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William Smellie – The Philosophy of Natural History. Edinburgh, 1790

First edition of the last work published during the lifetime of the Edinburgh printer, naturalist and antiquary William Smellie (1740-95). A second volume, edited by his son Alexander Smellie, was published posthumously in 1799. Chuo 194. Smellie was one of the initiators and authors of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. His Philosophy of Natural History ‘became a standard college text in North America and was reprinted or reissued more than thirty times between 1824 and 1900’ (Richard B. Sher, The Enlightenment and the Book, Chicago UP, 2006, p. 90).

‘Smellie’s Philosophy of Natural History is an unusual attempt to contextualize scientific observation philosophically, especially in his distinguishing between plants and animals, and among animal species on the points of conscious will and psychological self-awareness. He brings his reading of Locke, Hume and Adam Ferguson to bear upon his work as a natural historian so that he is arguably one of the first philosophers of modern science. In the case of the sexuality of plants, Smellie never denies that ‘male’ and ‘female’ kinds bring about vegetable generation but rather disagrees with the extension of the sexual analogy across all varieties of binary propagation. He seeks to distinguish between generation involving two of a species, which takes place throughout the natural world, and the conscious choice of sexual partners which he sees as the increasingly exclusive and defining property of animals’ (Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers).

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