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The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 1: Chymistry and Natural Philosophy May 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Click to go to the excellent Robert Boyle Project site

I haven’t talked about it much here, but I’ve mentioned once or twice my admiration from afar of the recent revival of an alchemy/chymistry sub-historiography spearheaded by Indiana’s Bill Newman and Johns Hopkins’ Lawrence Principe.  At a glance, this literature traffics in older methodological currents of intellectual history, but far from a musty antiquarian pursuit, those writing in it ask pointed, well-targeted questions and, sure enough, find revealing answers.  I suspect a strong case could be made that this corner of the history of science literature has been the most intellectually productive one of the past decade.

One sign of liveliness is the prospect of dispute, and it turns out there is an interesting and current one between Newman and philosopher Alan Chalmers of Flinders University in Australia about the experimental and philosophical practices of Robert Boyle (1627-1691).  The citations of present interest are at the end of this post, though the dispute has a longer historiography which you can find in the footnotes to those papers.

At one level this is a classical historian-philosopher conflict about how to read the historical record responsibly, but the dispute also has deeper currents that have a lot to say about a question in which this blog has recently dabbled: the historical characteristics of natural philosophy.  While I programmatically agree with Newman here, and while I ultimately side with him on the specifics, the specific case is not open-and-shut, so I thought I’d discuss it as well as I can make it out here in Pt. 1 of this post.

The crux of Chalmers’ specific claim regarding Boyle is in his critical evaluation of his chymistry.  According to Chalmers, in an argument made in his The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone (2009), Boyle’s natural philosophical explanations of chemical action and properties failed to contribute materially to the advance of chemical knowledge, because it departed from what could legitimately be demonstrated by means of Boyle’s chemical experimentation.  Crucially, he claims that such an evaluation is not ahistorical because it draws on a distinction between experimentation and philosophical explanation that Boyle himself comprehended, and which he put to good use in his pneumatics.

Based on his negative evaluation of the intellectual productivity of Boyle’s chymistry, Chalmers objects to Newman’s characterization in Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution (2006) of Boyle’s chymistry as contributing substantially to a transition from an unproductive Aristotelian hylomorphism to a productive mechanical philosophy.  Newman’s point was that Boyle built on the arguments of predecessors, notably physician Daniel Sennert (1572-1637), that certain fundamental “pristine” particles (minima naturalia) were preserved through chemical transformations.  While Sennert had identified as a scholastic, Boyle reinterpreted this point within a mechanistic framework.

Much of the dispute seems to rest on a point that has not really been brought out by either author: what would Boyle have considered to be the kind of knowledge most worth pursuing?  In claiming that mechanical philosophy “did not help Boyle make significant advances in chemistry”, Chalmers implies that “chemistry” constituted its own field of knowledge, which Boyle wanted to understand better.  For Chalmers, progress in the field could only be achieved by following what experiment could verify.  This more-or-less implies the construction of a self-contained body of knowledge akin to what was found in Lavoisier’s (1743-1794) much later chemistry.

Now, it seems sensible to say that Boyle would have indeed understood an enumeration of pristine particles and the systematic analysis of chemical transformations to constitute a form of knowledge.  However, based on Chalmers’ and Newman’s arguments, I don’t see anything to support the idea that Boyle had reason to consider the chemical taxonomy that would have been directly accessibleto experimental inquiry to have been a fundamental, philosophical form of knowledge.  (It would probably have been closer to practical knowledge or natural history.)  For Chalmers, this is not an issue, because for him a key achievement of the Scientific Revolution was the distinction of (secure) scientific knowledge from (speculative) philosophical knowledge.  (More on this presently.)  However, as a self-identified natural philosopher, it is not clear that Boyle would have seen things that way.  Thus the key point is: could Boyle have actually conceived of experiment as rendering natural-philosophically relevant knowledge absent hypotheses grounded in a microscopic ontology?

By Chalmers’ account, yes: Boyle (per Michael Hunter) may have had a religious stake in developing mechanical philosophy, but he could still set it aside temporarily.  According to Chalmers, Boyle “engaged in practices and formulated distinctions that involved experimental science that was able to, and did, progress independently of mechanical matter theory.”  By Newman’s account, no: Boyle seems to have considered the prospect of a legitimate natural philosophy to be premised on the basis of using a single style of argumentation: his mechanical philosophy.

In his defense against Chalmers, Newman details Boyle’s confrontations with Aristotelian Peripatetics, on one end, and against “Cartesians and Epicureans” on the other.  Boyle’s objections to each were premised on its stifling effects on a progressive natural philosophy.  Hylomorphism was unacceptable because, according to the common complaint, phenomena could always be explained by reference to a formal cause.  Hence Boyle’s insistence, departing from Sennert, that the “sensible qualities” of matter (opacity, reflectivity, odor…) had to be explained by reference to a mechanical cause rather than innate properties.  Likewise, Boyle chafed at Cartesian-Epicurean mechanical philosophy’s insistence that all properly philosophical explanations had to take the form of a fully coherent scheme of corpuscular motions.  Such a “whole Systeme” seemed to him to make impossible demands on the natural philosopher.

What Boyle argued for instead is a “mechanical philosophy” that allowed for “subordinate causes” and “intermediate explanations” where certain phenomena like gravity, “fermentation”, the springiness of air, and chemical action could legitimately become part of a mechanical explanation, even though those phenomena could not themselves be accounted for by mechanical means.  For Boyle, these intermediate explanations had to be invoked to circumvent the need for Peripatetic-style recourse to innate tendencies or properties of matter.  Newman has a good discussion of a dispute Boyle had with Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614-1687) that speaks to this point.

For Chalmers, the matters of fact that Boyle was able to produce through chemical experimentation did not support the mechanical philosophical explanations of chemical phenomena that he offered.  Thus these explanations could provide no support for his general argument for mechanical philosophy.  So Chalmers argues that Boyle worked with two evidentiary standards: a rigorous one to support experimental matters of fact, and another, much weaker one to support the mechanical philosophy.  This is fatal: for Chalmers, Boyle’s reductionism in support of his mechanical philosophy was as indefensible as the purely corpuscular arguments of the Cartesians and Epicureans.

Newman, I think quite correctly, counters:

Pace Chalmers, it is not at all clear to me that Boyle intended his imagined micro-level mechanisms to supply empirical support in any sense—they were meant primarily to act as illustrations of how things might work mechanically in the invisibly small world in order to show that there was not an overriding necessity to invoke substantial forms or other explanatory agents.

Newman’s argument seems to be that Boyle’s version of the mechanical philosophy was appealing not because its explanations had firm experimental support, but because as a means of natural philosophical explanation he felt it preferable to alternative means then in circulation.

So, where Chalmers seems to feel that Boyle might have built a body of chemical knowledge had he stuck to building matters of conceptual fact out of matters of experimental fact, by my reading of Newman, it would not have made sense to Boyle to unite a taxonomical body of knowledge on the one hand, and a mechanical body of knowledge on the other, within the singular rubric of natural philosophy, simply on the basis that both were supported by experimental facts.

Just the opposite: within the basic rubric of his mechanical philosophy, Boyle required a scheme of accounting for chemical phenomena as a sub-class of natural philosophical phenomena, and this scheme had to be of the same universal character as all natural philosophical explanations.  While special chemical mechanisms could be used in accounting for chemical phenomena, chemical phenomena had to be explained by mechanisms all the same, in order for the explanation to qualify as natural philosophical.

Another way of putting this is that in Boyle’s 17th-century natural philosophy, there was no such thing as a matter of conceptual fact that could be generated from experimental facts.  As Newman puts it, Boyle’s appeal to experiment did not mean “that he was only concerned with mechanical explanations at the macro-level such as the operations of balances and levers”: the theory was definitively not in the apparatus.  Where Chalmers views Boyle’s air-pump experiments and resultant pneumatics as following a distinct scheme from his chymistry, Newman argues that Boyle would have seen no such fundamental difference between the way he philosophized about pneumatics and the way he philosophized about chymistry.  In both cases, experiment was simply a guide in the creation of coherent mechanical explanations of natural phenomena.

Newman attributes Chalmers’ specific arguments to his general argument that in the Scientific Revolution the rise of experiment distinguished “science” from “philosophy”, and that henceforth properly scientific claims could only be derived from experimental facts: Chalmers’ book is a “positivist manifesto”.  Thus, “Seldom indeed does Chalmers entertain the possibility that within the context of the times, one theory might have presented distinct advantages over another without being ‘scientific’ or ‘unscientific’ simpliciter, in some transchronological sense.”

If Newman’s and Chalmers’ disputes about Boyle’s mechanical philosophy hinge on subtle points of the historical character of natural philosophy, their positions are grounded in drastically different views about the relationship between philosophy and history, and about what constituted a significant historical development.  More on this in Pt. 2.

Alan F. Chalmers, “Boyle and the Origins of Modern Chemistry: Newman Tried in the Fire” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010): 1-10 (free)

William R. Newman, “How Not to Integrate the History and Philosophy of Science: A Reply to Chalmers” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science forthcoming (abstract + paywall)



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