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Simion Mehedinți – a Man of Fulfilled Ideas

Simion Mehedinți – a Man of Fulfilled Ideas

No. 1, Sep.-Oct. 2016 » KNOWlegacy

“Idea is architectonic; it creates science.”

This is the adopted motto of the great scholar Simion Mehedinți (SM) in his fundamental book “Terra. Introducere în geografie ca știință” (Terra. Introduction to geography as a science), published in 1930. The sententious statement, but full of meaning, belongs to the remarkable German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whom he admired intensely given his encounter with the philosopher’s work when Mehedinți studied in Germany.

Simion Mehedinți has entered the public consciousness as a great geographer, which he was indeed and has been maintained since. But his personality was a versatile one, similar to Renaissance polymaths, with contributions in multiple domains of scientific knowledge, going beyond formal study, as we will prove throughout this article.

We will start with some biographical notes that shaped the personality of this outstanding man, the core of this paper. Born in Soveja, Vrancea County (18 October 1868), in a family with clerical traditions, Simion Mehedinți attended school in five localities (Soveja, Vidra, Roman, Focșani and Bucharest – at “Sfântu Sava” High School); all of these will be his “school of life” as he later wrote. As student at “Școala Normală Superioară” in Bucharest (1889–1892), SM had the chance to meet two great professors, Titu Maiorescu and Alexandru Odobescu, personalities that will shape his entire life. Although SM opted for Mathematics at the University of Bucharest, Odobescu counseled him to pursue Geography (against Maiorescu's wish, who considered SM perfectly tailored for the historian’s calling). Therefore, Odobescu supported Mehedinți in obtaining the scholarship of the “Societatea Regală Română de Geografie – SRRG” (The Romanian Royal Geographical Society) to study first at Sorbonne and then at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Here, another chance arose, as Mehedinți met “the only great French geographer of that time – Paul Vidal de La Blache, who did not manage to become professor at Sorbonne, but who was teaching with passion and brilliance at that famous school”. Appreciative of Mehedinți and being aware that studies of Geography were superior elsewhere, Paul Vidal de La Blache guided him to go to Germany. In Germany, new chances unfolded as Mehedinți studied under two of the greatest geographers: Ferdinand von Richthofen in Berlin and Friedrich Ratzel in Leipzig; under the latter, SM wrote and defended his PhD “Despre inducția cartografică” (1899) (“Concerning cartographical induction”), which led to him graduating summa cum laudae.

With the first university course held by SM at the University of Bucharest, on the 3rd of November 1900, Scientific Geography was established in Romania and was then brought to new heights. Alongside the development of geography, SM researched other fields, founded journals, led outstanding journals of that time (“Convorbiri literare” – “Literary conversations”, “Buletinul SRRG” –“The SRRG Bulletin”), organized many activities from his position at the SRRG as Vice-President (the President was the King of Romania by tradition) – being the first geographer to hold this function, initiated meetings among professors of Geography and Pedagogic School (Seminar) etc. He was a member of the Romanian Academy (from 1915; he had been a corresponding member since 1908), Minister of “Instrucțiunii Publice și Cultelor” (1918) (Public Instruction and Religion) etc.

Isolated during the Communist regime, SM managed to recover his house in 1957 (the headquarters of the Geography Institute of the Romanian Academy), but not his recognition by the regime, despite living for 94 years. He died on December 14th, 1962 and was buried in Bellu Cemetery from Bucharest, then later reburied in his native village as per his family's wish (1993).

Continuing the biographical highlights, we will turn our focus to some of the fields in which SM's ideas flourished and revolutionized Romanian knowledge.

Terra. Introducere în geografie ca știință, volumele I și II, Simion Mehedinți

Geography

Concerned with building the science of geography and the place of geography among other sciences, SM elaborated a homogeneous and original system of geographical thought alongside laws and geographical categories, plus the associated methods. SM steadily exposed the system starting with his first papers of theoretical geography (“Locul geografiei între științe” – “Geography’s place among the sciences” 1894, and “Asupra obiectului geografiei, definițiunea ei”, “Concerning the science of geography – its definition” 1901) and reached the pinnacle with the holistic and fundamental work called “Terra. Introducere în geografie ca știință” (“Terra. Introduction to geography as a science”, 1930, two volumes). Starting with Humboldt's axiomatic idea of organic homogeneity of planet Earth/Terra, SM established the order of conducting research and presentation of geographical data from the simplest layer, the one overlaid on top of the others (the atmosphere) towards the most complex one and underlying to the others (the biosphere, including the human race). He revealed that, to reach the depiction and understanding of territorial complexity (from locality to planet), there is only one path to follow: the analysis of relations among planetary layers from static point of view (form, structure), as well as dynamic (evolution). These are the origins of his definition of Geography: “Geography is the science studying the relation among the masses of the four planetary layers, from static point of view (actual phase), as well dynamic (evolutionary phase)”. No other researcher, and there were some famous ones before him, had developed such a synthetic definition, yet conclusive at the same time.

Yet, Mehedinți was not content with a simple definition, no matter how well wrought, which could have been the results of a moment of inspiration, but he struggled to articulate and develop it. First, he stated the principles underlying this definition: a) progressive complexity of spheres – according to him, the four spheres of Terra (atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere), resulting from the distribution of planetary substance in a concentric way, as a consequence of terrestrial gravitation, within each order of aggregation, in parallel with this allowing their increase in complexity towards the interference area, a complexity followed through the triple criterion of form, composition and internal dynamics; b) causal subordination of planetary layers – Earth’s layers cannot be sufficiently well characterized if the phenomena produced in higher level layers are not counted in; as a first example, he stated that “the disappearance of atmosphere will annihilate the water layer”; c) causal subordination of geographical regions at the surface of Earth, Equatorial regions, being the first “center of action” (primum movens) from which different influences diffuse towards temperate regions, then polar regions; he was aware of the fact that reality is much more complex due to perturbations.

Furthermore, Mehedinți approached the problem regarding geographical research method, introducing the triad observation – interpretation – depiction, the last one being analytic and synthetic. He succeeded to expand the narrow meaning of the method as it was understood then (“all the practical procedures used…”) by introducing a novel idea for a string of special intuitions and laws that allows the mind to achieve an optimal understanding of phenomena studied within the corresponding science/field. He did not forget to widen the discussion about geographical categories, distinguishing two types: static (form, dimension, position/localization, temperature, composition, density, colour) and dynamic (direction, intensity and the pace of movement).

One of Mehedinți's disciples, Victor Tufescu, the one who arranged in an exemplary way the first re-edit of Terra…, stated in “Simion Mehedinți. Viața și opera” (“Simion Mehedinți – his life and work”, 1994) that Mehedinți developed “the most comprehensive definition given to geography. The essential element of this definition is that Geography does not focus individually on the layers of the Earth, but addresses the mutual relations among them, the way of interaction to each other and all together to human activities, because the human being cannot be detached from the upward path of civilization, and related to it, there are amplified influences administered to the terrestrial nature.”

Ethnography

The research in this area was as much of a success as those in Geography. Besides, SM presented himself as “professor of Geography and Ethnography”, a statement emphasized during his reception discourse at the Romanian Academy. Three papers emerge as outstanding from his multiple researches in the field. First, the report “Cercetări etnografice asupra românilor” (“Ethnographic research of the Romanians”), held at SRRG on March 28, 1910, which received significant appreciation and follow-ups, while SRRG established a prize of 2.000 lei for “a scientific work with a focus on Romanian ethnography”. Then, he wrote “Caracterizarea etnografică a unui popor prin munca și uneltele sale” (“The ethnographic characterization of a people through its labor and tools”), which was based on his reception discourse at the Romanian Academy, addressed to his fellows in the plenary meeting of May 6, 1920 (he was elected member from 1915 onwards, but the disturbances of the war kept the ceremony from taking place). Mehedinți advocated that “if work elevated the human being out of animal life and opened the path to progress, the specificity of human activity and the ingenuity of its tools, differentiated from people to groups of people, characterize the level of culture of each of them and each nation. When one says culture, one understands the sum of the work of creation of a nation, starting with the material technique and reaching the finest intellectual products, emerging from its work”. Over another 10 year, he published “Coordonatele etnografice: civilizația și cultura” (“Ethnographic coordinates: civilization and culture”), with the subtitle “Hilotehnica – Psihotehnica”. He understood as civilization “the sum of all craftsmanship and tools by which the human being adapts to nature”, or, in other words. “the sum of all technical creations”. The culture was defined as “the sum of all soul products through which the human being seeks entrance to a balanced stance with the rest of creation, that is to social environment and, generally, to the moral universe which surrounds it”.

For many years, SM taught Ethnography courses at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Letters, which housed the department of Geography at the time, publishing different editions (starting with 1921), revisiting issues of Ethnography in his high school manual “Antropogeografia” (“Anthropogeography”). He collected material for a large book called Ethnos, which would have compared with “Terra. Introducere în geografie ca știință”. Although Simion Mehedinți had mentioned it numerous times, it was believed the manuscript was either lost or the project was abandoned. Yet, some recent new evidence suggests that he indeed wrote the book! Let us bring parts of this evidence through the word of professor Costică Neagu, the one working for years to reassess the work of the great scientist: “During my work of sorting some papers and notes from the family's archive (…), I found a large dossier, tied with hemp rope in a red-cardboard cover with a unsealed red-waxed stamp and the words “Materiale pentru Ethnos” (“Materials for Ethnos”) written on it. The sheet covering the first chapter contained the complete title of manuscript “Ethnos. O introducere în studiul omenirii” (“Ethnos. An introduction into the study of mankind”). Furthermore, I found a dedication: to the Memory of the founder of Romanian Geographic Society, Carol the 1st, and in the memory of Ferdinand the 1st, the re-unifier of Dacia, forever piety”. The manuscript (448p) was published in 2008, at Terra publisher from Focșani, under the supervision of its finder and with a preface signed by professor Gheorghiță Geană, another researcher concerned with supporting Simion Mehedinți's outstanding work.

The book approaches, according to the manuscript, civilization only, and comprises two parts. The first part covers issues like “Omenirea ca formație biogeografică deosebită de restul animalității” (“Humanity as a biogeographic formation distinct from the rest of the animal regnum”), “Adaptarea somatică activă: tehnica (munca)” (“Active somatic adaptation: techniques (work)”) and “Adaptarea psihică” (“Psychological adaptation”), whereas the second part, larger in extent, covers different occupations (hunting, domestication, husbandry, agriculture etc.), housing, circulation etc. To the main manuscript, a new chapter was added concerning culture from an ethnographic perspective, and which was taken out of Mehedinți's manual “Antropogeografia pentru clasa a VI-a secundară” (“Anthropogeography for Sixth grade of secondary school”), publised in 1937.

Although smaller than “Terra…” (over 1.200 pages), the book has the same consistency. It is hypothesized that the manuscript was to be much larger based on the numerous other materials found in the aforementioned dossier.

Philosophy of science

Simion Mehedinți’s work involved Philosophy, as well, which he studied assiduously during his time in Bucharest (with the help of books from the library of Școala Normală Superioară), which he continued and completed during his research in France and Germany. He researched and scrutinized the work of great philosophers such as Auguste Comte, Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer.

Simion Mehedinți did not publish papers of philosophy, but he formulated a philosophy of science regarding Geography and Ethnography in a generalized way, seeking to clarify the role of natural sciences and sciences regarding humans through philosophical interpretations. It can be stated that his fundamental book, “Terra. Introducere în geografie ca știință” (at least in volume I), is a model of interpretation and embedding of philosophy into a core science, Geography in this case. Then, another representative work is “Trilogii: știința - școala - viața, cu aplecări la poporul roman” (“Trilogies: science – school – life, with reference to the Roman people”, in 1940; with another title in the previous year “Trilogia științei: cercetător, erudit, savant” – “Trilogy of science: researcher, erudite, savant”). He advanced some interesting hypotheses regarding categories of tutors in the field of knowledge: researcher (the one seeking and revealing new facts), erudite/reader (the one who gathers knowledge about many things studied by him or others) and scholar (“only thinkers who reach new ideas to verity, multiply and systematize the knowledge accumulated, facilitating the progress of science in its most vulnerable point”). According to Mehedinți, the researcher's value, in the generic sense of the term, stands not so much in gathering the work material, but in coordination towards discovering new truths and critical insight, ready to review conclusions if the observation demands that.

Education and Pedagogy

Academician Victor Tufescu stated: “Mehedinți's propensity to guide and mentor teenagers and school them on the path of an education harmonized with the nature of our nation, with its spiritual culture, as well as to correct some wrong practices (…), lead him in his courses, publications, congresses, in all of his activities. We could say Mehedinți was a vocational educator and enhanced this trait with keen observation, critical observation, through his own education with the good and the bad, and through life with its multiple downward situations”.

Among his many papers in the field, one emerges to the top “Altă creștere – școala muncii” (“Another rearing – the school of work”, six editions between 1919 and 1939). Mehedinți argued, correctly we could say, that “there cannot be a universal school, or a universal program or universal books, but each University has to tailor its own curricula, according to its needs”. This was followed by “Starting with Abecedarium and ending with Philosophy, each human lives, willing or not, out of an intuition about a country or a nation, from which the individual cannot detach, unless willing to hinder its most valuable traits”. As a scientist with an outstanding practical education, Mehedinți asserted that the illusions of rational pedagogues, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are inherently flimsy. Mehedinți criticized Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” in his PhD thesis “Ideile lui J.J. Rousseau asupra educației” (“The ideas of J.J. Rousseau on education” at Școala Normală Superioară), suggesting that it was an a priori pedagogy, full of dreams, and supposed to be valid but with no real arguments for every child in the world, regardless of living environment. Mehedinți proposed a mixed solution to the pedagogical contradiction between the two opposite school of thoughts regarding teenagers' instruction and education: “each human is a blend of heritage traits and others developed during growing up” and that only their fusion during life can show the true character of an individual.

Mehedinți's view about școala muncii must not be misinterpreted, as others have, with craftsmanship. To Mehedinți, școala muncii means “to mobilize all your body’s strengths and your childhood soul to multiply them and, at the same time, out of their free play, to devise which is the most powerful trait of a child in order to provide the best guidance for him or her and society alike”.

Another of Mehedinți's work has to be recalled, as he developed and proposed two very important laws to Parliament (as a Minister of Public Instruction and Religion in 1918), with positive consequences: “Legea pentru eforiile școlare” (“Law for school governing boards”) and “Legea pentru școlile pregătitoare și seminariile normale” (“Law for normal seminars and preparative schools”). The great philosopher and psychologist Constantin Rădulescu-Motru wrote beautifully: “vocational training schools are after the old churches built by the righteous souls of noblemen, the most precious beneficence received by the Romanian nation from its rulers”.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that Mehedinți encouraged permanent learning, a concept much used today, but without framing it within a theoretical approach; therefore he started geographical Seminars, didactic excursions, congresses etc. The last ones, held between 1909-1938, established the first form of organization for adults' guidance and education.

Conclusions

Simion Mehedinți had great ideas, doubled with other accomplishments, unrevealed due to editorial constrains: geopolitics, literature, geographic description, encouraging scientific development, editor of cornerstone journals (Convorbiri literare – recommended and suppored by Titu Maiorescu, Buletinul SRRG), founder of journals, outstanding writer of memoirs and orator etc.

Four decades ago, I published a paper triggered by an edition of a SM's bibliography (signed by Vintilă Mihăilescu) in a journal of International Geographic Union. What I said then remains, unfortunately, still valid:

“It is not hazardous to argue that an international edition of Terra. Introducere în geografie ca știință, translated into an international language, would have stood out as a cornerstone of the history of geographical thought.

We dare to say that it is not too late in the day to translate into a global language a short and annotated edition of this valuable book. This way, SM's contributions to define the object and methods of Geography would find recognition and status within world thought on the heritage of Geography.”

 
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