Aristotle’s theory of place

Updated Thurs.

New APPS has a post up on a book concerning Aristotle and place which sounds interesting (Ben Morison, On Location: Aristotle’s Concept of Place, OUP, 2002, reviewed in NDPR here).

I’m not able to comment on the book or Aristotle, but the post contains a couple of howlers, cartographically:

 Above is a reproduction of a fairly creditable map of the Mediterranean world—look at the shape of Italy and Greece, for instance—that must have been constructed from pairwise relative locations. (How else could it have been constructed?) It was drawn long before Aristotle.

In fact, we have no actual maps from Greek or Roman Antiquity (the Greeks didn’t even have a word for “map;”  this is a Medieval word, from mappa mundi “cloth of the world”).

Update Thurs: Greeks used the word pinax (πιναξ painted “panel”) and ges periodes (“map of the earth”, lit. “way around the earth”). See Appendix VI in Dilke.

The image above is a modern reconstruction. The closest there is to a surviving map that “looks like” an original? Well, I’d nominate the Peutinger Table, a 13th C. copy of a late Roman itinerarium. [On the Hecataeus map above, see Strabo, Bk 1, Chap. 1].

Of course we accept that they made maps, just that none physically survive (older maps from other areas do survive, if you are willing to stretch the definition of map).

The second is that the author imagines the Greeks could only make maps by plotting out “pairwise” locations as you do when you are surveying (x in relation to y in relation to z and so on). In fact, the Greeks did it the same way we do, they used map projections. This allows you to designate coordinates on a grid (x,y) with a zero point (datum). Now, if the post author meant this, my apologies. I just got a kick out of thinking of plotting out locations in this relative sense when the Greeks could use absolute location.

Ptolemy’s books on geography for example, are vast collections of what we now call gazeteers (basically city name and lat-long coordinates). These were recovered in the west and translated in the 15th C. for the first time and then published as maps, 1,500 years after they were first described.

The Greeks also accurately calculated the size of the earth, and knew it was a sphere (and so Columbus did not think the earth was flat) and invented latitude and longitude. Not bad!

There’s a larger issue here. Some writers argue that mapping for all intents and purposes began in the early modern period (anything earlier are epiphenomenal blips). The argument here is that despite these scattered precursors (and we know the usual litany) mapping is essentially a state enterprise, then as now. Ergo, before the state, little if any mapping. After say 1500, an explosion.

Denis Wood is a prime proponent of this argument, to the considerable embarrassment of the History of Cartography project, which has published six hefty books before even reaching the Enlightenment!


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