Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Charles W. J. Withers; Paul Wood | Go to book overview

10
Appealing to Nature: Geology ‘in the Field’
in hate Enlightenment Scotland

STUART HARTLEY

This chapter considers the role of natural knowledge gathered ‘in the field’ in order to understand the nature and place of geology in late Enlightenment Scotland. The question of fieldwork is also considered in relation to the presentation and discussion of field-based evidence within the social and scientific institutions of the time. In focusing on what in later decades was to become the scientific discipline or ‘field’ of geology, my concern is to raise questions about the hitherto rather neglected place of fieldwork in late Enlightenment science in Scotland. Several more particular themes inform what follows. I examine the nature of field enquiry in the work of Robert Jameson, Sir James Hall and Sir George Mackenzie. These men, in different ways, used the field as the testing site for debate between Wernerian neptunists and Huttonian plutonists over the primacy of either water or heat as agencies in the earth’s formation. Fieldwork – being ‘out there’ in nature in order to secure facts with which to think theoretically – should also be seen, I suggest, as a matter of presenting material ‘back here’, in the social spaces and civic sites of Enlightenment institutions.

In what follows, then, I am also concerned to document something of the practices of fieldwork in the earth sciences at a key period in Scotland and in the sciences more generally. I shall also be arguing that fieldwork cannot be separated from the civic dimension of late Enlightenment science and that it was part of that historical intellectual enquiry in Scotland that was, in Christopher Berry’s terms, at once ‘natural’ and ‘civil’1. For other scholars, analysis of fieldwork in the earth sciences and in the physical bases to chemistry and to agricultural experimentation certainly has to be understood in relation to Enlightenment civic and cultural practices.2

Fieldwork also presents epistemological problems to do with the difficulties of securing reliable knowledge amidst an array of potentially overwhelming empirical data and of bringing it home, in the form of specimens, records or sketches, in ways that allow for its appreciation by others. As Lisbet Koerner has shown of Linnaeus, the field was a site for scientific endeavour and, for his students, a site for their instruction and moral guidance.3 The field was also an arena in which the conduct of science was dependent upon the frailty of the human body, upon a reliance on the observing eye and upon the accuracy of recorded information which might make real sense only when dislocated from

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