2006 Philadelphia Annual Meeting (22–25 October 2006)

Paper No. 12
Presentation Time: 11:20 AM


HERINGMAN, Noah, Department of English, University of Missouri-Columbia, 107 Tate Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, HeringmanN@missouri.edu

The foundation of the Geological Society of London in 1807 illustrates some of the ways in which the relationship between scientific progress and democracy was complicated by the reactionary climate that set in after the French Revolution. The institutionalization of geology initially excluded a wide variety of geological practices and practitioners from scientific consideration. Nonetheless, the founders of the Geological Society shared with an array of geological “outsiders” a rhetorical position that was designed to liberate English naturalists from the dictates of Enlightenment philosophes and Revolutionary terrorists alike: the revolt against “theory.” Charlotte Smith's poem Beachy Head (1807) made geology a paradigm case for the tendency toward “vague theories” and “vain dispute” in current science, advocating instead the traditional and more inclusive practices of natural history. The Geological Society's founders drew on the same national traditions of skepticism and empiricism to portray theorizing, conversely, as an error committed by amateurs who distorted their scanty local observations to support hypotheses derived from Continental thinkers. Thus a national institution was justified as an empirical research network that would check theoretical excesses. Yet Charlotte Smith's doubts were echoed by other amateur naturalists who objected that institutions tended to marginalize women and “practical men” by appropriating their knowledge and controlling publication. The Geological Society of London thus arose within and against a broad concurrent endeavor to keep the earth legible for non-specialists. Both the society's founders and a wide variety of “outsiders”—including nature poets, women travel writers, and self-taught geological fieldworkers—invoked their English resistance to Continental “theory” as a way of reimagining democratic intellectual life in the wake of the French Revolution.