The rise of geohistory did not, argues Martin JS Rudwick in his (literally) massive Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution , produce a conflict of “Science” and “Religion.” That paradigm for understanding eighteenth-century science treats both as “hypostatized and homogenized entities” (6).

Rather, the big theme was the historicizing of history: “Rather than being essentially stable and bound by unchanging ‘laws of nature’ . . . one major part of nature, the earth itself, came to be seen as a produce of nature’s own history.” The sources of this historicization of nature were, Rudwick says, surprising ones.

One source was the transposition of “ideas, concepts, and methods for analyzing evidence and for reconstructing the past” from the humanities to the natural sciences.

Scientists made “telling use of the metaphors of nature’s documents and archives, coins and monuments, annals and chronologies” (6). The transposition is surprising “because the rigid modern distinction . . . between the natural sciences and the humanities inhibits us from recognizing that in this instance ‘Science’ has been radically transformed from outside its own sacred boundaries” (6-7).

The other source is Christianity: “Those who were most attracted by the possibility of reconstructing an eventful past history of the earth were often also those who already understood their human place in the cosmos in terms of an unrepeated sequence of contingent events, suffused with divine meaning and intent, stretching from primal Creation through pivotal Incarnation towards ultimate Parousia. Within the intellectual framework of the Christian religion is made sense to try to understand the natural world, no less than the human, as part of this divine drama.” Contrary to accepted opinion, “Religion” did not retard but supported the “Progress of Science” (7).

More on: History, Science

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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