Terra IncognitaA History of Ignorance in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Terra Incognita
A History of Ignorance in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Translated by Susan Pickford

Identifying gaps in knowledge is the first duty of any historian who sets out to understand the past. It is impossible fully to understand our forebears without some idea of what they did <i>not</i> know: the history of ignorance is an indispensable part of history itself.

Here Alain Corbin focuses on our planet, exploring its mysteries past and present, and the intensity and eventual decline of the modes of terror and wonder it aroused. For thousands of years, humans knew nearly nothing about the earth. Certain locations on the map simply read ‘Terra Incognita’. Corbin recounts the many errors and uncertainties that littered the paths we followed in the attempt to discover the secrets of our blue planet, with a particular focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the mysteries of volcanoes, the polar regions, glaciers, the stratosphere and the oceans began to be uncovered. While ignorance stimulated our ancestors’ imagination, Corbin’s history of ignorance reawakens our thirst for knowledge and changes our view of the world.

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  • September 2021
  • 188 pages
  • 143 x 219 mm / 6 x 9 in
Available Formats
  • Hardback $69.95
  • 9781509546251
  • Paperback $24.95
  • 9781509546268
Table of Contents

A comprehensive history implies the study of ignorance

Part I : Gaps In Enlightenment Knowledge Of The Earth

1. The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

2. The Age of the Earth?

3. Imagining the Earth’s Internal Structure

4. The Mystery of the Poles

5. The Unfathomable Mysteries of the Deep Sea

6. Discovering Mountains

7. Mysterious Glaciers

8. A Fascination for Volcanos

9. The Birth of Meteorology

10. Conquering the Skies

11. The State of Scientific Ignorance at the End of the Age of Enlightenment

Part II : A Gradual Decline in Ignorance (1800-1850)

12. Understanding Glaciers

13. The Birth of Geology

14. Volcanoes and the Mystery of ‘Dry Fogs’

15.The Ocean Depths and the Fear of the Unknown

16. Reading Clouds and the Beaufort Scale

17.The Poles Remain a Mystery

18.  The State of Scientific Ignorance in the Early 1860s

Part III : Shrinking the Boundaries of Ignorance (1860-1900)

19. Exploring the Ocean Depths

20.  The Development of Dynamic Meteorology

21.  Manned Flight and the Discovery of the Troposphere and Stratosphere

22. Scientific Volcanology and the Birth of Seismology

23.  Measuring the Grip of Ice

24.  Solving the Mysteries of Rivers : Fluvialism, Hydrology and Speleology

25.  A New Approach to Reading the Globe

26.  Was There Open Sea at the Poles?

27. The Earth Sciences Slowly Filter into General Knowledge

28. Measuring Ignorance at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century


About the Author
Alain Corbin is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne.
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‘Alain Corbin is one of the most remarkable historians writing about anything anywhere. A master of innovation in his choice of subjects and approaches to history, Corbin here brilliantly tackles “ignorance” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what earlier generations did not know. This is a fascinating book, nicely translated.’
John Merriman, Yale University

‘Original as always in his approach to history, Alain Corbin tells the story of the discovery of the earth from 1750 to 1900 by emphasizing earlier ignorance of lands, seas and space. Written in the author’s usual lucid and accessible style, the book will appeal to general readers as well as scholars and students of history.’
Peter Burke, University of Cambridge

Shepherd Express

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