Archive for January, 2019

Rationalist vs Empiricist Cartographies

January 15, 2019 6 comments

Some years ago I got into a massive misunderstanding with a smart, logical cartography buff about the limits of rationalism in map-making. I was contrasting rationalism with empiricism and saying the former played an important role in the history of cartographic disasters. They thought I was in favour of irrationalism and labeled me a flat Earther. So it goes across the social media beach.

Where empiricists rely on direct observation for making their maps, measuring and recording coastlines, verifying distances by traveling multiple routes, etc., (philosophical) rationalists use their reason and imagination to decide that there must be e.g. a Counterweight Continent or some place for the world’s oceans to drain into or a meaningful set of Antipodes on the other side of the world from major cities, where you could maybe find their opposites or listen through the earth to spy on their business or otherwise act on them at a distance.

nolin-world-wall-map-o344-For all this and more, this Nolin world map from 1708s (still for sale in the 1790s, in various hand-coloured versions) is a treasure trove. It features a vague but confident Northwest Passage connecting Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific via Estotiland (an apocryphal version of Viking Vinland), Antipodes conveniently marked for the enterprising Telluric surfer, and a gigantic Terra Australis Incognita, encompassing Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and a lot of the Southern Ocean.

These were ideas that either made sense to French cartographers or were too appealing to let go of – in 1708 New France encompassed Hudson’s Bay and, theoretically, most of the northern part of North America. A direct route to China that circumvented Spanish waters was the kind of thing that had to be true, economically and by the divine right of Louis XIV. Between the Revolution and the sale of Louisiana, the Republic could dream again of a Sino-French naval alliance against the perfidious English and uppity Americans. Before that, visions of enlisting Prester John’s help against the Moors and Spaniards inspired King Manuel I of Portugal to send a series of navigators around the bottom end of Africa. It stood to reason that the empires of the ungodly Hispanomoors must be bounded by True Christian goodness.

Counter-Colonial Heistcrawl, of course, makes extensive use of both rationalist and empiricist cartographies. It is currently undecided about adopting a Copenhagen interpretation to geography: the sea is wide and definitive means of location are lacking. Maybe that phantom island is misidentified, maybe it’s still out there, somewhere, and you’re just looking in the wrong place. The Isle of Pines, a celebrated free-love paradise first written about in 1667, was finally located (not without violence – cartographic, anthropological, anti-socialist, and bloody) in New Caledonia. Maybe that fabled fairyland of Calyferne (California) will yet conform to its poetic image and turn out to be an island.

(I can’t tell what this is from here, I don’t seem to have brought the right sort of telescope)