The History of Nature: Henrik Steffens and the Foundation of the Modern Earth Sciences

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Jesper Lundsfryd Rasmussen


Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg


DKK 1,247,393




Reintegration Fellowships


One of the most widely discussed debates in the first half of the nineteenth Century concerned the notion of history. At the heart of these disputes lay the question of nature and its scope. Is the application of history restricted to human history, or does history also apply to living and non-living processes? And how should we approach such a history of nature? The History of Nature project (HistNat) explores the pursuit to establish an all-encompassing notion of history, as it traces the mineralogist and natural philosopher Henrik Steffens' attempt to develop a history of nature in his philosophical and geological writings. Against this backdrop, the project aims to assess Steffens' influence on the foundation of the modern earth sciences in Great Britain, focussing on Charles Lyell.


While the influence of German philosophy and science on the life sciences in the first half of the 19th century are well-investigated, their impact on the development of the modern earth sciences are yet to receive proper systematic and historical attention. This applies particularly to Steffens, whose multifaceted efforts reached all of Europe, but which today seem to have sunk into oblivion. In Steffens, we find one of the first attempts to conceive of the human being and nature as interwoven elements in one and the same historical process. A better comprehension of Steffens' work and its impact not only enables a more nuanced understanding of the scientific processes of that time, it also uncovers an original and influential theory of the entanglement of the human being and nature.


HistNat progresses in two steps: The first step aims to trace Steffens' development of a history of nature in the context of contemporary debates on time and history. Unfolding this constellation allows for a precise conceptual reconstruction of Steffens' position. For this part, I also rely on newly discovered letters and archive materials, which are being edited in Berlin. In Berlin, I will spend one month at the Humboldt University. The second step aims to examine the reception of Steffens in Great Britain. To assess Steffens' influence on Lyell, I focus mainly on two figures closely related to Lyell: W. Whewell and J.C. Hare. Therefore, I will spend one month at Cambridge University, where I will have access to the relevant archives.

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