Encountering the Physical World

in Placing the Enlightenment

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print June 2007 | ISBN: 9780226904054
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226904078 | DOI:
Encountering the Physical World

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  • Early Modern History (1500 to 1700)


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This chapter examines what George Vancouver succinctly termed the “ardour of the present age, to discover and delineate the true geography of the earth.” In the undertaking of this “true geography,” the encounter with the physical globe took the form of primary survey, that is, it involved the “in-the-field” enumeration of natural knowledge, its classification, and the role of system. To those undertaking in various ways what contemporaries understood as physical geography, the task was huge, the object seemingly without order. In his Histoire naturelle, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, captures here two things about natural philosophy and Enlightenment study of the terraqueous globe: the sheer scale of what there was to know, and the role of systematizing what was known and how it was known.

Keywords: George Vancouver; true geography; primary survey; physical geography; Georges-Louis Leclerc; Histoire naturelle; natural philosophy; Enlightenment

Chapter.  8981 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Early Modern History (1500 to 1700)

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