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BUFFON, GEORGES-LOUIS LECLERC, COMTE
DE (b. Montbard, France, 7 September 1707; d. Paris,
France, 16 April 1788); natural history.
the sculptor Augustin Pajou to do a bust
In 1752 Buffon, scarcely inclined to be governed
by his feelings, nevertheless married for love. His
wife, Françoise de Saint-Belin-Malain, a pretty girl
of twenty, was of gentle birth although poor. Mme.
de Buffon led a retiring life and died young, in 1769,
leaving a five-year-old son. Toward the end of his
life, Buffon developed a Platonic affection for the wife
of the famous Swiss financier Jacques Necker. His
most serious personal worries were caused by his son,
an unstable spendthrift, who was to die on the guillotine
during the Terror.
In addition to his scientific works, Buffon published
several speeches delivered before the Académie
Française, of which only one—Discours sur le style,
delivered on 25 August 1753, the day of his acceptance—is
significant. This speech is of interest not only
for the literary ideas that it contains, but also for its
embodiment of Buffon's conception of the value of
the original work of the scholar, which, according to
him, lies less in the discovery of facts than in their
organization and presentation.
Buffon's works may be grouped into two main
categories, the Mémoires presented to the Académie
des Sciences and the Histoire naturelle. The Mémoires,
which appeared between 1737 and 1752, deal with
mathematics (theory of probability), astronomy (the
law of attraction), physics (optics), plant physics
(tensile strength of wood), forestry, physiology, and
pyrotechnics (aerial rockets). Buffon considered most
of these subjects again in the Supplément à l'Histoire
Naturelle (I, II, IV, 1774-1777; for a complete description,
see Hanks, pp. 275-281).
Buffon's works appeared in many editions throughout
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the list,
with an analysis of each original edition, may be
found in the bibliography by E. Genet-Varcin and
J. Roger (1954). One must emphasize the importance
of the chronology of the various texts, since Buffon's
ideas evolved considerably as he assembled his great
It was probably his interest in mathematics that
first drew Buffon toward science. He was reputed to
have already discovered Newton's binomial theorem
by himself when he was twenty years old; at this time
he became associated with Gabriel Cramer. Their
correspondence deals with all types of problems—mechanics,
geometry, probability, theory of numbers,
differential and integral calculus.
Buffon's first original work was the memoir Sur le
jeu de franc-carreau, which introduced differential and
integral calculus into the theory of probability by
extending the latter to the field of surfaces. The study
of the Petersburg paradox led Buffon to certain moral
considerations that he clarified in the Essai
d'arithmétique morale (published in the Supplément,
IV, 1777). In that work, as well as in his memoirs
on the tensile strength of wood and his research in
the cooling of planets, Buffon obviously considered
mathematics more as a means of clarifying the idea
of reality than as an autonomous and abstract discipline.
His reasoning is that of an engineer, a moralist,
or a philosopher, rather than that of a pure mathematician.
This is why he refused to accept the notion
of infinity, which he considered to be no more than
une idée de privation, and why, in his discussion with
Clairaut on the law of attraction (1745), he insisted
that a simple force ought to be represented by a
simple algebraic formula. It was this “realism” that
prevented him from becoming a pure mathematician.
In fairness, however, it must be pointed out that, with
Clairaut and Maupertuis, he was one of the first
French disciples of Newton.
A philosopher as well as a naturalist, Buffon
throughout his works made observations on the nature
and value of science. His most important writing
on this subject is the Discours sur la manière d'étudier
et de traiter l'histoire naturelle (1749), but the Théorie
de la terre and the Histoire des animaux of the same
date are also significant.
Breaking with the spirit of his time, Buffon attempted
to separate science from metaphysical and
religious ideas. As a disciple of Locke he denied
idealistic metaphysics, stating that mental abstractions
can never become principles of either existence or real
knowledge; these can come only as the results of
sensation. He thereby also brushed aside Plato,
Leibniz, and Malebranche. He also rejected teleological
reasoning and the idea of God's direct intervention
in nature (herewith abandoning Newton): “In
physics one must, to the best of one's ability, refrain
from turning to causes outside of Nature” (Théorie
de la terre, preuves, art. V).
Buffon was particularly sensitive to the disorder
that appeared to rule nature: “It would appear that
everything that can be, is” (Sur la manière . . .). He
found fault with classifiers, especially Linnaeus, for
trying to imprison nature within an artificial system,
since man cannot even hope to understand nature
completely. Only in mathematics is there evident
truth because that particular science is man-made.
Physics deals only with the probable. Buffon did not
fall into the pit of skepticism, however. He thought
that man should construct a science not based on
certitudes but derived from nature.
As time went on, Buffon's ideas changed. In the
two Vues de la nature (Histoire naturelle, XII, XIII,