Fire in the mind: Changing understandings of fire in western civilization

Stephen Pyne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


For most of human history, fire has been a pervasive presence in human life, and so also in human thought. This essay examines the ways in which fire has functioned intellectually in Western civilization as mythology, as religion, as natural philosophy and as modern science. The great phase change occurred with the development of industrial combustion; fire faded from quotidian life, which also removed it from the world of informing ideas. Beginning with the discovery of oxygen, fire as an organizing concept fragmented into various subdisciplines of natural science and forestry. The Anthropocene, however, may revive the intellectual role of fire as an informing idea or at least a narrative conceit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20150166
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1696
StatePublished - Jun 5 2016


  • Anthropocene
  • Fire
  • History
  • History of ideas
  • History of science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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