The Scottish Crucible: John Walker and the Chemistry of Geology in Enlightenment Edinburgh

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Philosophy


During the late eighteenth-century, the word 'system' was used by Scots and other Northern Europeans to describe a coherent arrangement of information that served a practical purpose (pedagogical, intellectual or otherwise). Although a few studies have been devoted to this subject in recent years, the specific methods (or 'systematics') that Enlightenment naturalists used to create arrangements of natural history specimens have proven to be problematic in studies of eighteenth-century culture. For social historians, the institutional placement of systematics was privileged and its utilitarian definition of nature was simplistic. For historians of science, its long classification lists were intellectually static and impeded the development proto-evolutionary theories. For historians of philosophy, it failed to conform to reified notions of 'natural kinds' and causation that modern thinkers have attributed to early modern philosophers like René Descartes, John Locke and David Hume. Moreover, even for intrepid scholars willing to set aside these assumptions, there is the insipid matter of primary sources. More specifically, the day-to-day arrangement practices of Enlightenment naturalists were most often confined to manuscript notebooks, that is, singular objects that, if extant, can only be viewed in archives. Bearing these liabilities in mind, why would anyone want to write about the history of systematic natural history? The answer, as this project argues, is that the above stereotypes are misguided and that the classification of natural objects was a central concern for professors who taught in Enlightenment universities.

One of the reasons that systematic classification has received such little attention can be attributed to fact that natural history was an extremely diverse subject that appealed to a wide range of practitioners. At the top of the social scale, there were wealthy patrons whose collections and perceptions of nature were based upon notins of the natural order that reinforced their perception of the social order. Yet, there were also professionals and educators whose occupational well-being necessitated the use of pragmatically orientated classification practices. One such group was medical professionals, especially physicians, and throughout Europe medical schools taught students how to fit natural history specimens into classification categories that harmonised with the methods and practices being developed in indigenous experimental communities. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Medical School of the University of Edinburgh, one of Europe's leading medical programmes. It is the goal of my book to use this community to sketch an alternative account of how the classification practices of a defined institutional setting enabled naturalists to create systems of natural history. In particular, I argue that medical chemistry played a central role in this process. Furthermore, by excavating Professor John Walker's dynamic understanding of the fabric of the globe, I provide a unique view of the intellectual milieu that led his contemporaries and students to refashion geology into its own discipline during the early nineteenth century.

Although I will draw comparisons to published natural history books, the evidentiary foundation of my argument rests firmly on manuscripts, especially those written by Walker, his students and his colleagues. It is interdisciplinary in spirit and draws from historically orientated works on the cultural placement of language, the impact of texts (printed and manuscript) and the formation of collections. Finally, since many of Walker's students would go on to become influential industrialists, scientists, physicians and politicians, this book provides unique insight into how many of Britain's leading Regency and Victorian intellectuals were taught to think about the composition and structure of the material world.


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