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Abstract

During the eighteenth century many naturalists and philosophers became persuaded of the great antiquity of the Earth, and of the promise that knowledge of the Earth’s past and development could be built up through investigations of natural terrestrial features. In common with most geological issues of the time, these opinions rose to prominence to a considerable degree in connection with the so-called Theories of the Earth. This paper discusses some interconnections between Theories of the Earth and the emerging enterprise of geological field investigation, as they related to efforts toward establishing relative ages of geological phenomena. It considers in particular the two rather different Theories of the Earth offered by Buffon in 1749 and 1778, respectively. While the earlier one (Théorie de la Terre) emphasized principles for extracting physical knowledge of the Earth’s configuration through empirical investigation, the latter theory (Époques de la Nature) drew attention to the project of organizing knowledge about the Earth around a directional sequence of periods. The central impulses of Buffon’s two conceptions of the Earth were combined in actualistic field investigations by geologists of the late eighteenth century, Nicolas Desmarest in particular, which contributed significantly to the establishment of methods for determining distinct stages or sequences of the Earth’s past.

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