no better than seeking within itself its methods and tasks: let it specify the former and extend the latter. But it isn’t in the name of its tasks that it will justify itself and flourish: it’s in working on all the construction sites of social research. Let it articulate its teachings and research as they relate to the unity of that higher research. The major problem is not the “human region,” but the participation of human geography in the collective research into the social. It is to these researches as a whole that we must attach our particular triangulations. It is in them that we must seek the living problems of our studies. Any problematic detached from the whole is for the moment condemned to be fruitless, or barely fruitful.

I know: for geography this connection is difficult, more difficult than for others. Like sociology, history is naturally a global view of society. But all the other sciences of the social are equally condemned to be global or not to be at all. The economic, the historic, the geographic are all diffused in the whole of the social. I will say this anyway without, being afraid of being the interpreter of my point of view alone here at the “Annales”: every partitioning of the social sciences is a regression. There is not a history on its own, a geography on its own, a political economy on its own: there is a group of connected studies whose bundle should not be broken up.