The Language of Nature in Buffon's Histoire naturelle

BookThe Language of Nature in Buffon's Histoire naturelle

The Language of Nature in Buffon's Histoire naturelle

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018:10


October 8th, 2018

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Drawing from literary studies, philosophy, and the history of science, in this interdisciplinary study Hanna Roman argues that the language of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749-1788) could not be separated from the science it conveyed; the language communicated nature’s vital order, form and movement. In the Histoire naturelle, the ability of language to embody and communicate the living essence of nature grew increasingly poignant as Buffon established his hypothesis that the Earth, initially a molten ball of fire, was dying as it slowly became colder.
The author highlights Buffon’s Époques de la nature (1778) in which he implied that to save nature from cold death, people must learn to create actual heat according to the model provided by his lyrical, dynamic language, the energy of which would transform into re-warming a cooling globe.
In this way, Roman argues that Buffon’s literary simulacrum of nature taught his readers not only about the history of nature and its laws, but also how to interact with nature differently, transferring to them the skills necessary to modify the surrounding world in order to better fit the desires and dreams of humanity. A new world could be more than imagined—it could be engineered through language.

'...this book is a valuable addition to the scholarship on the close links between literary and scientific knowledge in the Enlightenment.'
Elizabeth Wallmann, French Studies

Author Information

Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Introduction: Enlightenment natural history and literary invention13
Style: combining rhetoric and knowledge14
Harmonizing world and word18
Natural history: between physics and history21
The literary practice of natural history29
Summary of chapters36
1. Inventing natural language: the harmonization of mind and world41
Mathematical rules and natural laws43
Buffon and natural law: relativizing perception51
Inventing and intervening: Montesquieu and the natural laws of history58
Scaling the levels of perception: the evolving relationship with nature in the Histoire naturelle63
2. Generating heat: the energy of natural language71
Introducing heat: De l’art d’écrire72
Heat: the material interface with nature75
Between body and mind: the spirit of language82
The energy of the natural historical text88
3. Writing nature: the foundations of natural history99
The ‘Discours sur le style’: translating the movement of nature102
The mise-en-scène of style in the Histoire naturelle, 1749108
From style to history: reading temporality into nature’s story112
4. Hypothesis and the energy of invention125
Hypothesis and the invention of a verisimilar world129
Hypothesis and heat: inventing the hidden mechanism of nature135
Making heat real: the hypothesis in the ‘Epoques de la nature’143
5. Reinventing nature’s heat153
Buffon’s theorization of heat157
The natural history of human beings: a story of inventing the temperate163
Writing the future with heat172
Conclusion: preserving the heat of the Histoire naturelle181
Rethinking Buffon’s intellectual legacy182
Condorcet’s Eloge de M. de Buffon189
Saving style for posterity198
The literary experiment204