Blogs > Liberty and Power > Because The World Is Round It Turns Me On

Mar 29, 2005 4:56 pm


Because The World Is Round It Turns Me On



[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

In the past I've griped about Jared Diamond's excessively deterministic approach to the influence of geography on history. Today Gene Callahan tackles the same subject, from a Collingwoodian/Misesian/Oakeshottian perspective, in The Diamond Fallacy.

To Gene's excellent article I just want to append some quotations -- two from Collingwood and two from Mises:

It is not nature as such and in itself (where nature means the natural environment) that turns man's energies here in one direction, there in another: it is what man makes of nature by his enterprise, his dexterity, his ingenuity, or his lack of these things. The 'unplumbed, salt, estranging sea', as a nineteenth-century poet called it, echoing with some servility this eighteenth-century conception, estranges only those people who have not learned to sail on it. When they have discovered the art of navigation, and become reasonably skilled mariners, the sea no longer estranges, it unites. It ceases to be an obstacle, it becomes a highway. Beset with danger, no doubt …. but no human being has ever put safety first and stayed at home if he thought, as who has ever not thought? that something he wanted was waiting for him at the other end of the road. And if he did, it would still be his thought about the dangers, not the dangers themselves, that kept him at home.
(Collingwood, Principles of History, pp. 93-4)

When people … speak (as … Montesquieu, for example, did) of the influence of geography or climate on history, they are mistaking the effect of a certain person's or people's conception of nature on their actions for an effect of nature itself. The fact that certain people live, for example, on an island has in itself no effect on their history; what has an effect is the way they conceive that insular position; whether for example they regard the sea as a barrier or as a highway to traffic. Had it been otherwise, their insular position, being a constant fact, would have produced a constant effect on their historical life; whereas it will produce one effect if they have not mastered the art of navigation, a different effect if they have mastered it better than their neighbours, a third if they have mastered it worse than their neighbours, and a fourth if every one uses aeroplanes.
(Collingwood, The Idea of History, p. 200)

The geographical interpretation of history failed to recognize [that t]he environment works only through the medium of the human mind. … The natural conditions which render skiing a very useful means for traveling were present both in Scandinavia and in the Alps. But the Scandinavians invented the skis, whereas the inhabitants of the Alps did not. For hundreds, nay thousands of years these peasants were closeted during the long winter months in their mountain homes and looked longingly upon the inaccessible villages down in the valleys and upon the unapproachable homesteads of their fellow farmers. But this desire did not activate their inventive spirit. … Different men and the same men at different times respond in a different way to the same stimuli.
(Mises, Money, Method, and the Market Process, p. 290)

To say that man reacts to stimuli and adjusts himself to the conditions of his environment does not provide a satisfactory answer. To the stimulus offered by the English Channel some people have reacted by staying at home; others have crossed it in rowboats, sailing ships, steamers, or, in modern times simply by swimming. Some fly over it in planes; others design schemes for tunneling under it.
(Mises, Theory and History, p. 245)
For more on the Collingwood/Mises connection, see my essay R. G. Collingwood: Historicist or Praxeologist?.

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chris l pettit - 3/30/2005

In many of your arguments I hear echos of Locke's reasoning for allowing for the waging of war on the Native Americans by the colonists...because they were not using the land effectively and were not "mixing their labour with the land."

One question...why give the human kind so much credit and denigrate nature, the environment, and geographical significane? Are we that arrogant? One can make the case that humanity is the lowest of all creatures because of our inability to live in the system of interdependence that pervades all of nature...and one can also support the contention that man is the highest of all creatures (that have thus far been discovered). It is not that I agree with Diamond...indeed, i support many of your complaints regarding him...I just find that you are a bit to vehement in your own ideological positions and sometimes fail to see the interaction between the utility of both viewpoints. Social environment, physical environment, human innovation, geography, and many other factors must be taken into consideration...none being any more important than the next.

CP