The mountain doesn’t just get in the way

In a largely philosophical discussion of ontology and perceptions of existence, Smith and Mark drive at some of the underlying and fundamental assumptions of cognition and geography. With the framing question “Do mountains exist?” (also the article’s title), the authors tear apart understandings of existence—boundedness, independence, universal acceptance—and conclude that how we approach that simple question lies at the base of how we perceive, and therefore visualize our environment.

This article is a fairly fascinating discussion that lends a psychology, as well as a philosophy, to GIS, a field that is largely empirical and filled with concepts we take for granted. For instance, the authors write, “Maps…rarely if ever show the boundaries of mountains at all…[capturing] an important feature of mountains…namely that they are objects whose boundaries are marked by gradedness of vagueness” (Smith et al. 2002). For something to exist, does it have to be independent, bounded, and universally accepted as such? We know that there is a mountain in a given place, but can we easily demarcate its boundaries? If not, can we truly say that the mountain exists or that it is a feature of the surrounding landscape?

The truth is that in an empirical analysis, i.e, for policy makers, these notions matter immensely, but from a geographic and informal perspective, we can understand the mountain as an object in a larger system. Thus, the mountain can exist, but its exact location does not matter and perhaps should not be of primary concern in a visualization of the landscape.

– JMonterey

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