Often, we tend to think of geography as the study of climate zones and soil types. There could not be a bigger understatement. Geography, if one was to go into the origins of the concept, or etymology, literally means ‘writing about the world’ – (geo=world;graphy=writing). Initially, and most directly, what we understand by ‘world’ is the very physical connotation, of the world as planet earth. But even if we were to stick to everyday understandings, the idea of world is much more nuanced than a mere synonym for the physical topography we inhabit. The idea of world has psychological connotations. Take the commonplace phrases: which world is he living in; or, are you living in your own world. In the complexity that is human language, the word world signifies both a physical and a mental idea, and that, in essence, is the intersection on which our existences must place themselves.
I use the plural, existences rather than existence, because that is the nuance that the complexity of the idea we are exploring points us towards. Naturally, one should ask the question, if the idea of a world is so rooted in individual perception, does that mean there are as many worlds as there are individuals who perceive it, or, that, or whatever it is that we gain access to through our senses and understand through our mental faculties. In a broad sense, yes. But if we think more closely, and more widely, perhaps not.
How do we make sense of our reality, around us, what we see, what we observe?
Observation, perception, is raw data, which is completely bio-chemical in nature, and, in a direct sense, we have no immediate way of accessing it. We can use instruments, of course. Any assortment of scans, images, computer models. But all our ways of knowing the functions of our bodies are, if we come to think of it, indirect and representational. We can only look at images of what our bodies might be doing, inside, very, very secretly. The only access we have have to the inner workings of our bodies is, again, indirectly, apart from the bias categories of pleasure and pain, and their higher order manifestations in emotion, is, ultimately, language.
Language is not the direct expression of bodily states. It is a reasoned communication of experience transformed into thought. We often wonder about whether animals think. The plain answer is no. Animals have experiences, which might be more intense, at times, than experiences of many human beings, but animals do not think. Only human beings think because thought can only be expressed in language. Human beings are the only animals on earth that have the capability or transforming thought into language. Other higher animals, like dolphins, whales and some primates, even some birds, might be able to make complex sounds, but none, apart from humans have language.
Humans share their experiences through language, and it is through generations of such sharing, that we create shared ideas of the worlds we inhabit. Human beings gathered in the same place might feel the same discomforts, cold, hunger, warmth, safety or desire. But it is only when we share these experiences that we create the idea of home or the wilderness. Human beings create their inhabited, co-habitated worlds through language and the sharing of languages, that is, conversation.
Through generations and generations, such sharing manifests itself into ethnicities, religions, tribes and even nations. But the root of all identifications of belonging among human beings is the experience in the mind of the individual of what is around him and where he fits in. Of course, families play an important part in socialising individuals into roles they are supposed to perform as brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, but, in the long run, no role can be imposed unless it is actually experienced. Families have their logic in love and care, tribes and nations in belonging.
But, ultimately, it is the experience expressing itself into reality.
Geography, as a discipline that has become more nuanced over the past century, needs to evolve into a study of these experiences. And, this, truly, is the direction in which geographers have been leading into since the last few decades of the 20th century. Geography is much more than the study of forests and soils and rainfall and vegetation. It is the study of how human being live where they live and how they share with each other the experiences of their location in space and time conjectures. Through the ages human beings tell stories about their homes, their travels and their hopes for better futures. We often divide each into narrow academic boundaries of literature, history and politics. But, in the study of geography, we have a single discipline that allows us to tie it all together into one human story. In more ways than one, geography is the one discipline that is truly interdisciplinary.
If we make such a nuanced understanding the basis of studying a total, long scale world history, we could do much to challenge the permanence of the narrow domestic walls into which we divide ourselves. The walls, alas, seem to high. But only, perhaps, because we refuse to build the equipment to break our mental sieges. A transdisciplinary method of understanding history is, therefore, of the ultimate human importance.