Büsching Publishes

In 1754, Büsching began publishing a multivolume geographical work, and by 1792 he had completed ten volumes, mostly dealing with Europe. His work was an advance over previous geographies, because it emphasized measurement and statistics rather than mere description.

Summary of Event

Early forays in geography date to the classical world: Aristotle Aristotle was one of the first to argue that the Earth was a sphere rather than a flat disk; Strabo Strabo wrote an encyclopedic geography encompassing history and descriptions of people and places across the known world; Ptolemy Ptolemy consolidated the geographical knowledge of the Greeks and used astronomical observations to locate places on a map of the world. Ptolemy’s system was used until the sixteenth century. [kw]Büsching Publishes A New System of Geography (1754)
[kw]Geography, Büsching Publishes A New System of (1754)
[kw]System of Geography, Büsching Publishes A New (1754)
[kw]New System of Geography, Büsching Publishes A (1754)
[kw]Publishes A New System of Geography, Büsching (1754)
New System of Geography, A (Büsching)
Geography;as science[science]
[g]Germany;1754: Büsching Publishes A New System of Geography[1390]
[c]Geography;1754: Büsching Publishes A New System of Geography[1390]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1754: Büsching Publishes A New System of Geography[1390]
Büsching, Anton Friedrich
Varenius, Bernardus
Kant, Immanuel
Humboldt, Alexander von
Ritter, Carl

Through medieval times, however, geographers contributed little knowledge that would count as scientific or systematic by later standards. They provided descriptions of other lands and peoples and attempted to ascertain the shape and size of the Earth and locate its places. Although geographers speculated about the geological Geology processes that caused natural features such as mountains and rivers, their analyses of spatial variations in physical phenomena were relatively primitive. Their reports of the human aspects of geography were also descriptive rather than quantitative.

After classical times, geography advanced little for one thousand years, partly because the Catholic Church Catholic Church;and earth sciences[earth sciences] viewed the idea that the Earth was spherical as heresy. Ptolemy’s work survived among Islamic scholars, however, who added new knowledge and concepts to the body of geographical knowledge based on the wide travels of Muslim merchants. Geographic thought in Christian Europe revived with the great explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which established that the Earth was spherical and led to increasingly accurate maps Mapmaking of physical features, such as continental outlines.

In the seventeenth century, Dutch geographer Bernhardus Varenius wrote a geography textbook on a scale not previously attempted: His Geographia generalis (1672; Cosmography and Geography, Cosmography and Geography (Varenius) 1682; also as A Compleat System of General Geography, 1734) became the standard for the next century. Varenius’s text divided the discipline of geography into general geography, which treated the form and dimensions of the Earth as a whole, and special geography, dealing with specific regions of the Earth.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment precipitated a burst of scientific inquiry in Europe. Enlightenment thought held that human beings could understand how the universe worked by reasoning and by measuring and classifying natural processes. In Germany, this belief led to an upsurge in geographical writing, as the new data on physical geography were compiled and analyzed. Information and measurements of another kind, also useful to geographers, began to be available: The Prussian government, reasoning that the wealth or power of a state could be gauged through statistics, began compiling numerical data on the populace. Demographics

Anton Friedrich Büsching believed that the writings of his immediate predecessors in geography lacked the grounding in fact demanded by Enlightenment science, and he sought to provide the discipline with a more rigorous methodology. He also wanted geographical writing to be practical, so that travelers could rely on it for information about a country’s physical and natural features, history, culture, economy, and government. In 1751, Büsching began writing his major work, Neue Erdbeschreibung (1754-1792; new description of the Earth; first eight volumes pb. in six volumes as A New System of Geography, 1762).

A New System of Geography, which dealt largely with Europe, was organized into two broad categories—one concentrating on civil and political divisions and the other on natural features. Büsching critically evaluated sources of information and verified data with scientists and other experts, including Prussian authorities. He defined geography’s mission precisely, stated his methodology, and provided a comprehensive list of references. In describing natural features, he delimited geographical areas exactly, using precise scales. He incorporated the kinds of data now employed in political and economic geography—for example, census data. His was the first geography to study population density. He also correlated birth and death statistics with environmental factors such as disease, crop failures, war, and migrations, and he estimated the Earth’s carrying capacity at 3 billion people. The work included information on the cities and most of the towns of Europe, as well as churches, forts, seaports, produce, manufactures, and commerce. It also described religion, language, armed forces, and politics.

Büsching, to a greater degree than many of his predecessors, explained functional interconnections within physical geography. For example, in deriving climatic conditions, he considered not just geographical latitude but also topography. Thus, he took into account the fact that, because winds may be modified by features such as mountain ranges, forests, and cities, two places at the same latitude may have distinctly different climates. He also described the cycle of evaporation and precipitation and explained flow rates of streams on the basis of the slope of the terrain and characteristics of the streambed. Further, Büsching distinguished high mountain ranges from low ones and noted large-scale geographic patterns such as the restriction of volcanic activity to coastal regions and islands.

The work included maps as well as narrative. The first part was published in 1754. By 1761, he had produced eight volumes, all dealing with Europe. In 1762, these volumes were translated into English, rearranged into six volumes and illustrated with thirty-six folding maps, and published by Andrew Millar as A New System of Geography. The translation incorporated three additional essays, and some footnotes, by Patrick Murdoch, a Scottish scholar.

By 1792, the year before his death, Büsching had completed ten volumes and was working on an eleventh that remained unfinished when he died. In addition to Europe, his completed volumes covered parts of Asia. Over the years, he had revised his earlier volumes many times (an eighth, revised edition was published between 1787 and 1788). His work was translated into eight languages. After his death, treatments of the rest of Asia, as well as Africa and North America, were completed by other geographers. The North American volume was written by German librarian and professor Christophe Ebeling Ebeling, Christophe (1741-1817) and was published in 1800-1803.


Although not well known today, Anton Friedrich Büsching, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, was regarded as the world’s foremost geographer. Some contemporaries considered A New System of Geography to be the best single source of information about Europe. Until well into the nineteenth century, most European geographical writing was based, to some extent, on this work. Its numerous reprintings and new editions and the many translations reflect its importance. Büsching established that the study of the countries of the world required scholarly research and laid the foundation for modern statistical geography, which allows data to be aggregated geographically and then analyzed.

Although Büsching gave new impetus to geography as a field of study, a more conceptual advance came in the late eighteenth century, when German philosopher Immanuel Kant Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804), relying in part on Büsching’s data, incorporated geography Philosophical geography
Geography;and philosophy[philosophy] into his overall philosophical system. According to Kant, geography synthesized the other sciences through the concept of area or space. Geography, then, treated phenomena that were “beside” one another in space, in contrast to history, which treated phenomena that “follow” one another in time. This concept has guided geographical thought since Kant.

In the nineteenth century, geographers began to go beyond traditional country-by-country analyses and instead defined largely homogeneous regions in terms of physical characteristics, associations of plants and animals, or economics or political organization. Increased knowledge of geology and biology led German geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt Humboldt, Alexander von (1769-1859) to conclude that a region’s climate and land formations have pronounced effects on that region’s plants and animals. German geographer Carl Ritter Ritter, Carl (1779-1859), also influenced by Büsching, stressed the relationship of humans to nature and founded modern human geography. Today, geographers must study and understand the principles of the biological, earth, and social sciences. Büsching helped lead geography away from its original concern with mapping and exploration of the Earth to become a modern, wide-ranging discipline.

Further Reading

  • Büsching, Anton. A New System of Geography. Translated by Patrick Murdoch. London: A. Millar, 1762. Murdoch’s translation of the first eight volumes of Büsching’s landmark work.
  • Büttner, Manfred, and Reinhard Jäkel. “Anton Friedrich Büsching, 1724-1793.” Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies 6 (1982): 7-15. An account of Büsching’s life and geographical writings.
  • De Blij, Harm J., and Peter O. Muller. Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. 11th ed. New York: Wiley, 2003. Textbook describing the world’s human and natural characteristics.
  • Hacking, Ian. The Taming of Chance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Details the development of statistical thought. Chapter 3 describes Büsching’s use of state-collected statistics.
  • Hoffman, Peter. Anton Friedrich Büsching, 1724-1793: Ein Leben im Zeitalter der Aufklärung. Berlin, Germany: Berlin Verlag, Spitz, 2000. A biography exploring Büsching as educator, theologian, and historian. Includes an index and bibliographical references. In German.
  • Livingstone, David N., and Charles W. J. Withers. Geography and Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. A collection that reviews the study of the Earth and the development of the discipline of geography during the eighteenth century.
  • Sitwell, O. F. G. Four Centuries of Special Geography: An Annotated Guide to Books That Purport to Describe All the Countries in the World Published Before 1888, with a Critical Introduction. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1993. Includes details about the 1762 English translation of Büsching’s Neue Erdbeschreibung.
  • Unwin, Tim. The Place of Geography. Harlow, Essex, England: Prentice Hall, 1992. An account of geography’s emergence as an academic discipline. Includes a discussion of Büsching’s role in the history of geographic thought.

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