This contribution, in two parts, addresses a long-standing problem in the history of geology: Was the geological theory of James Hutton derived inductively from observations and scientific knowledge, or was it derived a priori as a speculative system? Hutton’s own writings do little to clarify the question, and the conflict in interpretations has remained at an impasse. This contribution proposes to resolve that conflict by focusing on the two years Hutton spent as a young man studying chemistry in Paris. I argue that Hutton studied with one of the great chemistry teachers of the eighteenth century, Guillaume-François Rouelle, and that Rouelle’s teachings provided the foundations of Hutton’s geological theory.
Part One of this contribution reviews Hutton’s early studies in chemistry, and presents evidence to show that Hutton continued his chemistry studies with Rouelle in Paris from 1747 to 1749. Part One describes as well the geological content of Rouelle’s lectures, as derived from notes taken by his students, with focus on Rouelle’s methodology, his ideas on the origins of coal and limestone, and his observations on erosion and river transport. This Part concludes that Rouelle should be regarded as an important figure in the history of geology, not only in the francophone tradition, but, through Hutton, in the anglophone tradition as well. A detailed analysis of the influence of Rouelle’s teachings on Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1788), and the development of Hutton’s overall theory, is the subject of Part Two.