Hettner, Alfred

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Hettner, Alfred



Alfred Hettner (1859–1941) was an important leader in the development of German geography and was particularly influential in defining for geographers generally the scope and methods of their subject.

He was born in Dresden and grew up there in a large family with intellectual and artistic interests. He became interested in geography while he was in secondary school and declared his intention of specializing in that field as soon as he began his university training. He studied at four different German universities and traveled and did field work for four years in South America. After teaching for ten years in Leipzig, he was appointed in 1897 to the newly established chair of geography at Tubingen and then, less than two years later, to the new chair at Heidelberg, which he held until his retirement in 1928.

Although his training and his early work were principally in geomorphology, Hettner, like Ritter and Ratzel, was more interested in human geography. Moreover, he became increasingly involved in establishing a methodology for geography, an enterprise he had initially regarded as auxiliary to work on other problems but which ultimately became a primary aspect of his life’s work (1927, p. iii).

The opportunity to present his methodological position came in 1895, when at the age of 36 he founded the Geographische Zeitschrift. The new journal was to be devoted to “the advancement of genuine geographical learning,” and Hettner opened his introductory article with the questions, “What is geography? What does it seek to accomplish and what is it able to accomplish?” (1895, p. 1). During the following two decades he presented detailed answers to these questions in a series of essays that came to be regarded as classics in geographic methodology (1927). During his career he also published numerous substantive studies in different aspects of systematic geography, which elaborate or illustrate his methodological principles (see his four-volume work in systematic physical geography, Vergleichende Landerkunde, 1933-1935; and his three-volume Allgemeine Geographie des Menschen, 1947-1957). Important as these studies were, Hettner’s principal influence was exerted through the Geographische Zeitschrift, over which he maintained close control for forty years (Schmitthenner 1941, p. 453; “Drei auto-biographische Skizzen,” pp. 22-26).

The concepts of geography that Hettner promoted were not derived by logical deduction from any a priori philosophical position; they were developed empirically from the study of the history of the development of the field since antiquity (1927, pp. 110 ff.). Among geographers he was influenced particularly by Humboldt, Ritter, Kirchhoff, Marthe, and Richthofen (“Drei autobiographische Skiz zen” Hartshorne 1939). His distinctive function was to justify the conclusions drawn from the historical development of geography in terms of the methodology and philosophy of science. His general philosophical viewpoint was based, he said, neither on Kant nor on Comte but on Lange’s Geschichte des Materialismus; and his scientific methodology, on Wundt’s Logik (Hettner 1926, p. 306). But in explaining the relation of geography to other fields, Hettner formulated a scheme of the division of the sciences which, as he later learned, had been presented a century earlier by Kant and by Humboldt, also, apparently, independently (Hartshorne 1958).

In examining the historical development of geography, Hettner found that major misunderstandings had arisen through the failure to identify correctly the object of study. Geography is not, as its name suggests, the over-all science of the earth but the study of the earth shell, more commonly called earth surface, as it varies in the character or content of its areal parts. The basic approach is chorological: to describe and interpret the varied character of the earth surface. This areal variation is formed by many diverse elements, which vary from place to place, interrelated in any particular place and interconnected between different places.

If geography is basically chorological, Hettner reasoned, it is not dualistic; rather, in any inhabited area the physical and human features are so intricately interlaced as to form a single subject for study. Geography is, therefore, not to be divided between the natural and the social sciences or defined as the study of relations between natural and human features of the earth surface. It is a unitary discipline, and the reality it studies is composed of heterogeneous but interrelated elements.

Two theoretically different approaches are usefully combined in the study of areas: the approach of regional geography, which analyzes the full complex of features in individual areas, and the approach of general (or systematic, or topical) geography, which compares areas in terms of particular kinds of features. While Hettner regarded the former, the analysis of individual regions, as the “crowning” product of geographic study, he considered comparative systematic studies no less essential. Geography, then, is both nomothetic and idiographic (1927, pp. 217-218, 221-224, 398-404).

Hettner’s work helped to produce a marked degree of agreement among German geographers in the early decades of the twentieth century; such agreement does not exist in many other countries. Outside of German-speaking countries Hettner’s ideas were not widely known until they were expounded at length in English (Hartshorne 1939). They have since become familiar and influential in many countries. In establishing his basic methodological structure, Hettner did not attempt to build something new; rather, he believed that he “had clearly expressed and methodologically established what was actually present in the development” of geography (1934b, p. 382). This may well be the reason why the influence of his work has been so strong and can be expected to endure.

Richard Hartshorne

[For the historical context of Hettner’s work, see the biographies ofHumboldt; Ritter; Wundt. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeGeography, especialhj the article onSocial Geography.]


1895 Geographische Forschung und Bildung. Geographische Zeitschrift 1:1–19.

1926 [Book Review of] Otto Graf, Vom Begriff der Geographie. Geographische Zeitschrift 32:304–306.

1927 Die Geographie: Ihre Geschichte, ihr Wesen und ihre Methoden. Breslau: Hirt.

1933-1935 Vergleichende Länderkunde. 4 vols. Leipzig: Teubner.

1934a Der Begriff der Ganzheit in der Geographie. Geo graphische Zeitschrift 40:141–144.

1934b Neue Angriffe auf die heutige Geographie. Geo graphische Zeitschrift 40:341-343, 380–383.

1947-1957 Allgemeine Geographie des Menschen. 3 vols. Edited by Heinrich Schmitthenner and E. Plewe. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. → Published posthumously.

Drei autobiographische Skizzen. Pages 41-80 in Alfred Hettner, 6.8.1859: Gedenkschrift zum 100. Geburtstag. Heidelberg (Germany): Keyser, 1960.


Alfred Hettner, 6.8.1859: Gedenkschrift zum 100. Geburtstag. 1960 Heidelberg (Germany): Keyser. → A bibliography of Hettner’s works compiled by E. Plewe appears on pages 81–88.

Hartshorne, Richard (1939) 1964 The Nature of Geography: A Critical Survey of Current Thought in the Light of the Past. Lancaster, Pa.: Association of American Geographers.

Hartshorne, Richard 1958 The Concept of Geography as a Science of Space, From Kant and Humboldt to Hettner. Association of American Geographers, Annals 48:97–108.

Pfeifer, Gottfried 1959 Alfred Hettner zum 100. Geburtstag. Kosmos 55:351–353.

Schmitthenner, Heinrich 1941 Alfred Hettner. Geographische Zeitschrift 47:441–468.