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Coinage of the Term Environment: A Word Without Authority and Carlyle’s Displacement of the Mechanical Metaphor



Translating the word ‘Umgebung’ in a work by Goethe, Carlyle coined the term ‘environment’ in the South of Scotland in 1828. Goethe’s usage involves reference to a Scottish subject, Macpherson’s Ossian. Referring to this, in 1942 Spitzer argued that the broader meaning of the word was misrepresented by Carlyle’s translation. However, after coining the term environment, Carlyle’s later work can be read as a significant realisation of this broader Goethean meaning, through his literary-critical discussion of Robert Burns, literary-philosophical Sartor Resartus, and his biography and historiography. The term needs to be seen partly as a response to a large number of intersecting social, political, economic, and agrarian changes associated with the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and in particular the modernising transformations of the Lowland Clearances. But, through the ways in which this examination of the term’s coinage brings into relation Goethe, Carlyle, the philosophy of Thomas Reid, and a theory of concepts by Sir William Hamilton, the hybridising processes involved in coining the term can also be seen as constituting a pivotal moment of transnational cultural exchange, an encapsulation of diversity, an interdisciplinary interrelation of literary, philosophical, and social critique, and a paradigm-shifting challenge to the authority of mechanism. These intersecting elements are peculiarly apt with regard to certain radical dimensions of continuing relevance to the counter-Enlightenment position of Adorno and Horkheimer, humanity’s relation with nature, our continuing struggles with the Enlightenment legacy, and to the expansive, plural, and potentially evolving character of the notion of environment – but also to the later emergence of environmentalism.