Positivism, revisited

Sorry in advance,  this is a long one.


Smith & Mark, “Do Mountains Exist? Towards an Ontology of Landforms”

Smith & Mark discuss the role of ontology in answering a fundamentally metaphysical question – do mountains exist? Central to their analysis is the ability to algorithmically describe and therefore categorize the geospatial world. Smith & Mark attempt to bridge geography and philosophy in this article to yield a geospatial ontology to support spatial reasoning and the nuances of natural language, however, their article simply comes across as a plug for positivist science.

On a philosophical level, Smith & Mark fail to place their ontological discussion into the mid-late 20th century discourse on existentialism and phenomenology. In this respect, the most pernicious argument they make is the existence of common-sense, universal to all cultures and intrinsic to all human beings (7). Further, they contend that common-sense vis-à-vis primary theory “must be compatible with the results of science” (8). This conclusion diametrically opposes the work of theorists such as Edward Said and Michel Foucault who note that knowledge systems are subject to complex political relationships of subordination and domination. From the relativist perspective, science is no exception to the power struggles of knowledge systems. From their logical, positivist science standpoint it is understandable that Smith & Mark make the conclusions that they do, however, they cannot simply brush over fundamental philosophical discourses.

From a geographical standpoint, Smith & Mark utilize and reinforce a narrative that portrays humanity and nature separable phenomena. By this account, pristine nature exists in the absence of human interaction. Smith & Mark do not acknowledge that many geographers, anthropologists, historians, and scientists reject this view. Political ecology, an interdisciplinary community of practice, is devoted to showcasing how policy makers seeking political gain often exploit the pristine myth. For a case in point example, see “Misreading the African Landscape” by Fairhead and Leach (1996).

Finally, the so-called “geophysical reality” of Mount Everest is yet another straw man argument constructed by Smith & Mark. Elementary geomorphological theory immediately contradicts that the “exactly this shape and material constitution [of Mount Everest], was there many millennia before humans came along” (14). Geographers know that this is not true even on a daily basis do the continuous, simultaneous, and dynamic processes of orogeny, weathering, and erosion. Additionally, a growing number of geomorphologists consider how humans influence geomorphological systems e.g. how dams affect river systems, how anthropogenic climate change is affecting glacial melting, etc.

Smith & Mark make the important recognition that ontology is inherent facet of scientific endeavour, however, I believe their allegiance to positivism is flawed and outdated.



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