The pragmatic roots of American Quaternary geology and geomorphology

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Abstract

H.L. Fairchild's words from the 1904 Geological Society of America Bulletin remain appropriate today: "Geologists have been too generous in allowing other people to make their philosophy for them". Geologists have quietly followed a methodological trinity involving (1) inspiration by analogy, (2) impartial and critical assessment of hypotheses, and (3) skepticism of authority (prevailing theoretical constraints or paradigms). These methods are described in classical papers by Quaternary geologists and geomorphologists, mostly written a century ago. In recent years these papers have all been criticized in modern philosophical terms with little appreciation for the late 19th century American philosophical tradition from which they arose. Recent scholarly research, however, has revealed some important aspects of that tradition, giving it a coherence that has largely been underappreciated as 20th century philosophy of science pursued its successive fads of logical positivism, critical rationalism, relativism, and deconstructivism - for all of which "science" is synonymous with "physics". Nearly all this ideology is geologically irrelevant. As philosophy of science in the late 20th century has come to be identical with philosophy of analytical physics, focused on explanations via ideal truths, much of geology has remained true to its classical doctrines of commonsensism, fallibilism, and realism. In contrast to the conceptualism and the reductionism of the analytical sciences, geology has emphasized synthetic thinking: the continuous activity of comparing, connecting, and putting together thoughts and perceptions. The classical methodological studies of geological reasoning all concern the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Analysis does not serve to provide the ultimate answers for intellectual puzzles predefined by limiting assumptions imposed on the real world. Rather, analysis in geology allows the investigator to consider the consequential effects of hypotheses, the latter having been suggested by experience with nature itself rather than by our theories of nature. These distinctions and methods were described in G.K. Gilbert's papers on "The Inculcation of Scientific Method by Example" (1886) and "The Origin of Hypotheses" (1896). Portions were elaborated in T.C. Chamberlin's "Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses" (1890) and his "Method of the Earth Sciences" (1904); in W.M. Davis's "Value of Outrageous Geological Hypotheses" (1926); and in D. Johnson's "Role of Analysis in Scientific Investigation" (1933). American Quaternary geology and geomorphology have their philosophical roots in the pragmatic tradition, enunciated most clearly by C.S. Peirce, now recognized as the greatest American philosopher and considered by Sir Karl Popper to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Quaternary geology and geomorphology afford numerous examples of Peirce's "method" of science, which might be termed "the critical philosophy of common sense". The most obvious influence of pragmatism in geology, however, has largely been conveyed by the tradition of its scientific community. The elements of this tradition include a reverence for field work, a humility before the "facts" of nature, a continuing effort "to discriminate the phenomena observed from the observer's inference in regard to them", a propensity to pose hypotheses, and a willingness to abandon them when their consequences are contradicted by reality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)197-215
Number of pages19
JournalGeomorphology
Volume16
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes

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