Hugh Miller, Misplaced Boulders, and a Problem for “Historic Cognitivism” — Extinct


Let me clarify. At first blush, Miller appears to be grist for Turner’s mill. Definitely he doesn’t resemble these figures Turner conjures as foils: the unscientific romantic, absolutely immersed in his quick expertise, and the up to date creationist, blithely detached to scientific consensus. However there’s a downside. Miller’s geology, whereas respectable for its time, is significantly old-fashioned. It’s not that it accommodates no truths, however judged by twenty-first century requirements, these are mingled with all method of half-truths and outright fictions. The query is whether or not this undermines Miller’s aesthetic expertise, or to make use of Turner’s language, prevents him from reaching the identical degree of aesthetic engagement as a twenty-first century geologist. Historic cognitivism suggests an affirmative reply. False beliefs undermine aesthetic engagement, so Miller must be incapable of reaching the identical degree of engagement as his trendy counterparts (all else being equal). However this conclusion sits uncomfortably with the historic document. Previous geologists don’t appear to have been systematically impaired of their aesthetic engagement with nature. On the contrary, geologists like Miller had been marvels of aesthetic sensibility whose exploits have scarcely been matched within the latest historical past of science.

Historic cognitivism, then, faces a historic problem. In line with cognitivism, the capability for aesthetic engagement ought to extend as scientific data will increase—not less than roughly, and assuming individuals haven’t modified of their innate capacity to attain aesthetic engagement, or of their willingness to hunt out aesthetic experiences. However this doesn’t appear to be the case. So historic cognitivism is suspect.

A second instance will sharpen the critique. In 1858, the longer term director of the Geological Survey of Nice Britain, Archibald Geikie (1835–1924), printed a ebook referred to as The Story of a Boulder. It was supposed as an introduction to geology for a lay viewers, and targeted on the reason of an “erratic block”: principally, a hunk of rock discovered someplace it isn’t presupposed to be. Geikie begins with a vivid panorama description that reveals him to be, in historian David Oldroyd’s phrases, a “romantic aesthete”:

Three miles to the south-west of Edinburgh… there’s a ravine, overshadowed by a thick progress of beech and elm, and traversed beneath by a stream, which… winds by means of the wealthy champaign nation of Mid-Lothan. It’s, in any respect seasons of the yr, some of the picturesque nooks within the nation. I’ve seen it within the depth of winter—the leafless bough doddered and dripping, the rocks dank and naked save the place half-hidden by rotting herbage… The final time I visited was within the coronary heart of June. The beech timber had been in full leaf… ; festoons of ivy, with right here and there a thread of honeysuckle interwoven, hung gracefully from the cliffs overhead… (Geikie 1858, 1–2)

Geikie continues on this vein for a number of pages till we meet the eponymous boulder, which at first seems to be only a rock within the forest. “It had an irregularly rectangular kind, about two or three toes lengthy, and half as excessive. Ferns and herbage had been grouped about it, the wood-sorrel clustered up its sides, and little patches of moss and lichen nestled in its crevices” (Geikie 1858, 4). Thus far, that is commonplace boulder stuff. And but, Geikie claims, “there was one thing about it that… riveted my consideration.” “The extra I regarded the extra did I see that me; and when, after a bit of labour, some parts of its higher floor had been indifferent, my curiosity was abundantly gratified.”

However what could be “outstanding in such a gray stone, hidden in a wooden[?]” The query takes Geikie 250 pages to reply. Not the least stunning factor we be taught alongside the best way is that the stone was as soon as embedded in an iceberg throughout a time when all the space was lined by a shallow sea. This accounts for its dissimilarity from the encompassing rock; the stone was carried to its resting place from afar, “[like] a sculpted obelisk transported from the plains of Assyria to the streets of London” (Geikie 1858, 258). Geikie proceeds to think about “a large arctic sea, studded with icebergs that come drifting from the north. Right here and there a naked barren islet rises above the waste of waters, and the packed ice-floes typically strand alongside its shores, whereas at different elements nice towering bergs… preserve rising and falling with the heavings of the surge” (259). The imagery is arresting: icebergs above Edinburgh! And but it’s mistaken. The speculation was discredited across the time Geikie’s ebook appeared, changed with a principle of large overland ice sheets that is still broadly credible to at the present time. Geikie quickly accepted this (see Geikie 1863, 74), and we will think about him returning to the identical ravine years later and having a somewhat totally different aesthetic expertise.


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