Postpositivist Interpretations of the Chemical Revolution. (1) (Abstract/Resume Analytique)

Article excerpt

Since its inception in the Enlightenment, the discipline of the history of science has occupied a contested intellectual terrain, shaped by philosophical and ideological forces associated with the development and cultural entanglements of science itself. While Enlightenment figures like Joseph Priestley and Adam Smith viewed the history of science as a species of "philosophical history," religiously-minded scholars as diverse as Priestley, Pierre Duhem, and Stanley Jaki used it in the conflict between scientific and religious cultures, and nineteenth-century positivists appropriated it to the justificatory needs of science itself. More recently, philosophers and sociologists of science have appealed to the history of science to settle their heated controversies about the nature of science and its relation to society. (2) As a result of this rich and turbulent history, modern historians of science are faced with a bewildering array of interpretive strategies for making sense of the historical development of science, Sensitive to the growing complexity of their discipline and the problems this poses for its future development and effective interaction with allied fields and disciplines, many historians of science have developed a reflexive interest in the methods, as well as the objects, of their inquiries. (3) Adopting Collingwood's dictum that "no historical problem should be studied without studying ... the history of historical thought about it," some historians of science have become interested in "the history of science as history." (4) As a manifestation of this interest, this paper offers a critical account of recent developments in the historiography of the Chemical Revolution, which is designed to guide the work of future specialists in the field and to solicit the interest and input of more general historians.

The Chemical Revolution occurred towards the end of the eighteenth century. Centered on the transition from the phlogiston theory of combustion to the oxygen theory of chemistry, the Chemical Revolution involved a transformation in the ontology, epistemology, methodology, language, instruments, and institutions of chemistry. (5) The conflict between the "antiphlogistic" system of chemistry, which viewed combustion as a combination with oxygen gas, and its "phlogistic" predecessor and rival, which treated combustion as the release of phlogiston (the principle of inflammability thought to be present in all combustible substances), is usually associated with the names of two scientists, Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley, who shared the rational and liberal principles of the philosophes. The Chemical Revolution was a child of the Enlightenment, and its major protagonists paid a high price -- Lavoisier with his life and Priestley with his home and country -- when they carried their Enlightenment ideals into the political arena. (6) Attentive to the proximity of the Chemical Revolution and the American and French Revolutions, proponents and opponents of the new chemistry shared an exhilarating sense of living in an "age of revolutions, philosophical as well as civil." (7) If the French Revolution involved the dawning of the modern political order, the Chemical Revolution heralded the beginning of modern chemistry. The thesis that the origins of modern chemistry involved a fundamental break with tradition united subsequent scholars of diverse historiographical sensibilities and otherwise incompatible philosophical persuasions.

Until recently, historians of science gave the Chemical Revolution short shrift. Lost in the wake of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, which involved the birth of modern science itself, and eclipsed by the Darwinian Revolution of the nineteenth century, which evoked passionate debates about the origins of life and human destiny, the more prosaic issues associated with the Chemical Revolution attracted the interest of only a small number of historians and historically-minded chemists. …


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