Why teach History of Early Modern Chemistry?


How can one teach the history of a science which has no affinity for its own history and is also ignorant about it? How can one teach the history of a science when philosophy of sciences itself seems practically to ignore it? Moreover, how can one teach the history of a science which is not at all highly thought: considered about yesterday as a simple empirical or irrational knowledge, and considered nowadays as a depreciated discipline or a polluting one? How indeed can one teach history of chemistry to an audience which, at best, knows that it probably started with Lavoisier’s works, while they generally do not know anything about these works? If teaching history of chemistry of the 19th and the 20th century is not easy for these reasons (especially when we refuse to merely draw up a list of dates and facts only comprehensible through our chemical knowledge of today), what can we think of the history of the previous period (17th and 18th centuries), when we have to venture before Lavoisian break regarded as radical? We have to do with discredited thoughts, too easily subsumed under the name of alchemy which - following an erroneous and tendentious historical rebuilding since the 19th century - became at the same time the image itself of bad chemistry and its past. So we can rightly wonder about the usefulness of teaching history of early modern chemistry (before the end of the 18th century). Why indeed teach the history of the false, not just simple errors, but actually the history of absurd and incomprehensible intellectual developments offending a scientific rationality regarded - wrongly - as unhistorical? What can really the knowledge of works on the Philosopher's Stone, the Alkahest, the Powder of Sympathy or other palingenesis practices offer to the comprehension of modern chemistry?

And yet the history of the false does not mean, for all that, false history. It has something to tell us about the contemporary chemical science; it is even favourable to underlining its characteristics, to defining rather accurately its nature. It perhaps informs, even more than the history of the true does (actually the history of an artificial truth, because it is quite often defined in relation with knowledge and values of today), about what constitutes the particularity of chemistry compared to other sciences (inter alia its manner of comprehending and questioning the world). The false reveals - not in the negative but absolutely in the positive - the project of chemistry, its singular process, its ambition, and its formidable demiurgic power. The history of the false bluntly raises the question “what is a science?” Whether early modern chemistry is rejected or accepted in the field of science is something that always depends on an implicit definition of science which actually cannot, in the case of chemistry, match the dominant paradigmatic image of physics (since Newton). The history of alchemy passes then paradoxically for what reveals the nature of chemistry whose features it underlines to extremes. Indeed, even if it is not obvious that the chemistry of the past resembles the past of the chemistry we know today, we speak about the same science whose identity has remained the same. So history of early modern chemistry allows us to highlight the principal elements of the nature of modern chemistry such as:

- science of laboratory, and distinction between chemistry and physics (knowledge of the intimate structure of bodies [“opening the bodies”, the alkahest] (end of the 16th c.); ecstasy over the substances and their transformations [chemists have never contented themselves only with the mathematisable qualities of bodies] (beginning of the 17th c.); distinction between chemical (interior) properties / physical (external) properties (middle of the 18th c.)
- intention to transform bodies (philosopher’s stone) (17th c.)
- idea of chemical knowledge progress (alkahest) (end of the 17th c.)
- chemistry is experienced in the present (no induction, abandonment of the idea of nature at the beginning of the 18th c.)
- not only reality does not reach all possibilities, but even the possibilities of nature are far from being able to compete with the possibilities of the chemists (the chemistry of salts in the 18th c.)
- the experiment is seldom at the base of the progress of a laboratory science (Philosopher's stone, but not only)
- explaining a phenomenon is to attest it (powder of sympathy)
- chemistry is a major science since the end of the 16th century (in order to restore the image of chemistry by the teaching of its ignored but glorious past (17th and 18th c.))
Löpning & Utbildning

Remi Franckowiak