ABSTRACT

Ellen Churchill Semple’s influential 1911 geography book, Influences of Geographic Environment, is most readily associated, for better or worse, with the development of environmental determinism, the dominant paradigm in academic and popular geography between the 1890s and 1930s in western Europe, England, and especially America. 1 This paradigm, called anthropogeography by those geographers like Semple who advanced it, stressed the importance of a variety of environmental influences in shaping the development of modern-day human societies and has since been subjected to heavy critique for a variety of reasons. Overlooked in Semple’s work, however, is its advocacy for treating space as central to understanding the human condition and for prioritizing geography as a discipline over history, sociology, or anthropology. Early in its pages, Influences offers an extended discussion of geographical influence as a key but missing substrate in other disciplines, and uncannily prefigures the now familiar call of the 1990s for a “spatial turn” in humanities and social sciences research. Semple makes the case that “all these sciences, together with history so far as history undertakes to explain the causes of events, fail to reach a satisfactory solution of their problems largely because the geographic factor which enters into them all has not been thoroughly analyzed” (Influences 2). Simply agitating for full inclusion of geography’s methods in other fields does not go far enough, however. Semple appeals to Kant’s assertion that “Geography lies at the basis of history” in order to situate geography as a prime mover of all knowledge, which she reasons is true because “all historical development takes place on the earth’s surface, and therefore is more or less molded by its geographic setting” (Influences 10). History is largely a “succession of geographical factors embodied in events” (Influences 11). Other disciplines like sociology are similarly wanting, with most of its analysis tending to “treat man as if he were in some way detached from the earth’s surface” and thus remaining blind to the way that humanity in the modern age has “grown into every foot of its own soil, exploited every geographic advantage, utilized its geographic location to enrich itself by international trade, and when possible, to absorb outlying territories by means of colonies” (Influences 53).