The Idea of ‘Climate’ in Intellectual History, 1688–1767

In the twenty-first century, the climate is often regarded as a significant, but usually straightforward factor in everyday life. Looking after the environment involves simple, practical actions, like recycling. Yet this conception of the relationship between human agency and the climate is not self-evident. It is the contingent product of a long and complex history, which impinges on fundamental moral and political questions. Intellectual history can shed light on the development of distinct, historical notions of climate, which often intersected with the still pressing issues of imperialism and race. In doing so, the study of past ideas can inform our present understanding of human responses to the environment.

                                                           Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish 1837 1838 jmw Turner

A distinctive shift in European conceptualisations of humanity’s relationship with the natural environment occurred between the late seventeenth and the mid-eighteenth century. Broadly speaking, seventeenth-century philosophers focused on a static theory of the development of human characteristics. They concentrated on the concept of preformation, or the notion that the embryonic features of future generations pre-existed birth. This theological account was exemplified in the Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion (1688) by Nicholas Malebranche (1638–1715), a French Oratorian priest and idealist philosopher. Malebranche declared that God had planted within Adam and Eve the seeds of every subsequent generation that would exist on earth. The logical corollary of this physiological theory was that human diversity was the product of innate characteristics, rather than the influence of the natural environment.

Such theological accounts were increasingly challenged in the eighteenth century by new Enlightenment natural histories. In his classic work, Natural History, General and Particular (1749), Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707–1788), Comte de Buffon, drew on his research with his compatriot, John Turberville Needham (1713–1781), to argue that human development was organised naturalistically. A pervasive force drove the creation of human life by shaping and conditioning organic molecules. Variations in human characteristics were produced by divergent climates, and, in this way, apparent racial differences were explained as resulting from the influence of different temperate zones.

                                                                 18th Century World Map by Georg Matthaus Seutter

Charles-Louis de Secondat (1689–1755), Baron de Montesquieu, reworked these increasingly popular naturalistic explanations for human diversity into a systematic political, social and moral theory in his Spirit of the Laws (1748). He contended that the metrological conditions of different parts of the world encouraged particular traits and psychological characteristics. The virtues and vices of a particular people, in turn, determined the suitable form of political government. Cold climactic conditions, for instance, compelled the peoples of northern Europe to become bold and strong lovers of liberty. Montesquieu, therefore, emphasised how climate influenced human behaviour and political society. In contrast, today we focus on the ways in which human agency, our political-economies, contribute to changes in our climate and environment, through our fuel and food consumption.

                                                         Charles Montesquieu by Anon  

            Nevertheless, the legacy of Buffon and Montesquieu’s explanation for human diversity is still significant today because it provided a pernicious justification for imperial conquest and racial subordination in the eighteenth century. Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, forged this climactic account of human development into a deterministic explanation for India’s ostensibly stunted economic and political progress in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). Drawing on Montesquieu’s conceptual framework, Ferguson claimed that the extreme temperatures in India even impaired the activity and energy of European settlers. He declared that: ‘The Hollander is laborious and industrious in Europe; he becomes more languid and slothful in India.’ In other words, Ferguson believed that India’s climate inevitably produced idleness in a way that was not always dependent on the biology of the peoples that lived on the subcontinent. He portrayed the imperial dominance of Western Europe as an inevitable consequence of the natural environment and side-lined the role of human agency in creating this global political and economic order.  

                                                       Adam Ferguson by Joshua Reynolds

             European ideas about the natural environment have, therefore, had a complex, varied and politically charged historical development. By interrogating the evolution of different climactic theories, intellectual history can inform our understanding of, and moral approach to, a crucial concept in everyday language and modern environmental consciousness.


James Cullis is reading for a DPhil in History at Christ Church, Oxford.