Steffens, Ørsted, And The Chemical Construction Of The Earth

  • Ernst P. Hamm
Part of the Boston Studies In The Philosophy Of Science book series (BSPS, volume 241)

“This book offered a beautiful interpretation, informed by the character of the recent Naturphilosophie, of the geology of that time, and it was written with the intellect and eloquence that so distinguished Steffens. Its many bold and astute reflections drew much attention and were not without effect on its numerous readers; but now, looking back over almost half a century, we must confess that it did not enrich science with such clear results that they are here worth mentioning.”


Rock Formation Empirical Science Magnesia Vapour Mineral Classification Speculative Philosophy 
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  1. 1.
    I wish to acknowledge the support of the Atkinson Faculty Committee on Research.Google Scholar
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    Hans Christian Ørsted, “Henrik Steffens: Gedächtnißrede, gehalten in der dänischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften am 6. März 1846”, in Kleinere Schriften von Hans Christian Ørsted, translated by K. L. Kannegiesser, 2 vols. (Leipzig: C. B. Borch, 1855), vol. i, pp. 107–120, at p. 111. All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.Google Scholar
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    The “fundamental point” (Grundanschauung) that drew Schelling and Steffens to one another from the time of their first acquaintance was that Steffens “had won for the unfathomable history of the earth a whole series of epochs, in which one covers another, one becomes the foundation for the next, and not without undergoing change in the process”. Schelling, “Aus einem öffentlichen Vortrag zu H. Steffens Andenken” (cited n.4), p. v. On historical thinking in the natural sciences see Engelhardt, Historisches Bewußtsein (cited n. 7). For geology as an historical science see: Stephen J. Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); David R. Oldroyd, “Historicism and the Rise of Historical Geology”, parts 1 and 2, History of Science 17 (1979): pp. 192–217, 227–257; Rhoda Rappaport, When Geologists Were Historians, 1665–1750 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Martin J. S. Rudwick, Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones and Geological Catastrophes: New Translations and Interpretations of the Primary Texts (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Biographical details are from H. Steffens, Was ich erlebte: Aus der Erinnerung niedergeschrieben, 10 vols. in 5 ( Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1995–1996, reprint of first edition, Breslau: Max und Komp. 1840–1844), vol. i, pp. 239–242, vol. ii, pp. 192, 211–212. The early publication was H. Steffens, “De fornemste Hypotheser, ved hvis Hjelp man har søgt at forklare Metallernes Forkalkning”, Physicalsk, oeconomisk og medicochirugisk Bibliothek for Danmark og Norge, parts 1 and 2, 1(1794): pp. 42–77, 161–164.Google Scholar
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    Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, vol. 1 (Paris, 1749); idem, Les époques de la nature, ed. Jacques Roger (Paris: Editions du Muséum, 1962), in which Jacques Roger has shown that Buffon deserved to be taken seriously. My concern here is only about how Buffon was received. James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations (Edinburgh: Creech, 1795) is an exception to this anti-theoretical trend, which may help explain why it received relatively little attention, at least at first. The late eighteenth-century has been characterized as a time when geology wanted “facts”, not new ideas, Karl Alfred von Zittel Geschichte der Geologie und Paläontologie bis ende des 19. Jahrhunderts, Geschichte der Wissenschaften in Deutschland. Neuere Zeit; 23 (Munich and Leipzig: R. Oldenbourg, 1899), p. 76.Google Scholar
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    Dennis R. Dean, “The word ‘geology’”, Annals of Science 36 (1979): pp. 35–43; see also Rhoda Rappaport, “Borrowed Words: Problems of Vocabulary in Eighteenth-Century Geology”, British Journal for the History of Science, 15 (1982): pp. 27–44.Google Scholar
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    Steffens, Über Mineralogie und das mineralogische Studium (cited n. 12) p. 96.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. pp. 83, 85 cites Georg Lichtenberg, Göttingen Taschen Kalendar, 1778, p. 7.Google Scholar
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    Steffens, Über Mineralogie und das mineralogische Studium (cited n. 12), pp. 68–69, 87–88, 160.Google Scholar
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    Immanuel Kant, Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, [1784] transl. with intro. and essay by James Ellington (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), pp. 4, 7.Google Scholar
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  22. 22.
    Ibid. p. 158. Geologie treats minerals as a means of a Naturzweck, a “natural purpose” that can only be found in the inorganic world existing as a whole, not in the individual parts. Here Steffens made reference to Kant’s Critique of Judgment. See the helpful discussion of Naturzwecke in biology in Richards, The Romantic Conception (cited n. 7), pp. 65–70.Google Scholar
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    Steffens, Was ich erlebte (cited n. 11), vol. iii, pp. 337–339, at p. 338.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Ibid. vol. iv, pp. 1, 20; vol. iii, p. 341.Google Scholar
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    Steffens claimed he was the first trained expert in the natural sciences (“Naturforscher von Fach”) to offer unconditional support for Schelling, ibid. vol. iv, p. 76. Though technically true this needs to be qualified with the fact that Johann Wilhelm Ritter, though still a student at Jena and perhaps not unconditional in his support of Schelling, had already made a name for himself with his Beweis, dass ein beständiger Galvanismus den Lebensprocess in dem Thierreich begleite. Nebst neuen Versuchen und Bemerkungen über den Galvanismus (Weimar: im Verlage des Industrie-Comptoirs, 1798).Google Scholar
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    Kant, Metaphysical Foundations (cited n. 18), pp. 40–94.Google Scholar
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    F. W. J. Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature: As Introduction to the Study of This Science, transl. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, introduction by Robert Stern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 5. This translation is of the 1797 first edition and the 1803 supplements; all references in this paper are from the 1797 sections. See also Friedman, “Kant-Naturphilosophie-Electromagnetism” (cited n. 7).Google Scholar
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    See Wilson, “Introduction”, to Selected Scientific Works (cited n. 7), pp. xxii–xxiii, and pp. xx–xxii for a discussion of the electrical conflict in Ørsted.Google Scholar
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    H. Steffens, “Über den Oxydations- und Desoxydations-Prozeß der Erde”, Zeitschrift für speculative Physik 1, no. 1 (1800): pp. 143–168. See also Schelling, “Vorbericht des Herausgebers”, Zeitschrift für speculative Physik 1, no. 1 (1800): pp. 139–142.Google Scholar
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  43. 43.
    Abraham Gottlob Werner, Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien (Leipzig: S. L. Crusius, 1774). The word fossil was used here in its 18th-century sense, i.e. anything dug out of the ground, and was not restricted to petrified organic remains.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    There are several published versions of Werner mineral classification. The first authorized publication was C. A. S. Hoffmann, “Mineralsystem des Herrn Inspektor Werners mit dessen Erlaubnis herausgegeben”, Bergmännisches Journal 1 (1789): pp. 369–398.Google Scholar
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    Werner developed a classification for an encyclopaedia, Abraham Gottlob Werner Nachlass, Bd. 76, Blatt, 5, Wissenschaftlicher Altbestand der Bibliothek der Technischen Universität Bergakademie Freiberg. See also Henderson, “Practical Knowledge in Romantic Ordering of Nature” (cited n. 9).Google Scholar
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    Ørsted developed an almost identical series of earths independently of Steffens and, as he carefully pointed out, he did so first. In his éloge for his colleague, Ørsted could find nothing in Contributions that had stood the test of time, but in the first decade of the 19th century priority did matter, see Ørsted, “The Series of Acids and Bases”, in ibid. p. 242.Google Scholar
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    Werner, Kurze Klassifikation (cited n. 47), p. 16; for a discussion of formation suites see the work of the Edinburgh Wernerian, Robert Jameson, System of Mineralogy, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Constable, 1804–1808), vol. iii, pp. 96–97, and the discussion in Laudan, From Mineralogy to Geology (cited n. 46), pp. 97, 143, 181.Google Scholar
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    Laudan, From Mineralogy to Geology (cited n. 46), pp, 194–197. Buch’s theory did not last, in part because of chemistry. Jakob Berzelius argued there were no such things as magnesia vapours for the simple reason that magnesia could not sublimate.Google Scholar
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    Leopold von Buch letter to Karsten, 17 May 1804, in Buch, Briefe an D.L. G. Karsten. Zu seinem 150. Geburtstag, ed. Julius Schuster and Robert Bloch (Berlin: W. Junk, 1924), p. 26, emphasis in original. Later Buch was slightly more generous: “As always there is lots of truth in it [Steffens’s work] mixed up with half-baked ideas”. Letter to Karsten, 27 January 1805, ibid. p. 29.Google Scholar
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    Goethe’s essays on granite were unpublished in his lifetime, see “Granit I [1784]” and “Granit II [1785]”, in Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Sämtliche Werke: Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, 40 vols. (Frankfurt a. M.: Deutsche Klassiker Verlag, 1985–1999), vol. xxv, pp. 311–316. The irony here is that the theory of mountain formation that Buch would develop was absolutely anathema to Goethe. It was the sort of violent change that hindered peaceful Goethean Bildung.Google Scholar
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Authors and Affiliations

  • Ernst P. Hamm
    • 1
  1. 1.York UniversityCanada

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