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Postpositivist interpretations of the Chemical Revolution. (1) (Abstract/Resume analytique).

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. This situation changed in the 1960s and 1970s, however, which witnessed the publication of almost as many studies of the Chemical Revolution as occurred in the whole of the preceding century. Arguing that chemistry, and not physics, was the first modern scientific discipline, some historians treated the Chemical Revolution as part of a Second Scientific Revolution, which involved conceptual and institutional changes that separated the philosophical world of early modern science, established in the seventeenth century, from the disciplinary structures of modern science that appeared in the nineteenth century. (8) This resurgence of scholarly interest in the Chemical Revolution coincided with a historiographical ferment in the discipline of the history of science as a whole. As I have argued elsewhere, scholarly interpretations of the Chemical Revolution have passed through three distinct historiographical phases since the Second World War, each characterized by a dominant, but not exclusive, interpretive style. (9) The first phase extended back to the time of the Revolution itself and was shaped by positivist and whig views of science as a teleologically-structured corpus of experimental knowledge. The "postpositivist" identification of science with theory challenged this perspective in the early 1960s, but it gave way in the 1970s and '80s to the postmodernist view of science as a sociological entity shaped by the contingent constraints of specific agents and local contexts. This study will explore the philosophical and historiographical dimensions of postpositivist interpretations of the Chemical Revolution and will consider some of the criticisms leveled at them by subsequent sociologists of knowledge. It is designed to offset recent tendencies to downplay the historical significance and specificity of postpositivism by treating it as either a minor modification of positivism or as a brief prelude to postmodernism. (10) Despite its brief ascendancy in the pantheon of interpretive styles, postpositivism had a profound and productive influence on the historiography of the Chemical Revolution, and a reflexive study like this one will enable us to better assimilate and appreciate its complex, variegated, and important results.


In his seminal study Lavoisier -- the Crucial Year, published in 1961, the historian of science Henry Guerlac challenged the prevailing opinion that Antoine Lavoisier was the founder of modern chemistry because it simply focused on Lavoisier's creative genius and ignored his intellectual heritage. (11) Subsequent scholars developed "thematic analyses of the Chemical Revolution," which were shaped by the "postpositivist" challenge to the traditions of positivism and whiggism that dominated the historiography of science in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (12) Compelled by the historicist notion of a logic, or telos, of history, English whigs and French positivists interpreted the Chemical Revolution as the origins of modern chemistry. (13) Adopting a foundationalist epistemology, which identified knowledge with "eureka" discoveries, or "crucial experiments," positivist-whig historians focused on Lavoisier's experiments on combustion: where the phlogistians saw the release of phlogiston (the principle of inflammability) from the combustible, Lavoisier saw the absorption of oxygen by the combustible. Positivist-whig historians related these competing hypotheses to methodological differences between the qualitative chemistry of phlogiston, based on a metaphysical ontology of "reified essences," and Lavoisier's quantitative determination of "simple substances" and their laboratory compounds. Treating Lavoisier's chemistry as a progressive stage in the teleological development of science, which began with the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, they argued that Lavoisier broke with the chemistry of his day and resuscitated the neglected ideas and results obtained by the seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle. Positivist-whig historians claimed that Boyle's work was neglected because early-eighteenth-century chemists became engrossed in the erroneous and speculative phlogiston theory. Linking the progress of science to the actions of individual scientists -- the "children of light" -- who used the scientific method to overcome the "congeries of error, myth, and superstition" promulgated by the "children of darkness," positivist-whig historians traced Joseph Priestley's support for phlogiston and opposition to the oxygen theory to the disruptive effect of nonscientific, metaphysical, and religious, modes of thought on his reasoning. Postpositivist scholars replaced this view of the Chemical Revolution with a theoreticist conception of science and its historical development.

The roots of postpositivism can be traced to the idealist historiographies of science developed, in France in the 1920s and 1930s, by the philosopher Emile Meyerson and the historians of science Alexandre Koyre and Helene Metzger. Under the tutelage of Koyre, I. Bernard Cohen, Henry Guerlac, A. Rupert Hall, and Richard Westfall -- the doyens of the discipline of the history of science in America in the 1950s and 1960s -- assimilated science to theory and the history of science to the history of ideas. (14) Similar views were developed in the 1960s and 1970s by a loose coalition of historians and philosophers of science who were caught up in the dialectic between the views of the philosopher of science Karl Popper and the historian and philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn. Rejecting the positivist doctrine of immediate sensory knowledge, postpositivists defended the theoreticist claim that "theory dominates the experimental work from its initial planning up to the finishing touches in the laboratory." (15) Postpositivists replaced the notion of the cognitive unity of the knower and the known with a fallibilistic demarcation between the known object and the real object, thought and being. Equating knowledge with the "theories, propositions, and statements" of science, Popper identified scientific rationality and progress with the methodology of conjecture and refutation. Linking rationality to realism, Popper claimed that scientific theories provide rational, or falsifiable, descriptions of a world that exists independently of the ways in which it is described or explained. Influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which treated scientific theories as "forms of life," the philosopher of science Norwood R. Hanson overlaid Popper's realist account of the theory-dependence of observational terms and statements with the antirealist, or idealist, notion of the "theory-ladeness" of observation itself. Claiming that science involves an element of "tacit knowledge," Hanson and Kuhn treated scientific theories as "gestalts" and scientific changes as "gestalt switches," or "conversion experiences." According to Kuhn, after Lavoisier discovered oxygen, he not only "saw nature differently," he "worked in a different world." (16)

Postpositivist historians and philosophers of science were not insensitive to the important role that facts and experiments play in the development of science. The doctrine of the "theory-ladeness of observation" did not deny the role of observation and experimentation in the development and evaluation of scientific theories. What it did deny was the positivist-whig view that experiments provide a direct, unmediated access to nature, which yields incontrovertible facts for establishing, once and for all, the rational credential of competing theories. Upholding a fallibilistic view of knowledge, postpositivists called attention to the ineluctable interpretive dimension to observations and experiments. They argued that new concepts and theories could challenge established facts and observations in the same way that new facts and observations test established theories. Unlike their sociological successors and adversaries, who focused on the practical skills and institutional networks involved in the performance and replication of experiments, postpositivist historians and philosophers of science tied the preparation, execution, and interpretation of experiments to the dialectical development of conceptual structures and theoretical systems. They argued that, without concepts and theories to interpret them, experiments are mute and facts have no cognitive content. Although science is about the external world, it begins and ends with concepts and theories.

The Popperian philosopher of science Imre Lakatos used philosophical models of scientific rationality to "rationally reconstruct" the past. Lakatos formulated the influential distinction between "internal history," or the "normative [rational] reconstruction" of the history of science, and "external history," which provides causal explanations of its "residual, non-rational factors." Lakatos insisted on the priority of internal history, which sets the agenda for external history and offers a "radically improved version" of the past, in which an occurrent sequence of scientific ideas is replaced by one that "fits naturally [logically] in the original outline" of a research program. (17) Although Kuhn upheld the distinction between "internal and external history" -- recognizing that social factors occasionally regulate the rate of development and problem-field of science but not its criteria of theory choice -- he rejected Lakatos's normative approach to the history of science. Influenced by Wittgenstein's descriptivist view of philosophy, Kuhn insisted that the task of the historian of science is not to evaluate the development of science in terms of abstract models of progress, but to describe and explain why it "progresses as it does." While Lakatos wrote "normative histories of science," in terms of a preconceived model of scientific rationality, the philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin argued that the description of the different ways in which rationality functions in different contexts is "the sole but sufficient basis for determining how science derives its rationality." (18) Postpositivist historians of science used the distinction between internal and external history to restrict the sociology of knowledge to the subsidiary function of explaining beliefs that cannot be explained rationally. They assimilated the history of science to the history of ideas.

Postpositivists also assimilated the philosophy of science to the history of science. While the Logical Positivists criticized scholars who "muddled historical origins with logical justification," postpositivist philosophers of science allowed their knowledge of how science has developed to play a decisive role in their understanding of how it ought to develop. (19) The emphasis that postpositivists placed on "global theories" in the development of science reinforced this sense of the philosophical significance of the history of science. Globalists distinguished between "specific," or "local," theories, which explain specific phenomena, and "global theories," which provide the ontological principles and methodological procedures involved in the formulation of specific explanatory theories. Unlike the specific theories they generate and justify, global theories pass through a number of different formulations and have long histories extending through significant periods of time. Knowledge is not an instantaneous affair, but a "complex temporal process," characterized by the "patterns" that mark its historical development. Like Hegel, globalist philosophers of science transformed epistemology into the philosophy of history. (20)

The globalist philosophies of science developed by Kuhn, Lakatos, and Larry Laudan had a significant impact on the historiography of the Chemical Revolution. Viewing the history of science as a succession of incommensurable "paradigms," Kuhn emphasized the moments of discontinuity in the development of science. In place of the historicist vision of the unity, linearity, and homogeneity of a single, absolute historical time, Kuhnian historians of science advanced the idea of a succession of distinct and different epochal times, each with its own unity, linearity, and homogeneity. Lakatos responded to Kuhn's assault on the citadels of objectivity and rationality in science by arguing that "it is a succession of theories [or research program] and not one given theory which is appraised as scientific or pseudo-scientific." This developmental appraisal takes time, however, and the "honorific title" of "crucial experiment" is "conferred on certain anomalies, but only long after the event, only when one programme had been defeated by another one." (21) Laudan reinforced Lakatos's sense of the temporality of rationality by defining rationality in terms of progress and by emphasizing the historicity of the units of rational appraisal. Unlike Kuhn and Lakatos, who treated global theories as static structures, abstracted from the flow of time, Laudan emphasized the dynamic mutability of "research traditions," recognizing that they may have at their inception no assumptions in common with those at more advanced stages in their development. Laudan replaced Kuhn's doctrine of incommensurability, which viewed the history of science as a succession of static, self-contained cognitive structures, with a balanced and dynamic sense of the moments of continuity and discontinuity between the overlapping "research traditions" that constitute science and its historical development. (22) Laudan assimilated this development to the history of ideas by emphasizing the role of "conceptual problems" -- generated by a science's relation to its intellectual environment -- in the justification, as well as the formulation, of scientific theories.

Koyre's idealist historiography of science reinforced the postpositivist tendency to assimilate the history of science to the history of ideas. Koyre upheld the idealist thesis that science "is essentially theoria, a search for the truth," which has an "inherent and autonomous" development, an internal logic of its own. (23) Emphasizing the unity and continuity of the human intellect, he searched for close ties between science, philosophy, and theology. Koyre's ideas influenced Cohen, Guerlac, Hall, and Westfall, who opened up a vision of the unity, autonomy, and cultural significance of scientific thought. (24) The idealist imperative informed the impressive and influential body of work compiled by Helene Metzger before her tragic and untimely death at the hands of the Nazis. Metzger rejected the presentistic orientation of the positivist-whig historiography because it ignored the historicity of science and precluded a sympathetic understanding of past science. She regarded an adequate understanding of past science as beyond the reach of the positivist-whig historiography because it focused on the crucial experiments of a few men of genius. She regarded it as the duty of historians of science to unearth the "orientations de mentalite" that inform and unify the different texts of a particular author and the diverse theories of a particular historical period. (25) Within an idealist interpretive framework, which downplayed the role of experience, agency, and discontinuity in the development of science, Metzger produced an interpretation of the Chemical Revolution that prefigured some of the themes and ideas developed by postpositivist historians of chemistry thirty years later. She rejected the positivist-whig idea of Lavoisier as the experimental founder of modern chemistry, and she shifted the locus of the Chemical Revolution from Lavoisier's antiphlogistic chemistry to his more fundamental philosophy of matter. Stressing the continuity that existed between Lavoisier's chemistry and the work of his immediate predecessors and rivals, Metzger argued that the more important aspects of his chemistry, such as the law of the conservation of matter, the definition of "simple substances," and the reform of the chemical nomenclature, were the outcome of a "gradual transformation that had been going on throughout the eighteenth century." Postpositivist scholars endorsed Metzger's suggestion that "Lavoisier marks the end of an era rather than the beginning of a new age." (26) Metzger's narrative also prefigured the historiographical limitations of postpositivism. In focusing on the conceptual unity and structure of chemical doctrines, she produced an inadequate account of their specific historical contexts and sequential development. (27)


Postpositivist historians claimed that the Chemical Revolution involved a "conceptual breakthrough," which occurred independently of the socioeconomic conditions of eighteenth-century Europe. (28) They also insisted that "the phlogiston controversy, and the disagreement between, for instance, Priestley and Lavoisier, was not a matter of the 'observation', but of the interpretation of chemical processes." (29) While Toulmin appealed to the criteria of "clarity and simplicity" to establish the "superior merit of Lavoisier's theory," the philosophers of science Alan Musgrave and Phillip Kitcher deployed reconstructionist strategies to identify Lavoisier's discovery of the composition of water in 1784 as the "rational" turning point of the Chemical Revolution. (30) While Kuhn offset these "rational reconstructions" with the relativistic idea of the Chemical Revolution as a "paradigm shift," the historian Karl Hufbauer and the sociologist H. Gilman McCann deployed the concept of incommensurability in their sociological analyses of the Chemical Revolution, providing external histories of its non-rational components. (31) A similar sense of theoretical discontinuity informed the influential analysis of Priestley's role in the Chemical Revolution developed by the historian of science Robert Schofield. Rejecting the positivist-whig view that Priestley opposed the oxygen theory because he was an inadequate theorist, Schofield traced the basic polarity of the Chemical Revolution to fundamental conceptual differences between Priestley and Lavoisier. Schofield contrasted Lavoisier's chemical interest in the "permutations and combinations of elements" with Priestley's physicalist concern with "the fundamental constituents of matter' and their "mechanistic modes and operations." Schofield incorporated whiggish sensibilities into his theoreticism when he blamed Priestley's physicalism for his failure to appreciate the "easy interpretations" that his experiments received "within the frame of the oxygen theory." (32) The postpositivist notion of the incommensurability of the phlogiston theory and the oxygen theory marked a moment of continuity with the positivist-whig idea that the Chemical Revolution constituted a cognitive "inversion," or a transition from the "looking glass chemistry" of phlogiston to the real world of oxygen. (33)

Within the framework of theoreticism, Guerlac argued that Lavoisier's decisive break with tradition occurred not when he performed his experiments on combustion in the Fall of 1772, but a few months earlier when he accepted Stephen Hales's novel idea that air is a chemical agent. Moving the locus of the Chemical Revolution away from the phenomenon of combustion and the associated dialectic between phlogiston and oxygen, Guerlac's students and critics in the history of science community focused on the doctrinal structure and development of chemistry as part of a "Long Revolution," stretching from Stahl to Dalton. (34) While Robert Kohler and Maurice Crosland showed that Lavoisier was more interested in the theory of acidity than the phenomenon of combustion, Homer Le Grand noted that the oxygen theory of acidity engendered a "compositional confusion," which was only removed in 1810 when Humphry Davy refuted the oxygen theory of acidity and the "vestiges of chemistry-by-principles" associated with it. (35) If Le Grand made the Chemical Revolution a post-Lavoisier affair, J.B. Gough argued that, as early as 1766, Lavoisier had raised the "central" problem of the Chemical Revolution, the nature of the "gaseous state," when he suggested, in accord with the ideas of Robert Jacques Turgot and Guillame Francois Rouelle, that air loses its "elasticity" and becomes "fixed" in chemical combinations, when it is deprived of its "matter of fire," or "caloric." While Martin Fichman and Robert Siegfried placed the concept of the gaseous state at the core of the Chemical Revolution, Robert Morris and John Christie drew attention to the central role of caloric in Lavoisier's mature chemistry. (36) By emphasizing the early formation and long-term development of the concepts and categories of Lavoisier's chemistry, these scholars undermined the positivist-whig idea that 1772 was his "crucial year."

Resisting this conclusion, the historian of chemistry Carleton Perrin placed a theoreticist construal on the historiography of the "crucial year," which recognized the worth of the phlogiston theory and Lavoisier's indebtedness to Stahl. Perrin argued that Lavoisier used the quantitative instruments and techniques of physics to "expand and reform rather than overthrow" existing chemical knowledge. As Richard Jennings also noted, the young Lavoisier worked with the phlogiston theory. He sought to emulate, not replace Stahl. Just as Stahl had tamed the elusive, un-isolable phlogiston, by identifying its lawful effects and chemical combinations, so Lavoisier wanted to use "Halesian and other quantitative techniques" to tame air. The pursuit of this "investigative program" led Lavoisier to doubt the existence of phlogiston and to anticipate, in the spring of 1773, "a period of almost complete revolution." Accepting Laudan's view of the historical mutability of research traditions, Perrin identified 1772 as Lavoisier's "crucial year" not because it involved a "eureka experience" but because it marked the starting point of a research program that gradually introduced new concepts, methods, and assumptions into chemistry. (37)

Other historians of chemistry, including Larry Holmes, broke completely with the historiography of the crucial year. Holmes argued that Lavoisier's "creative thinking" was not an "isolated act," a "eureka" experience, but a life-long "growth process," sustained and regulated by a "research program," or "investigative enterprise." Providing a meticulous account of Lavoisier's observations and experiments, Holmes described the "long, and sometimes stormy, conceptual passage," through a myriad of different phenomena, partially solved problems, and a constantly changing theoretical environment, which brought Lavoisier in 1777 to "the outline of a new system of chemistry." (38) According to Holmes, Lavoisier's research program linked organic and biochemical phenomena to the phenomenon of combustion and issued in "the outline of a new system of chemistry" in 1777. But, Holmes insisted, Lavoisier did not revolutionize "chemistry as a whole"; rather he added to the already existing chemistry of plants and salts, the "chemistry of gases, combustion, and acidity." More recently, Holmes argued that the Chemical Revolution was not "an event within chemistry," but was part of a longer and broader revolution, initiated by Hales and Black, in which "pneumatic chemistry," which encompassed physics, chemistry, and medicine, constituted an interdisciplinary challenge to the community of practicing chemists.(39) On both accounts, Holmes treated the Chemical Revolution as "a complex multidimensional episode," a nexus of cognitive and social forces; but he placed Lavoisier's "investigative enterprise" at its core. Adopting similar theoreticist and internalist sensibilities, Arthur Donovan projected a more revolutionary image of Lavoisier's science. Influenced by Laudan's emphasis on the role of conceptual problems, or methodological issues, in the articulation and development of scientific theories, Donovan claimed that Lavoisier transformed chemistry into a real science by subordinating it to the methodology of experimental physics promulgated by Jean Antoine Nollet. (40) Nollet rejected the reduction of physics to mathematical reasoning and insisted that precise experimentation was the key to acquiring reliable theoretical knowledge of causal relations in nature. Donovan used the globalist perspective to argue that Lavoisier's allegiance to an Enlightenment "vision of reform" resulted in the birth of "the Second Scientific Revolution," in which chemistry became a "positive science" and entered "the nineteenth century as the paradigmatic new science." (41) In an interesting twist of historiographical logic, Donovan's postpositivist construal of the historicity and mutability of eighteenth-century science supported the positivist-whig sense of the continuity of the Chemical Revolution with the Scientific Revolution.

Although Evan Melhado accepted Donovan's claim that "the Chemical Revolution was generated by physics," he argued that physics transformed an already existing scientific discipline. According to Melhado, the French Stahlians drew a clear demarcation between the chemical properties of the individual particles of matter and the physical properties that resulted from their state of aggregation. Focusing on microscopic "attractions" as "the cause ... of the condensation of heat into phlogistic compounds," they treated Hermann Boerhaave's discussion of fire in its aggregative, rarefying, repulsive form as "entirely physical." Working under "Boerhaave's banner, not Stahl's," Lavoisier treated fire as an "expansive agent" and the fixation and liberation of air as "aggregative phenomena." According to Melhado, chemistry could absorb this physical novelty only by undergoing a revolution. (42) Perrin was quick to reject this argument, as well as Donovan's attempt to construe Lavoisier as "subordinating chemistry to physics." Perrin recognized that Lavoisier used physics to reform chemistry methodologically, but he insisted that Lavoisier wrought a "conceptual and theoretical" revolution in a pre-existing science of chemistry. Donovan replied that Perrin's narrow, positivistic focus on the empirical content of scientific theories prevented him from appreciating the globalist argument that Lavoisier achieved the revolutionary transformation of chemistry into a science only because he linked his theoretical innovations to a deeper, methodological and epistemological, transformation, rooted in experimental physics. In the same vein, Melhado faulted Perrin for his insufficient sensitivity to the interpretive dimension of science. (43)


Contrary to the historiography of the "crucial year," which focused on Lavoisier's early training in experimental physics and Rouellian chemistry, the historians of science William Albury and Marco Beretta located the core of the Chemical Revolution in the philosophical and linguistic principles that shaped Lavoisier's mature publications. Influenced by Etienne Bonnot de Condillac's vision of knowledge as the natural and combinatorial product of human needs and sensations, Lavoisier emphasized the necessity of equations and a systematic nomenclature in chemistry. Linking Lavoisier's algebraic mode of reasoning to his quantitative instrumentation, Trevor Levere claimed that "Lavoisier's use of instruments ... parallel[s] his use of the new nomenclature, and [has] something of the same pedagogical and even epistemological force as his chemical language." (44) While Albury used his analysis to support the Founder Myth, Beretta linked Condillac to Descartes and claimed that Lavoisier practiced "Cartesian analysis." Beretta recapitulated a nationalistic rivalry associated with the positivist-whig historiography, locating the seeds of the Chemical Revolution not in the English soil of Boyle and Bacon but in the fertile mind of Descartes and his French progeny. (45)

Influenced by Metzger, Kuhn rejected any attempt to assimilate the Chemical Revolution to the Scientific Revolution. Kuhn emphasized the cognitive dissonance between Boyle's corpuscular chemistry, which denied the existence of chemical elements and reduced chemical qualities to the configurations of the "neutral corpuscles of base matter," and Lavoisier's antireductionist interest in the isolation of chemical elements and the determination of chemical compositions. The historian of science Arnold Thackray shared Kuhn's conclusion that "the true progenitors of Lavoisier's chemical revolution were necessarily among Boyle's opponents," showing how Lavoisier and the French Stahlians defended the autonomy of chemistry against the pervasive influence of Newtonian physicalism. (46) In this vein, Schofield argued that Lavoisier did not free chemistry from Stahl but merged Stahlian chemistry with the eighteenth-century tradition of "imponderable fluids," which traced the phenomena of heat, light, and electricity to the action of material substances that were undetectable by the balance. Lavoisier's antireductionist chemistry focused on the identification and (quantitative) conservation of substances, or "aggregates of particles," not on the properties of individual particles. Likening Lavoisier to Linnaeus, instead of Boyle or Newton, Schofield claimed that the Chemical Revolution involved a "counter-reformation," a "neo-Aristotelian reaction against mechanism," in which "pre-revolutionary formal qualities were materialized in substances." (47)

Postpositivist historians of science who upheld the historiography of continuity rejected the Kuhnian and positivist-whig claim that the Chemical Revolution involved an abrupt and radical shift in the ideas chemists had about the nature, number, and distribution of the chemical elements. They challenged the idea of a strict demarcation between a pre-Lavoisian chemistry, based on a small number of unisolable and imponderable "generic principles" abundantly available in nature, and Lavoisier's concept of the specificity of large number of "simple substances," isolable in the laboratory and detectable by the balance. They argued that the shift from a qualitative chemistry of generic principles to a quantitative chemistry of simple substances was underway long before Lavoisier appeared on the scene and was the product of intellectual trends common to phlogistic and antiphlogistic chemists. As Perrin, Morris, and Maurice Daumas showed, Lavoisier treated the core elements of his system -- caloric, oxygen, and azote -- as imponderable principles, present throughout nature and subject to the laws of chemical affinity. (48) While these scholars assimilated the oxygen theory to the pre-Lavoisian chemistry of imponderables, other scholars argued that the phlogiston theory was as much a chemistry of simple substances as the oxygen theory. According to Robert Siegfried and Betty Jo Dobbs, as the eighteenth century wore on, the generic principles of earth, air, fire, and water "came to be thought of as obtainable in impure forms, as the end products of analysis" and were eventually transformed into classes of specific isolable substances. (490 Marie Boas Hall linked these developments to the gradual acceptance of Boyle's particulate view of matter, which enabled Lavoisier's predecessors to distinguish between "chemical atoms," the last (complex) particles of laboratory substances, and their more fundamental "constituent particles" studied by physicists. (50) While A.M. Duncan argued that the construction of Affinity Tables transformed the sortal properties of "principles," or "essences," into "classes of simple substances," other scholars showed how, in the middle of the eighteenth century, phlogistic chemists transformed the earthy principle into the class of specific earths, the element air into the "aerial" state, and elementary water into ordinary water. (n51) Siegfried and Dobbs noted that, while this "century-long transition away from the metaphysical towards the operational concept of the element" culminated in Lavoisier's pragmatic definition of elements as the end product of analysis, it also evoked a reaction among Lavoisier's immediate followers, who called for a "simplifying reduction in the number of simple bodies" and upheld the traditional view of chemical elements as the ultimate, universal constituents of matter, a notion Lavoisier also defended in his unpublished writings. While Ferdinando Abbri emphasized the revolutionary break involved in Lavoisier's concept of "chemical elements," I used these scholarly results to argue for a more balanced sense of the moments of continuity and discontinuity in the Chemical Revolution. (52)

Postpositivist historians of science challenged the manichean dichotomy between Lavoisier and his phlogistic opponents, which suggested that the reception of Lavoisier's theory was as straightforward and abrupt as his eureka discovery of the troth. Whereas positivist-whig accounts of the Chemical Revolution viewed the reception of the oxygen theory by the European chemical community as a straightforward diffusion and assimilation of Lavoisier's ideas and results, postpositivist historians adopted a more interactive perspective, which envisaged a dynamic interaction between the "French system" and several distinct cultures of chemistry, each with its own principles, procedures, and paradigms. As Douglas Allchin noted, these interactions did not result in the wholesale replacement of phlogiston by oxygen so much as the formation of "complementary schemes aimed at different phenomena or different aspects of the same phenomenon." (53) While David Knight elucidated the role of Baconianism, patriotism, and pedantry in the critical response of Humphry Davy and English chemists to the oxygen theory, Donovan, Christie, and Perrin showed how a complex configuration of evidence, arguments, and rhetoric shaped the variegated responses of the Scottish chemists. (54) Unconvinced by Schofield's physicalist construal of Priestley's chemistry, J.E. McGuire and I interpreted Priestley's science in relation to his philosophical vision of reality, which was generated by the subtle interplay of the doctrines of necessity, materialism, Socinianism, and associationism. (55) Adopting Laudan's model of the complexity of scientific change, I explored a variety of cognitive similarities and differences between Priestley's natural philosophy and Lavoisier's chemistry, which I also related to philosophical, cultural, and political themes associated with the English and French Enlightemnents. (56) Postpositivist analyses of the reception of Lavoisier's chemistry assimilated the history of science to the history of ideas.


Postpositivism reinvigorated the historiography of the Chemical Revolution. It provided historians of chemistry with new insights into the nature of Lavoisier's intellectual accomplishments, the contours of his scientific career, the sources and influences that shaped and inspired his inquiries, and the impact of his work and results on the European chemical community; it also generated a greater appreciation for the multiplicity and diversity of the subcultures within this community. Despite its considerable interpretive successes, however, postpositivism gave way in the 1980s and 1990s to a range of anti-theoreticist interpretive strategies associated with the burgeoning discipline of the sociology of knowledge. Rejecting the distinction between "internal," rational beliefs and "external," socially-caused beliefs, the "strong programme" in the sociology of knowledge sought to explain all beliefs in terms of their social causes. (57) The nominalist and deconstructionist principles of postmodernism gave substance to this metasociological heuristic, resulting in a finitistic view of knowledge, according to which the application of concepts and the formation of beliefs is a matter of innovative judgments at the local level, which are underdetermined by theory, language, or past usage. (58) Within this postmodernist interpretive framework, historians of science like Wilda Anderson, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, J.R.R. Christie, Jan Golinski, Lissa Roberts, and Simon Schaffer explained the Chemical Revolution by relating the rhetorical forms and discursive functions of its texts and instruments to the social, political, cultural, and institutional contexts in which they were deployed. (59)

Reflexive studies like this one perform a number of functions in this unsettled historiographical climate. They keep new and current historians in touch with the important results of previous scholars, which are in danger of being overlooked or poorly understood in a historiographical environment unsympathetic, or even hostile, to the methods and procedures used to procure them. They also provide information necessary for the "historical" comparison of competing definitions of science, which, according to both philosophers and sociologists of science, should be used to supplement, or even replace, traditional "logico-epistemological criticism." (60) In the presence of conflicting and contending historiographical strategies, historians of the Chemical Revolution also need to preserve and incorporate the important insights of past and present interpretive strategies into a more balanced and comprehensive historiographical framework. Faced with the historiographical "other," historians of science can reflect on their own identity and history, placing the emergence and development of their discipline in a broader historical framework. Some historians and commentators have already remarked on this framework, drawing parallels between, for example, the rise and fall of the whig interpretation of history and the fortunes of British imperialism, between the static structures of postpositivism and the "immobilism" of the Cold War, and finally, between the deconstructionist tendencies of postmodernism and "the post-1968 rejection by many left-wing intellectuals of any perspective of global social transformation." (61) Clearly, an adequate appreciation of "the history of science as history" requires closer and more extensive contacts between historians of science and general historians.

(1) This paper was written with support from the Taft Committee of the University of Cincinnati.

(2) See J.R.R. Christie, "The Development of the Historiography of Science," in R.C. Olby, G.N. Cantor, J.R.R. Christie, and M.J.S. Hodge (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science (London, 1990), pp. 4-22; Duncan Forbes, "Scientific Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Miller," Cambridge Journal, 7 (1954), 643-70; G. Motzkin, "The Catholic Response to Secularization and the Rise of the History of Science as a Discipline," Science in Context, 3 (1989), 203-22; Helge Kragh, An Introduction to the Historiography of Science (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 110-11; Tore Frangsmyr, "Science or History: George Sarton and the Positivist Tradition," Lychnos, 74 (1973), 104-44; Imre Lakatos, "History of Science and its Rational Reconstruction," in Colin Howson (ed.), Method and Appraisal in the Physical Sciences (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 1-39; Steven Shapin, "History of Science and its Sociological Reconstructions," History of Science, 20 (1982), 157-211.

(3) See, for example: I. Bernard Cohen, "The Many Faces of the History of Science: A Font of Examples for Philosophers, a Scientific Type of History, an Archaeology of Discovery, a Branch of Sociology, a Variant of Intellectual or Social History -- or What?" in Charles F. Delzell (ed.), The Future of History (Nashville, 1977), pp. 3-42; Anna-K Mayer, "Setting Up a Discipline: Conflicting Agendas of the Cambridge History of Science," Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 31 (2000), 665-89.

(4) R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford, 1939), p. 132; Robert S. Westman and David C. Lindberg, "Introduction," in David C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman (eds.), Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1990), p. xxiv.

(5) There is, as yet, no single comprehensive account of the Chemical Revolution, but a good sense of the state of current scholarship can be gleaned from Arthur Donovan (ed.), The Chemical Revolution. Essays in Reinterpretation (Philadelphia, 1988); Jan Y. Golinski, Science as Public Culture (Cambridge, 1992).

(6) See John G. McEvoy, "The Enlightenment and the Chemical Revolution," in Roger S. Woolhouse (ed.), Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1988), pp. 307-25.

(7) Joseph Priestley, Experiments and Observations Relating to the Analysis of Atmospherical Air (Philadelphia, 1796), pp. 35-36.

(8) See, for example, Arthur Donovan, "British Chemistry and the Concept of Science in the Eighteenth Century," Albion, 7 (1975), 144.

(9) See John G. McEvoy, "The Chemical Revolution in Context," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 33 (1992), 198-216.

(10) See, for example, Joseph Rouse, "Philosophy of Science and the Persistent Narratives of Modernity," Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 22 (1991), 141-62; Rob Iliffe, "Rhetorical Vices: Outlines of a Feyerabendian History of Science," History of Science, 30 (1992), 199-219.

(11) Henry Guerlac, Lavoisier -- the Crucial Year (Ithaca, 1961), p. xvii.

(12) C.E. Perrin, "Research Traditions, Lavoisier, and the Chemical Revolution," in Arthur Donovan (ed.), Chemical Revolution, p. 54.

(13) For a fuller discussion of the positivist-whig historiography see John G. McEvoy, "Positivism, Whiggism, and the Chemical Revolution: A Study in the Historiography of Chemistry," History of Science, 35 (1997), 1-33.

(14) Christie, "Development of the Historiography," pp. 17-18.

(15) Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, (revised ed., London, 1968), p. 107.

(16) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (second ed., Chicago, 1970), p. 118. See also Norwood Russell Hanson, Patterns of Discovery (London, 1962).

(17) Lakatos, "History of Science," pp. 16-19.

(18) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension (Chicago, 1977), pp. 118-20; Thomas S. Kuhn, "Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research," in Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge, 1970), p. 20; Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding (Princeton, 1972), pp. 93-96.

(19) See Larry Laudan, "The History of Science and the Philosophy of Science," in R.C. Olby (ed.), Companion, pp. 47-59.

(20) See Larry Laudan, Progress and Its Problems (Berkeley, 1977), pp. 70-73; Robert D'Amico, Historicism and Knowledge (New York, 1989), pp. 52-72.

(21) Lakatos, "History," pp. 9-16. See also Kuhn, Structure, pp. 99- 105.

(22) Larry Laudan, Science and Values (Berkeley, 1985), pp. 103-37. See also Laudan, Progress, pp. 45-69.

(23) Alexandre Koyre, "Commentary," in Alistair C. Crombie (ed.), Scientific Change (Ithaca, 1963), p. 856.

(24) See Christie, "Development of the Historiography," pp. 16-18.

(25) See Yan J. Golinski, "Helene Metzger and the Interpretation of Seventeenth-Century Chemistry," History of Science, 25 (1987), 85-97.

(26) Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, "Helene Metzger's La Chimie: A Popular Treatise," History of Science, 25 (1987), 79.

(27) J.R.R. Christie "Narrative and Rhetoric in Helene Metzger's Historiography of Eighteenth Century Science," History of Science, 25 (1987), 108.

(28) C.E. Perrin, "Revolution or Reform: The Chemical Revolution and Eighteenth Century Concepts of Scientific Change," History of Science, 25 (1987), 417-19.

(29) F. Verbruggen, "How to Explain Priestley's Defense of Phlogiston," Janus, 59 (1972), 66.

(30) See. S. E. Toulmin, "Crucial Experiments: Priestley and Lavoisier," Journal of the History of Ideas, 18 (1957), 205-20; Alan Musgrave, "Why Did Oxygen Supplant Phlogiston? Research Programmes in the History of Chemistry," in Colin Howson (ed.), Method, pp. 181-209; Philip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science (New York, 1993), pp. 272-90.

(31) See Kuhn, Structure, pp. 69-72; Karl Hufbauer, The Formation of the German Chemical Community (1720-1795) (Berkeley, CA, 1982); H. Gilman McCann, Chemistry Transformed (Norwood, NJ, 1978).

(32) Robert E. Schofield, A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) (Cambridge, MA, 1966), pp. 271-74.

(33) See McEvoy, "Positivism," p. 12.

(34) See Guerlac, Crucial, pp. xviii-xix; Donovan, Chemical Revolution, pp. 15-50.

(35) See Robert E. Kohler, "The Origins of Lavoisier's First Experiments on Combustion," Isis, 63 (1972), 349-55; Maurice Crosland, "Lavoisier's Theory of Acidity," Isis, 64 (1973), 306-25; Homer LeGrand, "Lavoisier's Oxygen Theory of Acidity," Annals of Science, 29 (1972), 1-18.

(36) See J. B. Gough, "The Origins of Lavoisier's Theory of the Gaseous State," in Harry Woolf (ed.), The Analytic Spirit (Ithaca, 1981), pp. 15-39; Martin Fichman, "French Stahlism and the Chemical Status of Air," Ambix, 18 (1971), 94-123; Robert Siegfried, "Lavoisier's View of the Gaseous State and Its Early Application to Pneumatic Chemistry," Isis, 63 (1972), 59-78; Robert J. Morris, "Lavoisier and the Caloric Theory," British Journal for the History of Science, 6 (1972), 1-38; J.R.R. Christie, "Ether and the Science of Chemistry, 1740-1790," in G.N. Cantor and M.J.S. Hodge, Conceptions of Ether (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 85-110.

(37) See C.E. Perrin, "Revolution"; C.E. Perrin, "Research Traditions, Lavoisier, and the Chemical Revolution," in Donovan (ed.), Chemical Revolution, pp. 53-81; Richard Jennings, "Lavoisier's Views on Phlogiston," Ambix, 28 (1981), 206-9.

(38) Frederic L. Holmes, "Lavoisier's Conceptual Passage," in Donovan (ed.), Chemical Revolution, p. 92. See also Frederic L. Holmes, Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life (Madison, 1985). In a later study, Holmes adopts a position closer to Perrin's, in which he treats 1773 as a crucial year for Lavoisier because it marked the beginning of his stormy conceptual passage: see Frederic L. Holmes, Antoine Lavoisier -- The Next Crucial Year (Princeton, 1998).

(39) Frederic L. Holmes, Eighteenth-Century Chemistry as an Investigative Enterprise (Berkeley CA, 1989), pp. 107-8; Frederic L. Holmes, "The 'Revolution in Chemistry and Physics': Overthrow of a Reigning Paradigm or Competition between Contemporary Research Programs?" Isis, 91 (2000), 735-53.

(40) See Arthur Donovan, "Lavoisier and the Origins of Modern Chemistry," in Donovan (ed.), Chemical Revolution, pp. 214-31; Arthur Donovan, Antoine Lavoisier (Oxford, 1993), pp. 61-69.

(41) Donovan, "British Chemistry," p. 144.

(42) See Evan Melhado, "Chemistry, Physics, and the Chemical Revolution," Isis, 76 (1985), 195-211; Evan Melhado, "Toward an Understanding of the Chemical Revolution," Knowledge and Society, 8 (1989), 123-37.

(43) See the discussion between Donovan, Melhado, and Perrin in Isis, 81 (1990), 259-76.

(44) See William R. Albury, "The Order of Things: Condillac's Method of Analysis as a Political Instrument in the French Revolution," in John A. Schuster and Richard R. Yeo (eds.), The Politics and Rhetoric of Scientific Method (Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1986), pp. 203-25; Marco Beretta, The Enlightenment of Matter (Canton, MA, 1993); Trevor Levere, "Lavoisier: Language, Instruments, and the Chemical Revolution," in Trevor H. Levere and William R. Shea (eds.), Nature. Experiments, and the Sciences: essays on Galileo and the History of Science (Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1990), pp. 207-23.

(45) See McEvoy, "Positivism," p. 16.

(46) See Thomas S. Kuhn, "Robert Boyle and Structural Chemistry in the Eighteenth Century," Isis, 43 (1952), 12-36; Arnold Thackray, Atoms and Powers (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970), pp. 1-7, 125-98.

(47) See Robert E. Schofield, Mechanism and Materialism (Princeton, 1970); Robert E. Schofield, "The Counter Reformation in Eighteenth-Century Science -- Last Phase," in Duane Roller (ed.), Perspectives on the History of Science and Technology (Norman, Oklahoma, 1971), pp. 39-54.

(48) See C.E. Perrin, "Lavoisier's Table of the Elements: A Reappraisal," Ambix, 20 (1973), 95-105; Morris, "Lavoisier," p. 34; Maurice Daumas, Lavoisier: Theoricien et Experimentateur (Paris, 1955), pp. 157-78.

(49) Robert Siegfried and Betty Jo Dobbs, "Composition: A Neglected Aspect of the Chemical Revolution," Annals of Science, 24 (1968), 276.

(50) See Marie Boas Hall, "Structure of Matter and Chemical Theory in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," in Marshall Clagett (ed.), Critical Problems in the History of Science (Madison, 1959), pp. 499-514.

(51) See A.M. Duncan, "Some Theoretical Aspects of Eighteenth-Century Affinity Tables," Annals of Science, 18 (1962), 177-94, 217-32. James Liana, "A Contribution of Natural History to the Chemical Revolution in France," Ambix, 32 (1985), 71-91; D.R. Oldroyd, "Mineralogy and the Chemical Revolution," Centaurus, 21 (1975), 54-71; John G. McEvoy, "Joseph Priestley, 'Aerial Philosopher': Metaphysics and Methodology in Priestley's Chemical Thought, 1772-1781 ," Ambix, 25 (1978), 1-55, 93-116, 153-75; 26 (1979), 16-38; Robert E. Schofield, "Still More on the Water Controversy," Chymia, 9 (1964), 71-76.

(52) Ferdinando Abbri, "The Chemical Revolution: A Critical Assessment," Nuncius, 4 (1989), 313-14; Ferdinando Abbri, "Romanticism versus Enlightenment: Sir Humphry Davy's Idea of Chemical Philosophy," in S. Poggi and M. Bossi (eds.), Romanticism in Science (Boston, 1994), pp. 41-42; Siegfried, "Composition," pp. 281-85; John G. McEvoy, "Continuity and Discontinuity in the Chemical Revolution," in Donovan (ed.), Chemical Revolution, pp. 199-203.

(53) Douglas Allchin, "Phlogiston After Oxygen," Ambix, 34 (1992), 113.

(54) See David Knight, "Crossing the Channel with the New Language," in Bernadette Bensaude Vincent and Ferdinando Abbri (eds.), Lavoisier in European Context (Canton, Massachusetts, 1998), pp. 143-53; Arthur Donovan, "Scottish Responses to the New Chemistry of Lavoisier," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 9 (1979), 237-49; C.E. Perrin, "A Reluctant Catalyst: Joseph Black and the Edinburgh Reception of Lavoisier's Chemistry," Ambix, 29 (1982), 141-76; Christie, "Ether and the Science...."

(55) J.G. McEvoy and J.E. McGuire, "God and Nature: Priestley's Way of Rational Dissent," in Russell McCormmach (ed.), Historical Studies on the Physical Sciences, vol. 6 (Princeton, 1975), pp. 325-404.

(56) See McEvoy, "Continuity"; McEvoy, "Enlightenment."

(57) David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery (second ed., Chicago, 1976), pp. 1-19.

(58) See Barry Barnes, T.S. Kuhn and the Social Sciences (New York, 1982); Stevin Shapin, "Following Scientist's Around," Social Studies of Science, 19 (1988), 533-550.

(59) See, for example, Wilda Anderson, Between the Library and the Laboratory (Baltimore, 1984); Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Lavoisier (Paris, 1993); John R.R. Christie and Jan. Y. Golinski, "The Spreading of the Word: New Directions in the Historiography of Chemistry, 1600-1800," History of Science, 20 (1982), 235-66; Jan Y. Golinski, Science as Public Culture (Cambridge, 1992); Lissa Roberts, "A Word and the World: The Significance of Naming the Calorimeter," Isis, 82 (1997), 199-222; Simon Schaffer, "Measuring Virtue: Eudiometry, Enlightenment, and Pneumatic Medicine," in Andrew Cunningham and Roger French (eds.), The Medical Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 281-318.

(60) Lakatos, "History of Science," p. 21. See also Shapin, "History of Science."

(61) See Gareth Stedman Jones, "The Pathology of English History," New Left Review, 46 (1967), 30-31; E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory (New York, 1978), pp. 73-75; Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism (New York, 1989), p. 85.
John McEvoy
University of Cincinnati
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