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, totally immersed in his speedy expertise, and the modern creationist, blithely detached to scientific consensus. However there’s a downside. Miller’s geology, whereas respectable for its time, is critically outdated. It’s not that it comprises 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 stage of aesthetic engagement as a twenty-first century geologist. Historic cognitivism suggests an affirmative reply. False beliefs undermine aesthetic engagement, so Miller needs to be incapable of reaching the identical stage of engagement as his fashionable counterparts (all else being equal).* However this conclusion sits uncomfortably with the historic report. Previous geologists don’t appear to have been systematically impaired of their aesthetic engagement with nature. On the contrary, geologists like Miller have been marvels of aesthetic sensibility whose exploits have scarcely been matched within the latest historical past of science.

[* Strictly speaking, what Turner is committed to is the claim that Miller’s aesthetic engagement would be enhanced if we could replace his false beliefs with true(r) ones. I think there are reasons to doubt this, which I explore below.]

Historic cognitivism, then, faces a historic problem. In response to cognitivism, the capability for aesthetic engagement ought to extend as scientific information will increase—no less than roughly, and assuming folks haven’t modified of their innate potential to realize 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 e-book referred to as The Story of a Boulder. It was meant as an introduction to geology for a lay viewers, and centered on the reason of an “erratic block”: principally, a hunk of rock discovered someplace it isn’t speculated 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 development of beech and elm, and traversed beneath by a stream, which… winds by way of the wealthy champaign nation of Mid-Lothan. It’s, in any respect seasons of the 12 months, one 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 bushes have 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 ft lengthy, and half as excessive. Ferns and herbage have 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). To this point, that is normal boulder stuff. And but, Geikie claims, “there was one thing about it that… riveted my consideration.” “The extra I seemed the extra did I see that me; and when, after a bit of labour, some parts of its higher floor have been indifferent, my curiosity was abundantly gratified.”

However what may be “exceptional 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 way in which is that the stone was as soon as embedded in an iceberg throughout a time when the whole space was coated 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 usually strand alongside its shores, whereas at different components nice towering bergs… hold rising and falling with the heavings of the surge” (259). The imagery is arresting: icebergs above Edinburgh! And but it’s improper. The speculation was discredited across the time Geikie’s e-book appeared, changed with a idea of large overland ice sheets that continues to be broadly credible to today. Geikie quickly accepted this (see Geikie 1863, 74), and we are able to think about him returning to the identical ravine years later and having a somewhat totally different aesthetic expertise.

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