James Hutton

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James Hutton : biography

14 June 1726 – 26 March 1797

Though Hutton circulated privately a printed version of the abstract of his Theory (Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration, and Stability) which he read at a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 4 July 1785; abstract the full account of his theory as read at the 7 March 1785 and 4 April 1785 meetings did not appear in print until 1788. It was titled Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe and appeared in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. I, Part II, pp. 209–304, plates I and II, published 1788. full text (1788 version) He put forward the view that "from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter." This restated the Scottish Enlightenment concept which David Hume had put in 1777 as "all inferences from experience suppose … that the future will resemble the past", and Charles Lyell memorably rephrased in the 1830s as "the present is the key to the past". Hutton’s 1788 paper concludes; "The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end." His memorably phrased closing statement has long been celebrated. (It was quoted in the 1989 song “No Control” by songwriter and professor Greg Graffin.)

Following criticism, especially the arguments from Richard Kirwan who thought Hutton’s ideas were atheistic and not logical, Hutton published a two volume version of his theory in 1795, consisting of the 1788 version of his theory (with slight additions) along with a lot of material drawn from shorter papers Hutton already had to hand on various subjects such as the origin of granite. It included a review of alternative theories, such as those of Thomas Burnet and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.

The whole was entitled An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy when the third volume was completed in 1794. Its 2,138 pages prompted Playfair to remark that “The great size of the book, and the obscurity which may justly be objected to many parts of it, have probably prevented it from being received as it deserves.”