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Placing the Enlightenment

Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason

The Enlightenment was the age in which the world became modern, challenging tradition in favor of reason, freedom, and critical inquiry. While many aspects of the Enlightenment have been rigorously scrutinized—its origins and motivations, its principal characters and defining features, its legacy and modern relevance—the geographical dimensions of the era have until now largely been ignored. Placing the Enlightenment contends that the Age of Reason was not only a period of pioneering geographical investigation but also an age with spatial dimensions to its content and concerns.

Investigating the role space and location played in the creation and reception of Enlightenment ideas, Charles W. J. Withers draws from the fields of art, science, history, geography, politics, and religion to explore the legacies of Enlightenment national identity, navigation, discovery, and knowledge. Ultimately, geography is revealed to be the source of much of the raw material from which philosophers fashioned theories of the human condition.

Lavishly illustrated and engagingly written, Placing the Enlightenment will interest Enlightenment specialists from across the disciplines as well as any scholar curious about the role geography has played in the making of the modern world.

Author Information

Charles W. J. Withers is professor of historical geography at the University of Edinburgh. He is the coeditor of Geography and Enlightenment and Geography and Revolution, both published by the University of Chicago Press.


"An excellent contribution not only to geography's history, but also to the history of science....An insightful study that confirms the valuable contributions of geographical practices."
— Choice

What does it mean to ‘think geographically’ about the Enlightenment? Charles W. J. Withers proposes a complex answer in his ambitious work of historiographical synthesis....Readers will be stimulated to develop their own reflections on the relations between geography and history by Withers’s book, an accomplished work of historiography in the geographical mode. As a survey of recent literature, its extensive footnotes and bibliography will serve readers for years to come, though its coverage is limited to the natural and human sciences, ignoring other realms of Enlightenment culture such as politics, religion, literature, philosophy and the arts. The book is imaginatively illustrated, with a large selection of maps and other images that show how geography was studied and taught. Most of all, historians of science should be grateful to Withers for having made the work done in our field so central to his attempt to reconfigure scholarly understanding of this critical historical period."
— Jan Golinski, British Journal for the History of Science

"[Withers suggests] that geography was essential to various facets of the Enlightenment project and is fundamentally relevant to understanding the Enlightenment historically. This book may be usefully read together with the immensely stimulating collection Geography and Enlightenment."
— Larry Wolff, American Historical Review

"Withers has done an extraordinary job of elegantly combining historical data and theory, mostly from science studies. Particularly impressive is his ability to present a theoretically fortified argument with very little heavy discussion of theory. He is like a skilled bartender who slips something very strong, but at first undetectable, into every drink. . . . A first rate book that expertly combines historical geography, history of geography, and philosophy of science."
— Jonathan M. Smith, Journal of Regional Science

"A pioneering study of the Enlightenment and its expanding perceptions of space and place. . . . It is thoroughly reseaached and well written."
— Deninis Reinhartz, Imago Mundi


Audience: Professional and scholarly;