Ritter, Carl

views updated May 21 2018

Ritter, Carl




In his own time Carl Ritter (1779–1859) was one of the best-known German scholars in the world. For the few who are still aware of him, his voluminous writings of more than 25,000 pages are a mine of facts and perspectives. The most widely read biography, written by his brother-in-law, Gustav Kramer (1864–1870), considered him in strictly theological terms; and as a consequence, the Positivists who followed condemned him, without examining whether his religious beliefs in fact distorted his scientific work. Nevertheless, Ritter, with Alexander von Humboldt, is still generally considered one of the founders of modern scientific geography.

Ritter’s life encompassed the German Enlightenment, romanticism, and the Biedermeier era, and —more clearly even than in Humboldt’s case—his work mirrored his active participation in all the intellectual movements of his time. He considered it providential that he found himself repeatedly in the center of contemporary intellectual controversies.

His father, an outstanding diagnostician who was personal physician to the sister of Frederick the Great, died in 1784, leaving his widow, a devout Pietist, with six children and in straitened circumstances. In the same year, the well-known pedagogue Christian G. Salzmann had founded his Philantropinum in Schnepfenthal; since he was unable immediately to find pupils, he admitted on scholarships two boys who seemed to be highly talented—Carl Ritter and his brother Johannes, as well as their tutor, Guths Muths. For 11 years, longer than any other pupil, Carl remained at that institution of sober enlightenment, which neglected humanistic studies—stressing instead the development of such tangible values as a sound body and a good character—and which was designed to produce not scholars but citizens.

Since Ritter showed a talent for drawing, Salzmann planned to make him a copperplate engraver, but chance gave his life a different direction. The Frankfurt banker Bethmann, an ancestor of the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, happened to be in Schnepfenthal. He hired Ritter as a tutor for his two boys, first sending him for a few years to the University of Halle to fill in any gaps in his education in general and to study cameralism in particular. The Bethmanns remained Ritter’s benefactors until he became self-supporting.

Ritter’s main initial interest was pedagogy, which brought him into close contact with Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He became not only one of the most knowledgeable interpreters and critics of Pestalozzi’s “method” but was also chosen by Pestalozzi to succeed him at Iferten; when Ritter refused, his friendship with Pestalozzi came to an end.

Even in his pedagogic period, which lasted from his entry into the Bethmann household until the start of his studies in Göttingen (from 1798 to 1813), Ritter had become interested in geography. His early work, Europa: Ein geographisch-historisch-statistisches Gemählde (1804–1807), was still completely under the influence of the then-current statistical political science. However, in the atlas Sechs Karten von Europa (1804–1806) that accompanied his work, he revealed his ability to envision the continent as a whole. These maps conceive of the elements of an area as layers: the surface, vegetation, cultivated plants, animal life, population and tribes, etc. He intended the atlas merely as an educational aid for schools, yet it was the origin of the kind of cartographic documentation that is commonly used today.

Ritter’s thinking and his scholarly aims were strongly influenced by travels through the magnificent Swiss landscape and by his contacts with Pestalozzi and the theologian Johannes Niederer. He came not only to appreciate the individual character of various kinds of scenery and to develop the idea of interaction between nature and culture, but also to see it as his mission to explore this idea of interaction for the benefit of mankind.

Pestalozzi fostered these general ideas by acquainting Ritter with the idea of a “type,” and by suggesting that this concept of type be introduced into the field of geography in a textbook for his school. There was a strange contradiction in Pestalozzi’s predilection for types and his radical condemnation of definitions, which he considered as abstract and therefore lifeless and rigid. For Pestalozzi the only adequate definition was a complete description, and Ritter’s later works show that he accepted this view.

Niederer awoke Ritter from his cool, rationalistic moralism to a deeply felt Christianity, though he did not at once become a member of a particular church. Ritter searched for a suitable intellectual foundation for his Christian views, for instance in the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and only much later, in Berlin, did he become a Lutheran.

When Ritter submitted to the famous geologist Leopold von Buch the manuscript of the textbook on geography that he had promised to Pestalozzi, it was criticized so severely in its details that Ritter scrapped it. Instead he undertook to incorporate all the known details of geography in a vast description of the entire earth, hoping ultimately to produce the general geographic textbook suggested by Pestalozzi.

In 1813 Ritter went to the University of Gòttingen as a tutor to the Bethmann boys and to pursue his own academic plans. Göttingen was at the time the only intellectually free institution in Germany, where research without censorship or tutelage was possible, and it was therefore the gathering place for an elite. Although Ritter did not participate actively in university affairs, he came into contact with the leading men there, such as the anatomist and polyhistorian Johann Fried-rich Blumenbach, who played a role also in the development of geography and anthropology; the historian Arnold Heeren; the anatomist Samuel Sòmmering; and the mineralogist Hausmann. His contacts extended to’ Berlin, where the jurist Savigny and the theologian Schleiermacher were his friends. All of these, as well as earlier friends, such as August von Schlegel, Baron Karl vom und zum Stein, and Madame de Staël, were connected with the romantic movement.

In response to new intellectual currents, Ritter studied the entire literature on geography from ancient times to contemporary travel descriptions and made excerpts from it, in order to gain for geography a clearly defined sphere within the sciences and a body of problematics. The principal subject matter for further study was, as he saw it, the surface of the earth from the time that man began both to influence the development of the world and to be influenced by it. This means that geography for Ritter was the science of the surface of the earth in its material utility, and especially in its interaction with the people who populate it and develop their cultures on it.

The year 1817 saw the publication of the first volume of his Die Erdkunde im Verhältniss zur Natur und zur Geschichte des Menschen …; after he had completed the second volume (1818), he began a second edition, which by the time of his death had grown to 21 large volumes dealing with all of Africa and Asia, except for a small western portion of Asia Minor.

The originality of this book soon was acclaimed all over the world, and it also attracted the attention of the Prussian general staff and of those who were responsible for the re-establishment of the University of Berlin. Both groups joined in calling Ritter to Berlin in 1820, to teach geography at the university and to instruct the Prussian military leadership corps. His success in teaching was considerable, although its full impact cannot be judged without further research. The most important German generals, especially Roon and Moltke, were his closest students; they wrote valuable textbooks and reports and applied in practical strategy what Ritter had taught them. At the university, he found enthusiastic and productive disciples among many historians and among such geographers as Heinrich Kiepert, J. E. Wappäus, Heinrich Berghaus, Heinrich Barth, and Elisée Reclus. For all his self-confidence Ritter was modest and reserved, and his public appearances were confined to numerous congresses at home and abroad; he disdained taking advantage of his position as instructor in geography and history to the Prussian princes and princesses to further his personal social position. Nevertheless, the intervention of friends, particularly that of Alexander von Humboldt with the king, permitted him almost every year to undertake long and at that time still very difficult travels throughout nearly all of Europe. Beautifully written travel reports (see G. Kramer 1864–1870, part 2) give testimony to his skill in observing scenery and people and disprove the general opinion that he was a mere bookworm. He was active until he died at the age of 80, soon after his friend Humboldt.


What remains of Ritter’s work is, first of all, his capacity to perceive a geographic entity and geographic relationships and so to develop the study of regions instead of the traditional study of states. The fluctuating boundaries between states meant little to him, since he described each area in terms of the actual changes that have gradually been established by science. He sought to develop a new and more meaningful organization of the earth into regions, based on intrinsic sources of coherency. These regions might be, for example, river basins, plateaus, or terraced areas. They are parts of the larger units of the total earth organism, that is, of the continents. To establish these lesser units, it is necessary to have an accurate topographical map and as complete a description as possible of the landscape in a given area, as well as of the climate, the vegetation, the animal life, and finally of man and his historical interaction with the foregoing elements. Clearly the fundamental idea is that all these elements are interconnected and that their differential regional occurrence and interaction determines the character of a particular area.

The human population of a specific area was what aroused Ritter’s particular interest. He considered man the fulfillment of creation and its ultimate purpose. Geography, he believed, would fail in its central task if it did not understand how man influences the space in which he lives and is in turn “educated” by the advantages and obstacles that the space offers. Ritter devoted special attention to the period of the greatest cultural development of each area, since he believed that in such periods the highest degree of harmony between nature and culture can be assumed to exist. Thus he became the founder of the kind of historical study of regions that only recently has been seriously revived.

Geographers no longer adhere to Ritter’s method of revealing to the reader all the sources of their material. Ritter has been criticized for succumbing to the weight of his sources, for not being able to discriminate the essential. This criticism overlooks the fact that it was he who introduced into geography the critical review of contradictory sources and that he presented clearly the concept of the persistence or change of certain elements in the geographic-historical development of the areas he described.

The romantic principle of “polarity,” long since abandoned by geography, permitted Ritter to discover such polar relationships as those between the hemispheres of land and water, between central and peripheral areas, between oceanic and continental phenomena in all their possible natural and historical variations, and between the climatic zones within the polaric tension of north and south. Also, from romanticism came Ritter’s concepts of “individuality” as applied to units of space and of “organism,” applied to the earth as organism. In Ritter’s view this meant more, however, than that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—an idea that has been revived by the new science of geography in its concern for the “integration” of all parts.

Ritter took a unique position with regard to the natural philosophical conception of the earth as based on a plan that was conceived at creation and that classifies all things according to their endowed ability to develop. (This position is fully developed by Henrick Steffens in his Anthropology, published in 1822.) Ritter did not reject natural philosophy a priori as did Humboldt and the majority of scholars at that time; indeed, he was rather inclined toward it. But he refused to acknowledge its claim to being a superior kind of science, based on the specialized sciences it scorned. Avoiding both extremes, he endeavored to test natural philosophy, thereby building a bridge between it and factual research. His scientific integrity kept him always nearer to the facts than to lofty “speculations.” He likened himself to a “thinking anatomist or physiologist” who investigates the structure of the earth organism, critically recording and evaluating all facts in the hope of discovering the underlying plan (“no matter whether it be divine or natural”). He did not conceal facts, nor did he abuse them; but he did expect that after a mass of detail was digested he would find a system that would not only permit an interpretation of the earth in mechanical terms but would also be meaningful.

Ritter was much more critical and cautious than many of today’s scholars, who are inclined to generalize and to establish rules and laws. His belief in a world order (divine or natural) never led him to a distortion or misrepresentation of facts, and it served him as an incentive for finding innumerable connections which before him the “meaningless description of the earth could not have imagined.” Thus he sought to justify himself vis-à-vis the kind of science that developed around him, which considered it its first duty to divest the world of myth; and he provoked the accusation that he was a teleologist, which has dimmed his reputation as a scientist to the present day.

Ernst Plewe

[See alsoRegion.]


(1804–1806) 1820 Seeks Karten von Europa. Schnepfenthal (Germany): Erziehungsanstalt.

1804–1807 Europa: Ein geographisch-historisch-statistisches Gemählde. 2 vols. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Hermann.

(1817–1818) 1822–1859 Die Erdkunde im Verhältniss zur Natur und zur Geschichte des Menschen: Oder allgemeine, vergleichende Geographie. 21 vols. and 2 Index vols. 2d ed. Berlin: Reimer.

1820 Die Vorhalle europäischer Völkergeschichten vor Herodotus, um den Kaukasus und an den Gestaden des Pontus: Eine Abhandlung zur Alterthumskunde. Berlin: Reimer.

1831 Ritter, Carl; and Oetzel, F. A. Hand-Atlas von Afrika. Berlin: Reimer. → Contains 14 maps.

(1852) 1863 Geographical Studies. Boston: Gould & Lincoln. → First published as Einleitung zur allgemeinen vergleichenden Geographie.

1861 Geschichte der Erdkunde und der Entdeckungen. Vorlesungen an der Universität zu Berlin. Berlin: Reimer.

(1862) 1881 Comparative Geography. New York: Bragg. → First published as Allgemeine Erdkunde.


Bitterling, R. 1929 Carl Ritter zum Gedächtniss. Geographischer Anzeiger 30:233–264.

Carl Ritter zum Gedächtniss. 1959 Die Erde: Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin 90:97–254.

Gage, William L. 1867 The Life of Carl Ritter, Late Professor of Geography in the University of Berlin. New York: Scribner.

Guyot, Arnold H. 1860 Carl Ritter: An Address to the American Geographical and Statistical Society. Princeton, N.J.: Privately printed.

HÖzel, Emil 1896 Das geographische Individuum bei Karl Ritter und seine Bedeutung für den Begriff des Naturgebietes und der Naturgrenze. Leipzig: Teubner.

Kramer, Fritz L. 1959 A Note on Carl Ritter: 1779–1859. Geographical Review 49:406–409.

Kramer, Gustav (1864–1870) 1875 Carl Ritter: Ein Lebensbild nach seinem handschriftlichen Nachlass dargestellt. 2d rev. & enl. ed. 2 vols. Halle (Germany): Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses.

Pfeifer, Gottfried 1960 Ritter, Humboldt und die moderne Geographie. Pages 69–83 in Deutscher Geographentag, 32d, Berlin, Tagungsbericht und wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen. Wiesbaden (Germany): Steiner.

Plewe, Ernst 1960 Carl Ritters Stellung in der Geographie. Pages 59–68 in Deutscher Geographentag, 32d, Berlin, Tagungsbericht und wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen. Wiesbaden (Germany): Steiner.

Plott, Adalbert 1963 Bibliographie der Schriften Carl Ritters. Die Erde: Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin 94:13–36.

Schmitthenner, Heinrich 1937 Carl Ritter und Goethe. Geographischer Zeitschrift 43:161–175.

Schmitthenner, Heinrich 1951 Studien über Carl Ritter. Frankfurter geographische Hefte, Vol. 25, part 4. Frankfurt: Kramer.

Schmitthenner, Heinrich 1956 Carl Ritter. Volume 3, pages 189–200 in Die grossen Deutschen: Deutsche Biographic Berlin: Propyläen-Verlag bei Ullstein.

Wisotzki, Emil 1897 Zeitströmungen in der Geographie. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

WÜnsche, Alwin 1899 Die geschicktliche Bewegung und ihre geographische Bedingtheit bei Carl Ritter und bei seinen hervorragendsten Vorgängern in der Anthropo-geographie. Dresden (Germany): Franke.

Ritter, Carl (1779-1859)

views updated May 14 2018

Ritter, Carl (1779-1859)

German geographer

Along with his countryman and mentor Alexander von Humboldt (17691859), Carl Ritter is recognized as one of the two founders of modern geography.

Ritter was born the son of a physician on August 7, 1779, in Quedlinburg, Germany. After his father's premature death in 1784, his mother enrolled him at the age of five in Schnepfenthal, the experimental school of Christian Gotthilf Salzmann (17441811), where he acquired an amazing breadth of basic education. Based on the humanistic pedagogical theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Salzmann's system emphasized empirical science, practical living, natural law, history, philosophy, theology, art, and modern languages, but not classical languages. His geography teacher was Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths (17591839), who also taught history and French. Upon completing this curriculum, Ritter was hired as private tutor for the children of Bethmann Hollweg, a wealthy banker in Frankfurt. From 1798 to 1814, he worked for Hollweg, who financed his university education, first at Frankfurt, then at Göttingen from 1813 to 1819. During this time he also taught himself Latin and Greek.

Ritter's first geographical publication appeared in 1804. By 1816, he was a well-established scholar, with many articles and a two-volume textbook of European geography. He had traveled throughout Europe , but not beyond it. On the strength of his excellent reputation, he became professor of history at the University of Frankfurt in 1819 then in 1820 professor of geography at the University of Berlin, holding Germany's first endowed professorship of geography. He spent the rest of his career there, enjoying honors as a popular lecturer and prolific writer. Among his students at Berlin was the geologist Arnold Henri Guyot (18071884). While in Berlin, he also taught at a military academy and, in 1828, co-founded the Berlin Geographical Society. He died in Berlin on September 28, 1859.

A child of the Enlightenment, Ritter developed a strong affinity for the progressive ideas of Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (17461827), German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), and Humboldt. He integrated the studies of history and geography, perhaps sometimes to the disadvantage of traditional physical geography . He envisioned his life's work as a comprehensive geographical treatise of the entire world. With a long title but commonly known as simply Erdkunde (Geography), the first volume appeared in 1817. Eventually it ran to nineteen volumes, but when Ritter died it was still incomplete, covering only Asia and Africa . Immediately successful, it defined the discipline of geography as the study of the relation between humans and their various environments throughout the world. The human aspect of the study was Ritter's innovation, based on Guts Muths's principles. Geography was no longer "just maps."

See also Earth science

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