Aristotle's Famous GIS Lesson

Goat Stag
19th century engraving of The Trusty Servant, from the 1579 painting by John Hoskins (public domain)

"What is not is nowhere. Where [for example] is the goat-stag or the sphinx?"

-Aristotle, Physics, Book IV

"It is not down on any map. True places never are." 

-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

There is nothing like starting with big, juicy, provocative, yet somehow impenetrable, quotes like the gems above. They take us down any number of imaginative paths, and prompt us to ask any number of questions about location, place, space, history, and, well, the meaning of life. Philosophers, geographers, writers, historians, literary theorists, political scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and artists have produced countless meditations on those questions. The bibliography is staggering and worth exploring.

Standing ever so humbly on the shoulders of giants, my work asks a very simple question: What is the relationship between who we are and where we are?

Aristotle would have us believe that location is an attribute of existence. In other words, if you exist, you must be somewhere. And that somewhere – that place – not only locates or contains you. It has the capacity to change you.

If Aristotle was right, understanding place is a crucial part of understanding human existence and therefore of understanding history. And since maps describe places and the relationships between places, they must be useful tools for understanding history.

But what if Aristotle was wrong?

What if the places that really matter - the true places to which Captain Ahab sagely refers - can not be located? What if they are not on the map? Can a map then tell us anything truly meaningful about the world or about how we experience, document, and understand it?

The Imperiia Project attempts to map the history of the Russian Empire. In other words, it attempts to map something that no longer exists.

Where is the Russian Empire? It is nowhere. In modern geospatial terms, it is a goat stag. Or a sphinx. 

But for centuries, it was a titanic force in Eurasia. A state with a voracious territorial appetite. A state with an inexhaustible wealth in places. A state structured by a constellation of spatial relationships so dense and interwoven that one might be forgiven for throwing one's hands in the air and uttering - out of exasperation - the ultimate commonplace: "Russia? Well. It was vast. That is all you need to know."

The Imperiia Project is a quest to understand the relationship between what Russia was and where Russia was. It is a quest to understand the empire's true places and, if we are lucky, to map them.

It is an attempt - albeit a humble one - to tease out the implications of Aristotle's sage GIS lesson.

See also: historical GIS