Buffon's Language of Heat and the Science of Natural History

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Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture


In a short, unpublished text, On the Art of Writing, the French Enlightenment natural historian Buffon described the process of translating observations into language and transmitting them to readers. In these notes for the famous Discourse on Style, he wrote that natural phenomena were best depicted through painting, which not only represented their order and structure but also made them flow together in such a way that they resembled and transmitted life itself:

Painting and description are two very different things. The latter considers only the eyes, the former demands genius. … Description coldly and sequentially shows all the parts of an object; the more detailed it is, the less effect it has. Painting, on the other hand, seizes first upon the most salient traits, retaining the imprint of the object and giving it life. In order to write a good description, cold observation suffices; but painting requires the use of all the senses. Seeing, hearing, touching, feeling: these are [End Page 187] all elements which the writer must sense and render in energetic strokes. He must link the finesse of color and the vigor of the paintbrush, nuancing, condensing, or melting these colors, and ultimately shaping a living ensemble of which description could only have presented dead and detached parts.

In contrast to the activity and liveliness of painted language, a purely descriptive work was like a sketch that lacked shading, depth, and thus vitality—as indicated by the recurrence of the expressions cold and coldly. Description sapped the vivacity of nature, producing a lifeless text of "dead and detached parts."


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