Philosophy & Territory

Meeting chaired by Dr Donald Cameron

Dr Stuart Elden

International Boundaries Research Unit

Department of Geography, University of Durham

5 July 2005

This paper offered some initial thoughts on what philosophy can tell us about the study of territory. It made the claim that ‘territory’, usually understood simply as a bounded political space under the control of a state or other group of people, is in need of some careful conceptual work. It outlined some suggestions about the relation between mathematical and philosophical conceptions of ‘space’ and their political

counterparts, concentrating in particular on the 17th century.

This project of which this talk was an overview investigates the interrelation of the terms space, place, territory and calculation. The key argument is that space and place should not be distinguished on the basis of scale, but that space emerges in Western thought through a particular way of grasping place. This way of grasping is as something extensible and calculable, extended in three dimensions and grounded on the geometric point. The claim is then that territory is not merely a political way of conceiving land, but the political corollary of this emergent concept of space. Although territory is integrally related to the state, in that both the modern state and the modern concept of territory emerge at the same historical juncture, this is not to say that territory is inherently tied to the state. The historical moment we call globalisation demonstrates that the calculable understanding of space has been extended to the globe, which means that even as the state becomes less the focus of attention territory remains of paramount importance. Territory is thus seen as a political way of conceiving of calculable space.

The approach I intend to take in the longer project is to trace the history of the concept of territory, beginning with Ancient Greece, progressing through Rome and the Empire, through the Middle Ages and to the 17th century. In other words this is a study of the relation between place and politics, and through to the emergence of the concept of territory. In her book The State and the Rule of Law the French historian Blandine Kriegel notes that she intends to ‘reinscribe the history of political theory in the history of the state’ (p.14). In a related move, I wish to reinscribe the history of space in the history of the state. The paper examined some key moments in this long and complicated story, from the distinction between arithmetic and geometry in Aristotle’s Physics, to Descartes’ thinking the question of extension as the principal ontological determination of the world, in dimensions that can be calculated mathematically. It briefly looked at key political moments in the emergence of the modern notion of territory and its theorisation and mapping, such as the treaties of Tordesillas, Westphalia and the Pyrennees. It suggested that Leibniz should be understood as an important political philosopher, who following a request from the Duke of Hanover distinguished between majesty, as the power to demand obedience and loyalty, without being commanded themselves, and sovereignty, which he sees as being stressed in the treaties of Westphalia, as concerned with territory. It also looked at the practical mapping work of the Cassini family in France, the English mathematician and astronomer Edward Gunter, and Thomas Jefferson’s project for the rectangular land survey of the new states of the USA.

Territory then is partly about boundaries and the impermeability of these boundaries, but also about a political usage of the concept of space, particularly as it emerges in the late middle ages, the Renaissance and the early modern period. Space, as it comes to be known, is bounded and exclusive, where something can share the same place but not the same space, but more crucially is something calculated, extended in three dimensions. It is because mapping then becomes that much more exact that demarcation, exclusion and control become possible. The concept of space – abstract and mathematical – is superimposed over already existing places, be they land, home or country. The abstract space of maps and mathematics is a grid imposed over the top, the territory of modern states becomes possible.

Dr. Stuart Elden