You would think I’d have figured this question out after so many years of working on it. To be honest, I don’t feel any closer to an answer than I did twelve years ago when I began a field in the history of exploration for my prelim exams. The shortest, least satisfying (and dare I say, most academic) of answers would be to say that, well, it depends.
Some think of exploration as the investigation of unknown regions, a capacious view that extends to the voyages of Christopher Columbus as easily as those of Alexander von Humboldt or Lewis and Clark. Others have given it a more precise meaning. As the OED declares, Exploration is an activity “for the purpose of discovery.” This is the view adopted by William Goetzmann in his path-breaking book Exploration and Empire (1966). In Goetzmann’s words, Exploration “is purposeful. It is the seeking. It is not the mere happenstance of discovery which “can be produced by accident.” This may not seem like an earth-shattering distinction, but it would probably be enough to cast Columbus out of the sacred pantheon of explorers. He wasn’t, after all, as interested in discovering new lands as he was finding new routes to old ones. I imagine that Columbus would have been rather peeved to learn that his West Indies were no where near Asia. Fortunately he died before Magellan figured this out.
I know where I am
There are other ways that exploration means different things to different people. Many popular books on exploration treat it, more or less, as the engine of discovery, a process that culminates in the “First Footprint” (if no one is around) or the “First Encounter” (when inconsiderate natives have left footprints of their own).
But to others, these firsts are only the beginning of a longer, systematic process of investigation which may continue for years after the initial geographical discovery. Arriving in South America in 1799, one could say that Alexander von Humboldt was about 300 years too late for discovery. He spent four years trekking through South and Central America, botanizing and criticizing the Spanish regime. Such was the influence of Humboldt that Simon Bolivar called him “the true discoverer of America.”
Simon Bolivar: Revolutionary and Humboldt Groupie
A century later, Hugh Robert Mill would voice similar views:
As exploration proceeds, and as it is followed up by detailed scientific study, wave after wave of knowledge flows over the earth’s surface, each forming, as it consolidates, the ground upon which the next will spread. (Mill, McClure’s Magazine (Nov 1894) 3:540)
Stated somewhat differently, Goetzmann applies this view of exploration to the American West:
The country beyond the Mississippi, as we now know it, was not just “discovered” in one dramatic and colorful era of early-nineteenth-century coonskin exploration. Rather it was discovered and rediscovered by generations of very different explorers down through the centuries following the advent of the shipwrecked Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca. (Exploration and Empire, x)
Differences in the meaning of exploration may seem like so much academic bean-counting, but they have serious consequences. One imagines, in reading George Bush’s 2004 Vision of Space Exploration, that the image of an American bootprint in the cold, red dust of Mars figured strongly in his calculations to ramp-up human exploration of the solar system.
Other space scientists, however, have watched this NASA directive play out with alarm. As science budgets get cut to make room for new launch and crew vehicles (on this see this post as well as this one), the Bolivarian view of exploration gets sacrificed to “we got there first.”
On ideas of exploration, see also: