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Computing Space IV: William Bunge and The Philosophy of Maps

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Today’s post is the fourth of a series called,”Computing Space,” which highlights the lives and work of many of the mostly unknown cartographers, geographers, mathematicians, computer scientists, designers and architects who had a hand in the birth of today’s computer cartography, along with some of forgotten publications from the early years of GIS.

In the early years of the analytic and computational revolution in geography and cartography many of the then existing journals in the field resisted the publication of papers deemed too mathematical or computational, and so many small and short lived publications sprung up around various groups of mapmakers working to bring new technologies and techniques into the field. One such publication, whose famous yellow covers will be known to anyone who has explored the history of early computer cartography, is the “Discussion Paper” series published occasionally between 1963 and 1968 by the so-called Michigan Inter-University Community of Mathematical Geographers.

Yellow title page from the Discussion Paper Series published by the Michigan Inter-University Community of Mathematical Geographers during the 1960s. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Yellow title page from the Discussion Paper Series published by the Michigan Inter-University Community of Mathematical Geographers during the 1960s. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The list of contributors to the papers in the series reads like a “whose-who” of the early analytical revolution and includes names like William Bunge, Michael Dacey, Waldo Tobler, Peter Gould, and William Warntz, all of whom made significant contributions to the field. Inherently mathematical, and directed toward solving deep geographic problems using techniques from the physical sciences, they treated subjects ranging from the geometry of surfaces, topology and mereology, all the way to spatial diffusion problems and purely theoretical questions about concepts like mental maps.

One paper in series in particular, entitled simply, The Philosophy of Maps , encapsulates in its pages the thinking of this period about the role and place of cartography, and reveals how revolutionary the ideas of these geographers, computer scientists and mathematicians actually were at the time. The paper contains several important statements on the role of philosophical thought in the developing applications of computers to cartography and to real world problems and it begins with a short introduction by William Bunge (1928-) that reads like a manifesto and a call to arms.

Table of Contents from the Philosophy of Maps, 1968. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Table of Contents from the Philosophy of Maps, 1968. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Bill Bunge was by all measures a radical geographer, and is perhaps best known as the author of Theoretical Geography published in 1962. It is a book that has been called the seminal text of the spatial-quantitative revolution and for mathematical cartographers like myself, it has always been an inspiration, as it overflows with original ideas.

Bunge treats his introduction to the Philosophy of Maps as a kind gauntlet thrown down in front of the traditions of the field and he openly challenges its academic gatekeepers to open up to new ideas.

This is a collection of papers by seven geographers and a philosopher in which from the study of maps philosophical questions arise. Previous philosophical questions of geographers were those of the theory of knowledge and the philosophers were read from a great distance.

In this paper Bunge explains that philosophy will be treated as a central theme and not simply as an aside. In fact, for the authors of the essays it will be the maps themselves and their structure that will force a kind of re-consideration of deep philosophical questions relating to lived geographic space and its two-dimensional representation. In classic Bunge style he writes,

But the tables have turned for now the geographers are raising questions to philosophers. We no longer feel ourselves to be humble students before sages but slightly annoyed critics of philosophy’s neglect of not just geography but all the visible, literal fields of knowledge including graphics and geometry. Now short of pugnacity, but past persistence, we return to philosophy in a new wave of interest with questions that we suspect may provide a challenge for philosophy today.

Later in his introduction Bunge goes on the offensive against what he terms “older geographers,”

“those that were horrified at our initial furious attack on maps as inferior to mathematical functionals,”

and his revolutionary vigor has no patience for those stuck in the past,

But they [the old geographers] were and are so religious about their commitment to the map—complete with religious persecutions for those that did not genuflect before the fundamentalist map thumpers—that they practically compelled our revolt. We were provoked.

Today with the widespread use of GIS and mathematical analysis as integral part of geography, along with journals dedicated to geospatial computation, complex mathematics and the development of new algorithms for spatial applications, it is sometimes instructive to reflect on the fact that it took progressive thinkers, like William Bunge, who advocated for BOTH a technical AND a conceptual revolution, to make modern mapmaking possible. Thank you Bill, you are truly missed.




  1. As a person outside the realm of geography and cartography, I thank you for this (and the earlier) insightful glimpses of the geo-revolution of the 1960s. Standing by for more blog-reports to come!

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