Some philosophical Approaches on Observation in Geomorphology .

Document Type : Review Article


Department of Geography, University of Zanjan, Zanjan



According to the dominant tradition, geomorphology is a field discipline and observation is one of the pillars of fieldwork. In any field of human knowledge, the element or observation may be different. Observing nature and its constituent elements, which is a part of epistemology in geomorphology, requires an active relationship with the observed reality. Seeing and observing landscapes, landforms and watersheds as an ancient tradition in earth sciences and especially geomorphology, in addition to being a sensory process, has a special place and importance in terms of different philosophical attitudes in the process of geomorphic research. In other words, knowledge is multi-generational like landscapes, and in attaining knowledge (cognition, knowledge, awareness) regarding the subjects investigated in each scientific field, the way of thinking has philosophical principles. Observing without a theory in mind (logical positivism) and theory-laden observations (in realism), are two approaches that have been examined in this paper. According to the philosophical approaches, concepts, goals and results will be different. However, in geomorphology, observation plays the main controlling role
Extended abstract
he daily life of a geographer requires asking research questions, collecting and analyzing data, and it is necessary to obtain information about the surrounding world through observation to produce knowledge. In the ancient and medieval world, science relied entirely on direct observation. Since the development of classical geography in ancient Greece, until the first half of the 19th century, the tradition of observation persisted. In philosophical texts and philosophy of science, whenever there is talk of observation, it means observation. This process relies on the function of the eyes, one of the five senses, and observations are made with the five senses as the foundation of science. In the observation process, observers collect information through sensory organs such as eyes and ears and decode the surrounding world. Therefore, observation is a fluid, dynamic process and a special activity. Different fields of knowledge, including mathematics, earth sciences and human sciences, use different methods and evidence according to the goals and subject. At the same time, the raw materials of any science must always be a collection of facts. What these facts are, is the first step in knowing an object. These raw materials or facts in geomorphology are landforms, landscapes and processes, and observation is valuable for geomorphologists traditionally. In the historical development of geomorphological science, before laboratory work and instrumental observation were possible, direct observations were the most important way to obtain evidence. The purpose of this article is to investigate philosophical approaches to the value and importance of observation in geomorphology.
According to the nature of the discussion related to the role and importance of observation in geomorphology, different views of scientists, philosophers and especially philosophers of science were reviewed in a review study.  Unfortunately, philosophical and methodological discussions in physical geography, especially geomorphology, have been scattered and limited in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. Most physical geographers and geomorphologists spend little time on data collection methods and methodologies. It is obvious that, like other sciences, there are many and sometimes contradictory and conflicting viewpoints in this field, so only the importance and place of observation in the two viewpoints of logical positivism and realism have been investigated. The working method is more than mere description, it is analytical and comparative, and by explaining the viewpoints and presenting examples, tries to examine the importance of observation and its role in inductive and comparative reasoning, and finally knowing and understanding geomorphic phenomena.
Results and discussion
Observation and theory
The foundation of new science is observation (Rhoads and Thorn, 1993). In the process of observation, light rays hit the retina and create a short memory (image memory) lasting several thousandths of a second. This process is the main driver needed to give time for recognition and subsequent processing (Wolf, 2009: 93). From Leonardo da Vinci's (1519-1452) point of view, science had a visual aspect in principle (Birashak et al, 2004: 766), and he performed repeated experiments to observe the flow conditions and sediment transport in rivers (Orme, 2013). One of the important aspects of science is theorizing (Okasha, 2008: 2), and research in geography can be beneficial in creating a bridge between observation and theory (Rhoads and Wilson, 2010: 27(. English geographer Peter Haggett considered the observation of the earth's surface as one of the three pillars of geography (Goudie, 1986) and believed that models are a bridge between observation and theory (Dollfus, 1991: 46). in the 18th century and until the middle of the 19th century AD, observation was the only method of obtaining primary data in geomorphology fieldwork (Church, 2013). Recently, there have been debates about the relative importance of theory and observation in geomorphology. While Baker and Twidale emphasize the priority of observation over theory, Rhodes and Thorn have argued that this view is misleading because almost all scientific observation is inherently entwined with theoretical assumptions (Rhoads and Thorn, 1996b).
 Observation in logical positivism
Logical positivism has an empirical and inductive approach to research that was formed from the beginning of new science at the beginning of the 16th century. In the classical view of the scientific method (inductive model), scientific research begins with observation and tries to organize the facts in the form of explanatory systematic relationships by presenting a theory. In the positivist approach, observation is objective and real (Rhoads and Wilson, 2010: 28), and this view assumes that humans are capable of pure observation, that is, the observations made by humans are an accurate and pure reflection of reality (Rhoads and Thorn, 1993). Reichenbach (1891-1953), one of the main leaders of logical positivism, believed that knowledge begins with observation (Reichenbach, 1992: 209) and observation is the basis of all knowledge (Rhoads and Wilson, 2010: 27).
Theory-laden observation
From Popper's point of view, there is never such a thing as pure observation because observation is always selective and theory-laden (Khormshahi, 1999: 123). Also, regular sequences of observable events (which is the basis of positivism) are relatively rare in nature (Benton and Craib, 2015: 231). Knowledge is not obtained directly by looking at or measuring what is happening but requires a subtle and creative interpretation of the interaction between people and subjects (Slaymaker, 2017). Due to Newton's successes, the method of observation and induction attracted the attention of philosophers of science, and various views of observations and induction were proposed (Sadeghi, 2015: 14). The inductive method relies on theorizing from a large number of observations, in other words, repeated observations (Wilson, 1972).
In the first decades of the 19th century, compared to composition and explanation, field observation and description prevailed (Orme, 2004). Gao et al. believe that at least since Gilbert and Davis, geomorphologists have followed and applied theory-laden observational techniques (Gao et al., 2015). Although Davis' erosion cycle theory was based on extensive field observations of landforms in the eastern United States and Europe (Sims, 2014), his theories did not have a solid foundation in field observations and experiments (Harrison, 2005).
The science of geomorphology, with its dual identity, has been historical and process (quantitative (. At the same time, landscapes and landforms, which form the basis of geomorphological studies, are temporal and dependent on a specific place. Direct observation, experience, and testing, which form the foundations of the positivist approach and inductive reasoning, are not possible in all cases. Observation has a great value in both positivist and realist approaches, whether in the theory before observation (realism) or in neutral observation (logical positivism. ( Using a method, in addition to the material consequences, indicates the mental approach and worldview of people towards the field of geomorphological studies. Young geomorphologists should be aware of the limitations and the advantages of each while familiarizing themselves with different philosophical approaches. In the epistemology of geomorphology, with any approach to the subject of observation, direct and instrumental observation will remain an integral part of geomorphology studies. A good and deep observation of geosphere phenomena in geomorphology, while forming a part of people's intellectual abilities, can be an important and effective technique for geomorphologists.
There is no funding support.
Authors’ Contribution
All of the authors approved the content of the manuscript and agreed on all aspects of the work.
Conflict of Interest
Authors declared no conflict of interest.
We are grateful to all the scientific consultants of this paper.


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