Paul Vidal de la Blache

A biographical sketch

by Jason Hilkovitch & Max Fulkerson


France entered the modern era of geography shortly behind Germany. While the German tradition quickly filled with new scholars, the French owe much of their tradition to one man, Paul Vidal de la Blache. Although he lacked some of the spatial training of his German counterparts, Vidal would be given credit for helping to establish an entire generation of geographers in France. This presentation will be a biographical sketch of Paul Vidal de la Blache, including historical information, highlights of his contributions to the discipline and geographic thought, and an annotated bibliography of a couple of his works.

Born January 22, 1845, to Abel Antoine Joseph and Janine Marie Jaquette, Vidal was recognized early on for his academic success. His father, who himself taught literature and languages in the lycee (equivalent to America's high schools) , saw to it that his son received a fine education. At age thirteen, young Paul was shuttled off to the Institution Favard at the Lycee Charlemagne, in Paris; a well known boarding school for promising students. There he received a strong background in classical and literary subjects. Afterwards he attended the Ecole Normale Superieure, a prestigious national training college for teachers, where he was recognized for his high marks in history and geography.

Shortly after passing the examination for his teaching certificate, Vidal left France to attend the Ecole Francaise d'Athens, where he spent three years studying Greek archeology. Upon returning to France, in 1870, he married Laure Marie Elizabeth and held several teaching positions at the Lycee d'Angers and at the Ecole Preparatoire de l'Enseignment Superieur des Lettres et des Sciences, the latter of these being a preparatory school for advanced training in the letters of science.

La Blache successfully defended defended his doctorate in 1872 and took the position of charge de cours in history and geography at the University of Nancy. In February of 1875, at the age of thirty, Vidal received the official title of professor and eventually returned to the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1877, where he taught the next twenty-one years. He then transferred to the University of Paris in 1898, where he remained until his retirement in 1909.

Several events contributed to Vidal's migration to geography. The most notable was the time he spent in the Mediterranean, where he was exposed to the writings of Carl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt. His brief venture in archeology revealed to him the works of numerous classical Greek scholars. Further travel abroad to Italy, Syria, and Palestine likely reenforced his interest. At home, the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) justified a stronger need for geography in the school system, as it was commonly held that a lack of geographical knowledge contributed to France's defeat. It seems significant to also mention Vidal's receipt of the title of professor of geography, denoting a shift of his attention away from his previous fields, history and literature. His appointment to the University of Paris in 1898 marked the first time an authentic geographer held the position of department chair despite its creation in 1809.

Much attention and effort was made by American geographers in the early 20th Century to create an academic communtiy. The idea was that geographers wanted and perhaps needed contact and debate with others in the field in order to further their own research and continue to move the discipline forward. The early American geographers took this idea from the "new geography" of Europe, using the departments and debates of German and French geographers as their models. As would be expected, Vidal was actively communicating with other geographers, including the Germans, Ferdinand von Richtofeen, Oscar Peschel, and Fredrich Ratzel.

Vidal developed his own approach to geography, focusing on a regional method rather than a systematic one. His view of geography can be described as one steeped in chorology, unconcerned with the abstract debates of geography's scientific lineages and alignments. As Vidal puts it:

"...that which geography, in exchange for the help it has received from other sciences, can bring to the common treasury, is the capacity not to break apart what nature has assembled, to understand the correspondence and correlation of things, whether in the setting of the whole surface of the earth, or in the regional setting where things are localized.(Martin and James, p.193)

While he recognized geography's relatedness to the sciences, both natural and social, neither was as important to geography's identity as its connectness with human activity. He stressed the importance in viewing man in relation to his natural environment. As a regional geographer, he preferred to view man within a physical milieu, or pays, or within his cultural milieu, or genre de vie. A pays is a natural region with some homogeneous physical characteristics, such as the mountainous Massif Central region in France. A genre de vie is a way of living or local culture. It includes the traditions, institutions, language, habits, foods, etc. of a people. In other words, when ones studies geography regionally, one may identify a region with regard to its physical characteristics or with regard to its human characteristics. An American geographer, Carl Sauer, later describes this as identifying the physical and cultural landscapes of a region.

One of the major geographical doctrines of the time examined this man-land relationship with respect to regions. Environmental determinism, as it came to be known, stressed the effects of causal relationships whereby a non-organic environmental factor limits, or determines, the organic human response. As a consequence to this doctrine, it came to be widely held that people from different regions would possess certain skills and lack others, solely due to their place of origin. In modern times, this doctrine is regarded more as an academic rationalization for racist and imperialist policy rather than as genuine geographic theory. Fault is also found with this doctrine in that it only emphasizes one direction of the causal mechanism between humans and their environment. It is now widely recognized that humans can have an enormous impact on their surroundings, altering the landscape to suit their needs. Vidal is credited with providing a regional theory which highlights the man-land relationship with regard to personal and cultural development but avoids the language of Eurocentrism. Possibilism, as it came later to be known, is seen as Vidal's refutation to environmental determinism. Vidal acknowledges that environment plays a role in setting limitations and offering possibilities for personal and cultural development, but points out that humans can selectively respond to any factor in a number of ways. How a people react and develop is a function of the choices they make in response to their environment. These choices are the manifestation of their culture, or genre de vie. Thus, possibilism is seen as an alternative to environmental determinism, explaining that how humans respond to their environment is in part a function of that location and partly a function of their own will. Baker says of Vidal:

"Similarly he was acutely aware of the fact that in exercising his choice, man made changes in the physical and biological surroundings, thus helping to create the total environment of which the social group becomes an integral part. The range of Vidal's interests from history through to the biological and physical sciences was the basis for the balanced view of the environmental complex within which man is both a passive and an active agent."

Vidal's efforts came to be known as la tradition vidalienne, and soon after his death, the burgeoning field of geography was filled by his students at university appointments throughout France. La tradition vidalienne can be seen as a way of studying, doing, and thinking about geography, marked by its emphasis on regional study and attention paid to the man-land relationships. This general program of sorts was carried out originally by Vidal's students, and came to be the process whereby his ideas and methods were transmitted to geographers in other countries and in later times.

His latter years were filled with numerous honors, recognized for his work both at home, including the Commandeur de la Legion d'honneur in 1912, and abroad, including the Charles P. Daly gold medal from the American Geographical Society in 1915. Vidal's influence on the discipline has transcended national and international borders and the judgement of time. Perhaps in no other country has geography been so impacted by one individual.

Paul Vidal de la Blache produced an abundant amount of publications, totaling 17 books, 107 articles, and 240 reviews and reports, only some of which have been translated. Some of his more influential works include Collection de Cartes Murales Accomppagnees de Notices, designed for elementary students, Histoire et Geographie: Atlas General, and La France de l'Est. It is well beyond the scope of this presentation to annotate all Vidal's works, and in some cases translations are unavailable. Having said that, this presentation will highlight two of his more famous writings.

Vidal de la Blache, P. (1903)Tableau de la Geographie de la France, Paris: Librarie Jules Tallandier, 1979.
This book is a geography of France and is organized, as one would expect, by regions. Within each, Vidal examines the subject as a pays, giving specific descriptions to landforms and other natural phenomena, and as a genre de vie, remarking on the history and cultural differences of the people. Also, Vidal talks about the avenues of transportation going to and from each region, an important element in the man-land relationship. Throughout the work attention is paid to the differences between urban and rural communities, with Vidal using his geographical concepts, as well as observations influenced from other sciences, to make his points.

Vidal de la Blache, P. (1918)Principles of Human Geography, Emmanuel de Martonne, ed., Bingham,M.T., trans., London: Constable Publishers, 1926.
Although Vidal died while writing this book, one of his students, Emmanuel de Martonne, served as editor and finished the work. This book contains geographic analysis of regions and attributes with specific regard as to how they fit into the man-land relationship. Through looking at these features, Vidal attempts to portray each region as an example of the unity of man and land which is called environment. In considering population, raw materials, cultural development, patterns of settlement, and transportation, we see both the interconnectedness of environmental factors and how that relationship is cashed out in terms of possibilism.

Baker, S.J.K., "Paul Vidal de la Blache: 1845-1917:", Geographers: Bibliographic Studies, 12, pp.189-201, 1988

Harrison-Church, R.J., "The French School of Geography", G. Taylor, ed., Geography in the Twentieth Century, New York: Philsophical Library, pp.70-90, 1951

Martin, G.J., & James, P.E., All Possible Worlds: A History of Geographical Ideas, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1993

Photo Source: Martin & James, P.196

If you would like to post materials on the History and Philosophy of Geography in this test area, please contact Jon T. Kilpinen.

Return to VGDP Test Area
VGDP History and Philosophy Page | The Virtual Geography Department
Valparaiso University Department of Geography and Meteorology | Comments

This page is maintained by the Department of Geography and Meteorology at Valparaiso University. Please send comments and corrections to Jon T. Kilpinen at

Last revised 25 March 1997 by JTK.