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The philosophy of geology

Is there one? Neither a search through the Philosopher’s Index nor Google Scholar found much within the past century. I am crowdsourcing the question. This looks like an interesting, and not badly needed, gap in the philosophy of science. There’s plenty of history of geology, and a few essays by Gould and a fellow named Rob Inkpen. But that’s about it. Ideas?

Resources so far

This from 1846:

Jobert, Antoine Claude Gabriel. 1846. The philosophy of geology. London; Paris: Simpkin, Marshall; A & W Galignani.


Kitts, David B. 1977. The structure of geology. Dallas: SMU Press.

Kitts, David B. 1976. Certainty and uncertainty in geology. Am J Sci 276 (1):29-46.

Also this:

Albritton, Claude C., ed. 1963. The fabric of geology. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

This appears to be the best general discussion, if only up until the period in question.

Laudan, Rachel. 1987. From mineralogy to geology : the foundations of a science, 1650-1830. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reviewed by:
Bowler, Peter J. 1988. The whig interpretation of geology. Biology and Philosophy 3 (1):99-103.

Raab, Thomas, and Robert Frodeman. 2002. What is it like to be a geologist? A phenomenology of geology and its epistemological implications. Philosophy & Geography 5 (1):69 – 81.

Apart from that, there’s this:

Inkpen, Robert John. 2009. The Philosophy of Geology. In A companion to the philosophy of history and historiography, edited by A. Tucker. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell:318-329.

There are many papers that mention geology as a historical science, a special science, or as an instance of method or theory, but few that actually attend to modern practices… This is very interesting to me.

Keep ’em coming folks.


  1. Well, one would think there’s an intimate relationship here with theories of earth formation and origins generally. Not sure this counts as a “philosophy”, but Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision always gets mentioned in HPS circles as an example of pseudoscience or “bad” science…

    Then there’s all that weird hollow-earth theory stuff and its connection to fringe philosophies and occultisms.

    Again, that really doesn’t qualify as “real” science.

  2. I have, of course, absolutely no idea whatsoever.

    I am willing to wager a schooner, though, that if there is a philosophy of geology, its practitioners will be utterly unable to agree what a rock is.

  3. Speaking as the son of a geologist, I believe the philosophy of geology consists of a passionate approval of rocks.

    One of my unfulfilled wishes for a while has been to record a geology podcast with Dad, with the goal of capturing his enthusiasm for the subject. If this is ever recorded, you could be, if you like, one of the first to know. (Dave might also be interested, perhaps.)

    I have an idea for the presentation, but it requires the participation of a non-geologist volunteer. Here is my script.

    Me: Welcome to this demonstration of how to detect a geologist. For the purpose of comparison, here is what happens if you ask a geologist about rocks. Non-geologist volunteer, what can you tell me about rocks?
    Non-geologist: [short ad lib response]
    Me: And now here is what happens if you ask a geologist about rocks. Roger, what can you tell me about rocks?
    Dad: [ad lib response for remainder of podcast]

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      That sounds more like the vocation of geology than its philosophy…

  4. Ok. Sedimentary layers supervene. Need more? (Although I did see a YouTube vid once of a chap who believed subduction was a global conspiracy [pun!] and, in fact, the earth was *expanding*. He coulda done with a philosophy-of-geography slap around the head and shoulders.)

  5. I co-majored in geology and HPS and always intended do go back and try and write about history & philosophy of geology as i never found much out there.

    then i got a real job and put that plan on hold indefinitely.

    (please excuse poor capitilisation & punctuation… broke my wrist and am typing single (non-dominant) handed on a qwerty keyboard, sigh)

  6. afarensis, FCD afarensis, FCD

    I can’t really think of any…other than a love of rocks…and hammers, can’t do geology without a hammer so maybe the philosophy of geology concerns defining the “ideal hammer” which implies that geologist are closet Platonists.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I… don’t think you guys quite get the idea of a philosophy of a particular scientific discipline.

      • afarensis, FCD afarensis, FCD

        Hey, I mentioned Plato, so it’s gotta be philosophy, right? On a more serious note, that is actually a good question. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything that even comes close to what you are asking (other than, perhaps, Gould’s paper on uniformitarianism).

  7. Try: Roy Porter, The Earth Sciences: An annotated bibliography, NY, 1983.

    Porter was a historian* but he might have included philosophy of geology in his bibliography.

    *Actually he was “the” historian of medicine but he started out as a historian of geology. His doctoral thesis is:

    Roy Porter, The Making of Geology, Earth Sciences in Britain 1660 – 1815, CUP, 1977

  8. John, I’ve found one German title, Philosophie und Geologie it’s an East German conference report from 1983. I’ve no idea if it’s any good. I’ve ordered it from the library, I’ll pick it up tomorrow and let you know if it’s worth reading!

  9. Perplexed in Peoria Perplexed in Peoria

    The title of the Raab and Frodeman article is delicious.
    What is it like to be a geologist?
    But the choice of venue is even more fascinating. Apparently, unable to find a proper journal taking the philosophy of geology as its subject, they had to fudge it a bit and publish in Philosophy & Geography. WTF? Geography can support a bevy of parasitic philosopher/groupies, but geology cannot? And when I looked up that journal on wikipedia I learn that there used to be two competing journals for geography philosophers, but apparently the squabbling was unseemly, so they merged.
    What is it like to be a philosopher of geography?

    • We cannot know, as we do not have the sensorium of a geographer.

  10. Liz Somerville Liz Somerville

    Speaking as somone more familiar with palaeontology than geology per se – some suggestions:
    M.J.S.Rudwick is the major historian of geology – and I have always considered that he gives a good treatment of the development of the underlying ideas. This is certainly the case in “The meaning of fossils” (1972) . The relevance to geology is that you have to deal with the processes of sedimentation in order to work out whether you are dealing with organic remains. His two major works on the history of geology are “Bursting the limits of time” (2005) and “Worlds before Adam” (2008) both published by Chicago University Press.
    Peter J Bowler includes geology in “The Fontana History of the Environmental Sciences”(1992), published by Fontana Press (HarperCollins). [Incidentally this in one in a series edited by Roy Porter.]
    The nearest account I know which comes close to a general “theory” of geology is Derek V Ager “The Nature of the Stratigraphic Record” (various editions: 1973; 1981;1994) published by Wiley. The forward describes this as “an ideas book.”

  11. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    Hey, Mr. Smartypants, maybe you should define what the philosophy of geology *is*.

  12. Barry Rountree Barry Rountree

    More Frodeman:

    “Geological reasoning: Geology as an interpretive and historical science”

    doi: 10.1130/0016-7606(1995) ?107?2.3.CO;2 Geological Society of America Bulletin August 1995 v. 107 no. 8 p. 960-968

    The standard account of the reasoning process within geology views it as lacking a distinctive methodology of its own. Rather, geology is described as a derivative science, relying on the logical techniques exemplified by physics. I argue that this account is inadequate and skews our understanding of both geology and the scientific process in general. Far from simply taking up and applying the logical techniques of physics, geological reasoning has developed its own distinctive set of logical procedures.

    I begin with a review of contemporary philosophy of science as it relates to geology. I then discuss the two distinctive features of geological reasoning, which are its nature as (1) an interpretive and (2) a historical science. I conclude that geological reasoning offers us the best model of the type of reasoning necessary for confronting the type of problems we are likely to face in the 21st century. says that’s cited 123 times. High points from those:

    Alfredo Bezzi, “What is this thing called geoscience? Epistemological dimensions elicited with the repertory grid and their implications for scientific literacy”, Science Education
    Volume 83 Issue 6, Pages 675 – 700

    Victor R. Baker, “Geosemiosis”, doi: 10.1130/0016-7606(1999) ?111?2.3.CO;2 Geological Society of America Bulletin May 1999 v. 111 no. 5 p. 633-645

    …geologists can benefit from understanding the formal conditions of what will count as true in these signs, a topic explored through the branch of philosophy known as semiotics. The geologically relevant philosophy involves a semiotic point of view wherein signs are not mere objects of thought or language, but rather are vital entities comprising a web of signification that is continuous from outcrops to reasoning about outcrops….

    • That’s a very useful paper, but it is at best scratching the surface (jokes about it’s hardness on the Mohr scale will be treated harshly).

  13. There are some interesting papers in

    Robert Frodeman, ed., Earth Matters: The Earth Sciences, Philosophy, and the Claims of Community (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall 2000).

    It’s a very uneven collection, though, because in a sense the papers really have to do with the experience of being a geologist or how society at large deals with claims by geologists, which covers more than just the science of geology itself.

  14. So what you are saying is that here we have a successful scientific discipline WITHOUT a apparent philosophical underpining . . . umm . . . have you though this through . . .

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      No, what I’m saying is that philosophers have not given the science the attention it deserves, to figure out what philosophical assumptions you guys are using. Or, at any rate, not what you are using now; there’s plenty of early nineteenth century discussion.

      I and my colleague are working up a piece on the principles of the classifications of minerals, crystals, soils and formations in geology. I turns out this is not easy to find.

      • So I take it that what you are specifically trying to find is discussion in the field of (higher-order thinking about) geological classification, post-Whewell?

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Yes, right up to today. We aren’t doing history, though. We are interested in the ruling assumptions about classification in this field.

  15. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    Shirley the philosophy of geology started with Samuel Johnson- “I refute it thus!”.

    Did you hear about the geologist who attacked a colleague with a lump of volcanic rock? He was charged with basalt.

    Who is the geologists favorite composer? Franz Lahar

    Why are geologists unfit? Theirs is a sedimentary occupation.

    I’d better stop before I am karst out.

    • afarensis, FCD afarensis, FCD

      Yes, those puns are not very gneiss!

    • Rachael Briggs Rachael Briggs

      Aa! I admire you for being both industrious and igneous (to a fault!), but you shale have to tourmalinate this punning eventually. It’s not too slate; you stalagmite as well start now.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Stop all this schist right now!

      • afarensis, FCD afarensis, FCD

        It’s Ian’s fault!

      • I once sat in on two my friends having a half hour conversation in which every sentence included a geology pun. And they were doing it off the cuff. By the end of it I was reduced to holding my stomach and trying to catch my breath.

        Sorry, no puns from me this time.

  16. Divalent Divalent

    You know, I’m not a geologist, but I think geology is doing just fine without a gaggle of “geo-philosophers” trying to confuse their thinking. So if you don’t find any, just keep mum about it. (And if you find any, just go ahead an shoot ’em.)

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Philosophy of a science is not for the scientists; they generally (but not always) do fine without it. It is for the philosophers, and for those scientists who intend to do philosophy.

  17. Rules of the philosophy of geology

    1) no philosophy

    (Your middle name isn’t Bruce is it?)

    Leave us alone. We are very happy playing in our sand box without having hot philosophy injected laccolith-like into geology.

    You’re just jealous because we know which depositional environments make the best sand for sand boxes!

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Wilkins, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Which is why, Nedin, we intend to expand our philosophy. If scientists find that unsettling, well, that’s just a side benefit.

  18. What about Homer le Grand’s Shifting Continents and Drifting Theories – he used it as the main text when he taught me first year HPS at Melbourne a ‘couple’ of years ago. It’s more of a general philosophy of science book with geology examples but I think it ends up saying a fair bit that could fall in the phil of geology rubrick.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Yes, I had thought of that, but knew it mostly as a Kuhnian investigation.

  19. Mike Dunford Mike Dunford

    There are a couple of early 20th century articles that come to mind. Unfortunately, they don’t come far enough to mind for me to remember or easily locate all the pertinent details.

    But Google (and Wikipedia) provide. If you go to the Wiki page for Thomas C Chamberlain, you’ll find a link to a paper of his titled “the method of multiple working hypotheses”. It would also be good to look at Grove Karl Gilbert’s paper on Coon Butte (aka Barringer Meteor Crater) – I think I’ve actually got a pdf of that one somewhere that I’ll try to dig up for you.

  20. Phyllograptus Phyllograptus

    Interesting discussion, but I’m not sure I understand where it is going.
    However as a working geologist I can state that some of the things I John working to and suggesting are overly limited. Asking about the Philosophy of Geology is overly broad, from my perspective it would kind of be liking asking for the Philosophy of Christianity or Islam. In either of these there are numerous sects, just as there are numerous “sects” within geology. Someone had mentioned palaeontology, which is a “sect” of geology, I could also quickly name a raft of other specialties: Glaciologists, Sedimentologists, Vulcanologists, Stratigraphers, Coastal geologists, Hydrogeologists, etc, etc. All of these will have had similar preliminary training but widely divergent training and experience since. My own background is hydrogeology & sedimentology within the petroleum industry and my interests and approach to the science vary from someone of a different bent. In fact even though I studied igneous rocks & petrology in school, to talk to someone specializing in that field now I am only a slightly above average layman. So how can we talk about the Philosophy of Geology. Heck, nowadays with the discussions of global warming the “Climatologists” working on past trends are often initially trained as geologists, how can we limit a discussion as some have done to a “love of rocks” when for many geologists rocks are not really what they study.

    Having said this I find the topic interesting and feel that a historical appreciation of the subject of geology would be beneficial to young geologists (or maybe I just getting to be a curmudgeon).

    An interesting article was recently published in Geology, the publication for the Geological Society of America by Water Alvarez & Henrique Leitao. “The neglected early history of geology: The Copernican Revolution as a major advance in understanding the Earth”

    Maybe this is the type of thing John is asking about as a Philosophy of Geology.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      This is a very important comment.

      The philosophy of various disciplines, such as biology or physics, tends to break into subordinate topics (although in biology most philosophers spread themselves over a number of subdisciplines, such as genetics, taxonomy, evolution, ecology and so forth.

      So I would have expected that geology would have its philosophical investigators a well. It’s possible that geology lacks the sorts of epistemic specialities of other fields, but I find that rather odd of true, so I would expect that the reason why nobody has done this is because geology is either thought of as what contributes to evolutionary matters, or because tectonics has been done to death in the literature and nobody else thinks they can do much with it.

      Partly this will be because the philosophy of science has been hamstrung by a too-tight focus on theory. Geology has theories, of course, but much of it is what too many still think of as “stamp collecting” (similar issues arise in the philosophy of history, but it has agency, so that’s all right). Since this is regarded as relatively uninteresting, nobody seems to have made much out of it apart from the sources listed above.

      I and my colleague think geology is a great place to start our survey of classification in the natural sciences. It has elements of universal taxonomies that you find in the general sciences like physics and chemistry (and crystallography, etc.), but also the contingent taxonomies of historical special sciences. Your point about the subdisciplines leads to this directly. Hydrogeology is going to have its own special facts, theories and methods. We need to investigate this.

      • Phyllogrptus Phyllogrptus

        I may be taking this slightly off topic but to me John’s discussion leads directly into this. (in my opinion)
        Geology is one of the original sciences, however at its beginings there was no science known as geology but rather there were natural philosophers and The Natural Sciences. Science started from these natural philosophers who looked at and tried to understand the world around them. From these initial beginings developed the studies and sciences of Chemistry, Physics and Biology. However “geology” was still there in the background looking at the fundementals of the earth and the development of species, ecologies, & most importantly the history of the earth and its place age and place in the universe and how to demonstrate its creation, development, and position in time and space.
        However I feel that somehow the study and appreciation of “geology” was overwhelmed and overtaken by the “new” “hard” sciences like physics, chemistry and biology. These are sciences where the researcher can “DO” things & “experiment” & “prove” things through experimentation. So geology became the “poor second cousin” in the sciences. In fact a lot of people don’t really consider geology a “science” because it doesn’t lend itself to experimentation but rather it is an observational and theoretical science where the observations and theories can’t be easily proved and shown to be “fact” but rather have to be slowly built upon by more and more observations and theories but can almost never be “proven” by a nice clean experiment. Often I hear that geology is more of an “art” than a “science” because of the limitations of not being to really “experiment” and prove the theories. Yet when I read about the really theoretical end of physics (as much as a layman can understand it) even this “hard science” becomes very philosophical and “Soft”. However the theoretical physicists are able to develop experiments and theories that eventually can be tried and either verified or dissproved to validate/disprove the hypothesies. How can a geologist compete with this “hard science” when to verify a theory would require an experiment that needs several millenia to millions of years to occur and document the proof. Obviously it can’t in most cases live up to the same criteria that most “hard” sciences live by for experimental proof, therefore it gets neglected as as “real science”. Geology and geologists are continually interpreting data that is orders of magnitude greater than human lifespan and therefore most of humanity doesn’t “GET” it.
        An interesting aside is a study by Northern Arizona University regarding students perceptions of prestige, difficulty & pay of various sciences. Students perceptions ranked Geology lowest in terms of prestige, difficulty and potential for a well paying job.
        Well I know I personally am not suited to advanced chemistry, biology or physics, I also do not doubt that geology is also a very difficult and challenging science to undertake as a profession which I feel deserves more respect than it gets.

  21. The Fabric of Geology

    By Claude C. Albritton Jr. from 1963. Haven’t read it yet but he calls it a philosophy of geology book.

  22. Helio Ricardo da Silva Helio Ricardo da Silva

    Check out some of the work by Derek Turner. I recommend “Making Prehistory Historical Science and the Scientific Realism Debate”

  23. Luca Fava Luca Fava

    Please have a look to this presentation I have put together on Epistemology of Geology;
    My name is Luca Fava and I have been working in the Oil Industry since 2002.
    I have been thinking about the philosophy of Geology since I was at University. This presentation it is a first summary of the results of my search. I’ll try to write a more Comprehensive paper sooner or later.


    If you want contact me to discuss this is my e-mail:

  24. Alonso Castillo Flores Alonso Castillo Flores

    Another one. Evaristo Álvaraz Muñoz. Filosofía de las ciencias de la tierra. El cierre categorial de la geología. Bibloteca de filosofía en español, 2004

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