This remarkable book is divided into two major portions: either one could readily have served as a book unto itself. In the first half, Tang maps out the broader discursive shifts that lead up to the formation of the geographical science most commonly associated with Alexander von Humboldt. The opening chapter places Tang's central thesis in relation to Reinhart Koselleck's characterization of the Sattelzeit and the emergence of a modern semantics of history around 1800. Tang argues that the historicization of society was coupled with the discovery of modern geographical space. The first chapter outlines discursive shifts in the discipline of geography across the eighteenth century. The second and third chapters expand the argument to demonstrate how lyric poetry and Idealist philosophy contributed to geography's methodological transformation.
German scholars have long focused on the description of landscapes and urban densities in literature. Kate Rigby's Topographies of the Sacred is but a recent, ecocritical example. Chenxi Tang seeks not only to foreground spatial relations within romantic poetry, he also explains the intellectual basis upon which geography became a new field of knowledge. In order to explain the discipline as it emerges around 1800, Tang distinguishes between the descriptive geography of classical epistemé, with its moral classification of the empirical world, and modern geography, with its sensitivity to cultural history and the perspectives of individual observers. Lyric poetry, Tang argues, became a privileged medium for describing nature. He contrasts the landscape descriptions in Albrecht von Haller's alpine poetry with Goethe's highly subjective “Auf dem See” (1775). Goethe's poem is neither a mimetic nor iconic representation of an empirically recognizable place, whereas Haller's cycle, “Die Alpen,” is just that. At this stage in his argument, Tang is recapitulating David Wellbery's thesis from The Specular Moment asserting a revolutionary rupture between Goethe's youthful lyric and previous pastoral poems.
The breadth and innovation of Tang's argument shows itself as he quickly moves on to Alexander von Humboldt's conceptualization of nature as an organic unity, followed by Carl Ritter's argument for the dynamic unity between man and earth. “Die Erde” is a central term in Tang's history of geography, and he draws out its many connotations in a wide range of important German texts. Like Wellbery, Tang starts off sounding like Foucault, but then moves back into the reflective waters of German Idealism.