A Salutary Reminder...

Matthew Edney

I was reminded by Waldo Tobler's recent passing of a collection of essays on the "philosophy of maps" that Bill Bunge collected and published in 1968 as the 12th discussion paper of the Michigan Interuniversity Community of Mathematical Geographers. Jeremy Crampton originally told me about this publication in 2015, and John Hessler blogged about it in 2016, so I revisited it out of curiosity.

I cannot say that I have been a huge fan of Tobler's work. Several friends and colleagues have commented on the debt they owe Tobler, but I don't do the kind of highly mathematical work that he did. Moreover, I have always thought that his application of complex mathematical analysis to early maps (as Tobler 1966) was thoroughly misplaced; why should we evaluate early maps in ways with tools that contemporaries lacked. In general, the "mathematical geographers" of the 1960s all seem to have been overly committed to an ahistorical conception of maps and mapping as necessarily mathematical and transformational. (With hindsight, this perspective stems only from the Richard Dedekind's formulation of set theory: Sieg and Schlimm 2005). And in my own youthful rebellion, that earlier commitment seems to be unthinking and naive.

I also happen to be dealing right now, in my course on the history of geographical and anthropological thought, with the quantitative/processualist turn, so revisiting Bunge's collection of papers of the "philosophy of maps" was still more appropriate.

I was struck by Bunge's characteristically trenchant comments in his introduction about his predecessors and their unthinking attitudes to "the map":

We have changed the subject, too, from ground where we were the uninitiate—philosophy of science (and how we used to pour over Cohen and Nagel) to ground that is clearly our home territory—The Map. The older geographers, those that were horrified at our initial furious attack on maps as inferior to mathematica1 functionals [see Bunge 1966], had substantial position on their side. But they were and are so religious about their commitment to the map—complete with religious persecutions for those that did not genuflect before the fundamentalist map thumpers—that they practically compelled our revolt. We were provoked. Why did [Richard] Hartshorne's excellent universal methodology ignore maps? Why did the cartographers ignore methodology? All those Leroy Pens and Zipatone and never a philosophical question, What could this mean? Certainly nothing flattering. (Bunge 1968, 1)


I'm reminded about how, when K and I saw a performance of Anthony and Cleopatra at the Globe that was played very broadly with heavy emphasis on all the salacious puns, we watched with great amusement as the school kids around us had a communal epiphany, that others before them had discovered sex. Except now I'm one of those high schoolers.

As an historian, I'm well used to people in the past complaining, sometimes forcefully, about others and their ideas. But it's a revelation when people who one thinks of as intellectually stultified reveal a passion and a frustration that you share.


Bunge, William. 1966. Theoretical Geography. Lund Studies in Geography, Series C (General and Mathematical Geography), 1. 2nd ed. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup for the Department of Geography, Royal University of Lund.

Bunge, William, ed. 1968. The Philosophy of Maps. Michigan Interuniversity Community of Mathematical Geographers, Discussion Paper 12. Detroit: Wayne State University.

Sieg, Wilfried and Dirk Schlimm. 2005. “Dedekind’s Analysis of Number: Systems and Axioms.” Synthese 147, no. 1: 121–70.

Tobler, Waldo R. 1966. “Medieval Distortions: The Projections of Ancient Maps.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 56, no. 2: 351–60.