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  A thesis about the relationship between human culture and the natural environment which claims that the human species has the capacity to choose between a range of possible responses to physical conditions. The doctrine is primarily associated with the French School of Geography as articulated in the writings of Vidal de la Blache and, perhaps even more especially, the historian Lucien Febvre (Buttimer, 1971). It also found favour elsewhere; in Britain possibilist strains are detectable in the early twentieth-century work of Patrick Geddes and H.J. Fleure, while in the United States Carl Sauer\'s insistence on the transforming power of human culture evinces similar influences (cf. Berkeley School).

On the surface at least, possibilism stands in direct contrast to environmental determinism. Febvre, for example, inaugurated his magisterial treatise, A geographical introduction to history, by expanding on the tradition of geographical necessitarianism and contrasting Vidal\'s genres de vie and Michelet\'s earlier historical sketches with what he took to be the rigid and illusory determinism of such figures as Montesquieu, Ratzel and — not without a good deal of philosophical caricature — Victor Cousin. Such schemes, he considered, amounted to little more than formulaic catechisms conducive to an \'attitude of routine and mechanical conservatism\' (Febvre, 1932, p. 27). As he put it in a now justly renowned credo that celebrated the power of human agency: \'There are no necessities, but everywhere possibilities; and man, as master of the possibilities, is the judge of their use. This, by the reversal which it involves, puts man in the first place — man, and no longer the earth, nor the influence of climate, nor the determinant conditions of localities\' (Febvre, 1932, p. 237). In part at least, Febvre\'s concerns arose from the sense that, in environmental determinist mode, geography as a discipline became an \'impudent interloper on ground reserved to economists and sociologists\' disclosing an expansive arrogance based on sweeping but facile declarations of environmental causation (Febvre, 1932, p. 34). The polemical character of this work meant that misrepresentations abounded, not least of which was a persistent failure to appreciate the intellectual subtlety of Victor Cousin (Davie, 1994).

Abstracted from the actual writings of key personalities, the contrast between these two doctrines seems stark. But when the original texts are read it quickly becomes clear that such a theoretical bifurcation is sustainable only insofar as these systems of thought are treated as ideal types. Thus while Patrick Geddes could at times write of the central importance of consciousness and will in the human transformation of the earth, his celebrated Valley Section — which umbilically connected geographical position with settlement cultures — was redolent with the necessitarianism of Edmond Demolins, which was, in turn, derived from Frédéric le Play\'s sociology (cf. le Play Society). And again H.J. Fleure was inclined to interpret evolutionary theory in such a way as to allow for the possibility of environmentally induced, hereditary modifications. Indeed much the same can be said for supposedly archetypal environmental determinists. Thus Ellen C. Semple, while emphasizing the determining power of nature in the shaping of human history and society, could also speak of the cultural persistence of racial types in radically different environmental milieux, not least among the Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains who displayed what she called in 1901 an \'inextinguishable excellence\'. Even among the possibilists of the classical French School, there was, as Henri Berr (in the foreword to Lucien Febvre\'s La terre et l\'évolution humaine) insisted, no denial of the \'direct action of the environment on the physical and psychical nature of man\' (p. vi). And Vidal himself, as Berdoulay has demonstrated, sought a scheme for understanding the interaction of nature and culture that eschewed both environmental determinism and what he calls \'radical possibilism\' (Berdoulay, 1976).

All of this is indicative of the conceptual turmoil surrounding the genesis of géographie humaine in turn-of-the-century France (Friedman, 1996). For it was in dialogue with, and in opposition to, the sociological writings of Emile Durkheim and his disciples that the distinctive character of Vidalian geography was constituted — a conversation that rotated around the determinism inherent in Ratzel\'s Anthropogéographie and Durkheim\'s judgement that social morphology, as a division of sociology, exhausted the scope of human geography (Andrews, 1984). The contextual circumstances within which possibilism can be located, however, cannot be reduced to the academic-political manoeuvrings of the Vidalians and the Durkheimians. Thus Berdoulay, for example, has argued that French possibilism was essentially a neo-Kantian (see Kantianism) solution to the seeming dichotomy between the human and the environmental. The Kantian insistence on the human mind\'s creative structuring of an external world, it is claimed, resonated with Vidal\'s concerns to maintain human freedom within certain ontological limits (Berdoulay, 1976, 1988). Again, Lukermann (1965) sought to situate the early École Française in the context of developments in probability theory associated with Henri Poincaré and A.-A. Cournot. The idea of what elsewhere has been dubbed \'bounded contingency\' (Gregory, 1981) was thus mediated to Brunhes and Vallaux through such writers as Bourtrous, Borel and Meyerson.

More recently, Archer (1993) has made a strong case for placing Vidalian possibilism within the sphere of Lamarckian biology (see Lamarck(ian)ism). This reading has the merit of taking seriously the natural science aspirations that Vidal had for géographie humaine — he spoke, for example, of \'the biological method\' (Vidal, 1903) — and the naturalistic emphasis on human agency that Febvre saw as the crucial influence of Buffon on the tradition. Here, Vidal\'s organicism is seen to correlate closely with Lamarck\'s ideas about spontaneous generation, multiple environmental stimuli, and the directive significance of will and consciousness in organic modification. Whether or not this account is altogether persuasive, it has the advantage of redrawing attention to Vidal\'s belief in the scientific status of human geography, an aspiration not always sufficiently acknowledged by those who have used the Vidalian tradition as a resource for more recent humanistic programmes (cf. humanistic geography). It also serves to recall attention to the ecological cast of Vidal\'s Principles of human geography (see also Robic, 1993) which, bereft of the kind of epistemological manoeuvrings typical of a disciplinary manifesto, proceeds on a much more inductive basis. (DNL)

References Andrews, H.F. 1984: The Durkheimians and human geography: some contextural problems in the sociology of knowledge. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 9: 315-36. Archer, K. 1993: Regions as social organisms: the Lamarckian characteristics of Vidal de la Blache\'s regional geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83: 498-514. Berdoulay, V. 1976: French possibilism as a form of Neo-Kantian philosophy. Proceedings of the Association of American Geographers 8: 176-9. Berdoulay, V. 1988: Le discours géographique et les orientations Kantiennes et dynamiques. In Des mots et des lieux: la dynamique de discours géographique. Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), ch. 3. Buttimer, A. 1971: Society and milieu in the French geographic tradition. Chicago: Rand McNally; Davie, G.E. 1994: Victor Cousin and the Scottish philosophers. In A passion for ideas: essays on the Scottish Enlightenment, vol. II. Edinburgh: Polygon, 70-109. Febvre, L. 1932: A geographical introduction to history. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner (originally published in 1922 as La terre et l\'évolution humaine). Friedman, S.W. 1996: Marc Bloch, sociology and geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Gregory, D. 1981: Human agency and human geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 6: 1-18. Lukerman, F. 1965: The \'calcul des probabilités\' and the Ecole Française de Géographie. Canadian Geographer 9: 128-37. Robic, Marie-Claire, 1993: L\'invention de la \'géographie humaine\' au tournant des années 1900: les Vidalians et l\'écologie. In Paul Claval ed., Autour de Vidal de la Blache: la formation de l\'école française de géographie. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), 137-47. Vidal de la Blache, P. 1903: La géographie humaine: ses rapports avec la géographie de la vie. Revue de Synthèse Historique 7: 219-40.

Suggested Readings Andrews (1984); Archer (1993). Buttimer (1971). Friedman (1996). Montefiore, A.G. and Williams, W.M. 1955: Determinism and possibilism: a search for clarification. Geographical Studies 2: 1-11. Spate, O.H.K. 1957: How determined is possibilism? Geographical Studies 4: 3-12.



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