Essay on the Philosophy “Possibilism” (Geography)

There are no necessities, but everywhere possibilities. The natural data (factors) are much more the material than the cause of human development. The ‘essential cause’ is less nature, with its resources and its obstacles, than man himself and his own nature.”

The possibility saw in the physical environment a series of possi­bilities for human development, but argued that the actual ways in which development took place were related to the culture of the people concerned, except perhaps in regions of extremes like deserts, tundra, equatorial and high mountains.

There are distinct zones which are distributed symmetrically on each side of the equator, great climate-botanic frames, unequally rich in possi­bilities, unequally favourable to the different human races, and unequally fitted for human development; but the impossibility is never absolute even for the races least ‘adapted’ to them and all probabilities are often found to be upset by the persistent and supple will of man.

The ‘determinist’ thesis has it that these frames constitute “a group of forces which act directly on man with sovereign and decisive power,” and which govern “every manifestation of his activity from the simplest to the most important and most complicated”.

What really happens in all these frames, especially in those which are the richest in possibilities, is that these possibilities are awakened one after the other, then lie dormant, to reawaken suddenly according to the nature and initiative of the occupier.

“These possibilities of action do not constitute any sort of connected system; they do not represent in each region an inseparable whole; if they are graspable, they are not grasped by men all at once, with the same force, and at the same time.”

The same regions, through the changes in value of their elements, have the most varied destinies. And it is human activity which “governs the game”.

There are no doubts among human group’s similarities—or, at least, analogies—of life which are the result of the exploitation of similar possi­bilities. But there is nothing fixed or rigid about them. We must avoid confusing once more necessity with possibility.

The possibility show with great precision that society interposes practices, beliefs, and rule of life between nature and man; that man’s utili­zation of possibilities and his exploitation of his environment are thereby hampered, so as, for example, to render his food singularly monotonous.

Nowhere is food eaten by savages without care in the choice. There are prohibitions, restrictions, taboos on sides. But this social constraint was, no doubt, not exercised at first in its full vigour.

There was great homoge­neity in primitive human groups, but there were necessarily differences (age and sex) and individual contingencies, however slight. In small societies the organization was not rigid enough at the beginning to stifle initiative.

It is thanks to differentiation, to the individual alone, that life has been ameliorated and that society itself has been organized.

The possibilists also argued that it is impossible to explain the difference in human society and the history of that society with reference to the influence of physical environment. They hold that man himself brings his influence to bear on that environment and changes it.

The philosophy of possibilism the belief that people are not just the products of their environment of just pawns of natural environment became very much popular after the First World War.

For the possibilists, the works of man, not the earth and its influence, are the starting points, the most important is the freedom of man to choose.

Although the philosophy of possibilism became very much popular after the First World War, it was Vidal de Lablache who advocated and preached the philosophy of possibilism.

Lablache was such a staunch supporter of this philosophy that he developed the ‘school of possibilism’. Vidal in his studies minimized the influence of environment on the activ­ities of man.

Central to Vidal’s work were the lifestyles (genres device) that develop in different geographical environments.

In his opinion, lifestyles (genres device) are the products and reflections of a civilization, repre­senting the integrated result of physical, historical and social influences surrounding man’s relation to milieu in a particular place.

He tried to explain differences between groups in the same or similar environment, and pointed out that these differences are not due to the dictates of physical environment but are the outcome of variations in attitudes, values and habits.

Variations in attitudes and habits create numerous possibilities for human communities. It is this concept which became the basic philosophy of the school of possibilism.

The possibilists emphasize that it is impossible to explain the difference in human society and the history of that society with reference to the influence of environment; and they hold that man himself brings his influence to bear on that environment and changes it.

After Vidal, possibilism continued to grow and spread on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, Jean Brunhes was a strong supporter of possibilism.

Brunhes enunciated the first explicit formulation of human geography as a systematic approach to the study of geography. Outside France, the possibility ideas were accepted by a large number of geographers and anthropologists.

Borrow, the prominent ecologist, gave more importance to man over environment. A more acceptable view of possibilism was presented by Sauer.

He asserted that the geographer’s role is to investigate and understand the nature of the transition from the natural to the cultural landscape.

From such an exercise the geographer would identify the major changes that have occurred in an area as a result of occupancy by succession of human groups.

Its importance is often greater in regions where it has been acclimatized than in those where it originated and domesticated.

For example, wheat does not have the largest yields in regions where it was first domesticated (South-West Asia).

Cultivation of wheat is now done largely in USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia, China, Pakistan and India, the places where it was diffused later.

According to the possibilists, nature is never more than an adviser. This, by the reversal with it, involves man in the first place, man and no longer the earth, nor the influence of climate nor the determinant condi­tions of localities.

The range of possibilities in every region is limited more by the price man is willing to pay for what he wants than by the dictates of environment.

In the extreme cold environment of Lena river basin (Siberia) the Yakuts retain a livestock and horse-herding economy.

The Yakuts have persuaded the horses and cattle to eat dried meat of reindeer and fish instead of fodder and grasses. Is it not surprising?

Is it not a victory of man over environment? Man through his technical skill can grow banana and rubber in tundra and Antarctica but he is to take into consideration the input cost.

Men can never entirely rid themselves whatever they do of the hold their environment has on them.

Taking this into consideration they utilize their geographical circumstances more or less according to what they are, and take advantage more or less completely of their geographical possibilities. But here as elsewhere there is no action of necessity.

The limits set by nature to man’s action vary from one historical period to another. In marginal environments, such as the equatorial forests, hot and cold deserts, the tundra region, and at low stages of culture, man’s choice may be extremely restricted.

In the more favourable areas of the warm and cool temperate zones, and in periods when man’s techniques are highly developed, the possibilities are more numerous.

But however many skills man acquires, he can never free himself entirely from nature’s control.

Bowman asserted: “While the physical laws to which mankind responds are available in their application and degree of effect, yet this is also true that all men everywhere are affected to some degree by physical conditions.”

In brief, the change in the life of any people do not consist solely in simple additions to their stock of knowledge or belief from time to time, according to their external contacts, nor is their acceptance of one practice or the rejection of another to be decided only according to whether it suits their physical environment.

In spite of the fact that man has numerous possibilities in a given physical setting, he cannot go against the directions laid by the physical environment. The possibility approach has been criticized by many of the contemporary thinkers.

Griffith Taylor, while criticizing possibilism, stressed that society as a whole should make the choices, and since only an advisory role is assigned to the geographer, his function “is not that of interpreting nature’s plan”.

Taylor was largely right when he wrote that the task of geography is to study the natural environment and its effect on man, not all problems connected with man or the ‘cultural landscape’.

Moreover, possibilism does not encourage the study of geographical environment and it promotes over anthropocentrism in geography.

Geographical determinism at least obliges the geographer to turn his attention to nature, and if the question is asked as to who is setting out to destroy geography, then blame should be placed above all at the possibilists’ door.