Barry Smith and David Mark provide an interesting article that gets at the ontology of geographic features in space, but we should carefully heed the authors discussion of how the definitions of geographic features vary from community to community. As “Madskiier” points out, the authors draw a distinction between primary theory (or a basic common-sense perception) of objects versus a secondary theory (that reflects diverse beliefs) that allows for processing of ideas like continuous fields.
It’s in discussing ideas like continuous fields that the authors make clear how little weight certain geographic terms have when looking at tangible reality. For example, continuous fields thought of only in terms of Western contour maps may not exist for cultures who don’t possess such a map-making tradition. Take another idea proposed by Smith and Mark: did Mt. Everest exist before the first human laid eyes upon it? Mt. Everest, itself a blob of elevation, the authors might say, existed long before maps. But the concept of Mt. Everest as a delineated object, perhaps, began existing only when it was drawn on a map. Yet the fact that primary theory allows mountains to be map-created “objects whose boundaries are marked by gradedness or vagueness” (13) doesn’t make mountains a reality. In fact, for those who haven’t seen Mt. Everest (or cultures, people or places for whom real, tangible “mountains do not exist” (13) ) it might be difficult to understand a map portraying one. Confused?
Consider the author’s discussion of geomorphology’s role as a science in studying landforms as supposed “natural” objects (17). Given the fact that landforms are not objects with discrete boundaries except insofar as humans define them, they do not exist except as a concept. By suggestion, the authors question whether or not geomorphology can truly be considered a science. Still confused?
Let’s try examining what I consider the main thesis of the author’s ontological arguments. Smith and Mark posit that many geographic features exist only insofar as human communities have “projected  speech practices onto the surface of the Earth in such a way that they mark out certain territory with a certain shape and material constitution” (14). In effect, most of the geographic constructs we learn as children such as river, hill, valley, mountain – as the author points out – are simply human constructs of given features which we make into an object. As the authors note, “our common-sense beliefs are readily translated from one language to another, and judgements expressing such beliefs are marked by a widespread unforced agreement” (8). By learning certain concepts as babes, we are reinforcing them as reality (one might argue, perceptual reality), according to the authors.
So, does a mountain actually exist? Sure, insomuch as the term mountain describes what “actually exists in reality — or more precisely in some part of reality that is relevant to human perception and action” (11). Of course, this then begets the question of what is a mountain exactly to someone who has always lived on the flat plains of Kansas and never seen one firsthand? Or, better yet, could an Eskimo describe the category/object of landforms known as a desert after a lifetime living amongst snow and ice?
In this sense, Smith and Mark’s article stems from a long-line of critical theory first suggested by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida who originated the ideas of deconstructionism. Instead of asking about mountains, Derrida might have questioned whether the word “tree” means the same thing to a man from a dense, tropical jungle as a man from the Northern boreal forests of Canada. Since both men could correctly picture a tree but arrive at startlingly different objects, what does this say about the nature of the tree as an object? Or, in Mark and Smith’s terms, of less-defined objects such as mountains?