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The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 2: History, Philosophy, and Demarcation May 31, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Pt. 1 of this post discussed the latest entries in a dispute, which appear in the current and upcoming issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.  The papers are by Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman, and they argue over whether Robert Boyle’s “chymistry” could have proceeded without being framed within his mechanical philosophy.  The immediate issue, the nature of Boyle’s work, seems ultimately to turn on fairly subtle points about how, in the 17th century, experiment was understood to relate to natural philosophy, and how knowledge of chemical phenomena related to natural philosophy and other orders of knowledge.  As I understand this issue, one would not have thought at that time that one could understand “chemistry” to be a self-contained body of knowledge, a fundamental way of looking at nature.  While one certainly could develop a practical understanding of chemical transformations at that time, such a knowledge would not have been thought relevant to the higher natural philosophical questions that most concerned Boyle.

Outside of this main historical issue, Newman stresses the importance of reading Chalmers’ particular claims in light of his “larger agenda … concerning the nature of scientific knowledge as a whole, an agenda I do not share.”  Chalmers is primarily interested in the ability to demarcate “science”, which founds knowledge on an experimental basis, from “philosophy”, which accommodates experiment into its theoretical schemes.  While Newman waxes skeptical about the philosophical project’s validity for even the most recent period of history, in his response (entitled “How Not to Integrate the History and Philosophy of Science”), he concentrates on the ways this philosophical lens affects historiography, claiming it narrows the scope of possible questions to those that can be framed within the structure of the central demarcationist concern.  Chalmers’ approach is “binary,” a “dualist methodology”, a “toggle-switch model” of history: if a historical event cannot be classified as proper “science”, it is of no further historical concern.  This methodology “allows for no gradual development or nuance over the course of history”, it “does not give sufficient credence to reorientations in scientific reasoning and experimental practice that laid the groundwork for later fruitful developments,” and it does not “allow for any significant heuristic application of theory”.  Chalmers’ evaluative rubric allows “little room indeed for disinterested analysis of arguments, determination of the real issues at stake, or the tracing of sources and intellectual traditions, which I view as the historian’s primary responsibilities.”

Newman’s main claim against Chalmers’ approach to history, then, is that it squelches the formulation of the questions that are most a propos to describing the contours of the historical record.  The failure to formulate good questions in turn impacts how one characterizes what the most significant changes in history have been.  For Chalmers, the possibility of demarcation hinges on the reality of a historical shift that marks when such a demarcation became intellectually possible.  Chalmers is explicit about this in his new paper: “In my view, a crucial aspect of the Scientific Revolution was the emergence of science as distinct from philosophical matter theories.  Localised claims about specific phenomena accessible to experimental investigation were one thing.  Generalised claims about the ultimate structure of matter were another.”

Because the Scientific Revolution is of central concern to Chalmers, for him the nature of the Revolution must also be elemental to Newman, and he sees their opposing characterizations as a key source of their disagreements.  According to Chalmers, “Newman sees the Scientific Revolution as ‘the great disjunction between the common view of matter theory before and after the mid-seventeenth century’, the former involving material forms and the latter arrangements of minute, robust corpuscles.”  In fact, though, in the passage to which Chalmers points, Newman is saying that the transition that took place was a key change in the period that we commonly identify as the Scientific Revolution, but that “Whether one accepts the term ‘Scientific  Revolution’ or not is of little consequence for my narrative”.  Here Newman is defending himself against possible attacks by historians: “At a time when even the term ‘Scientific Revolution’ has become a contentious topic among historians of science, it may seem either otiose or impetuous to raise the issue of chymistry’s place in this putative historical period.”

Newman argues that the shift in matter theory he details is one of a large number of significant changes that have taken place throughout the history of the sciences.  He suggests that the historical sciences allow a variety of demarcations, and, further (with shades of Kuhn) that historical shifts need not lead to correctness to constitute important, perhaps even progressive, developments.  Any philosophy that purports relevance to historiography must be able to take this prospect into account.

(I have noted on this blog my own view that the ‘Scientific  Revolution’ should be loosely identified as a period when a number of different shifts in knowledge-making occurred, and it was widely understood that these shifts all had something to do with each other, even if connections actually drawn between different kinds of scientific work were more attitudinal and institutional than philosophically coherent).

Now, as a postscript, most historians of our time are doubtless likely to be put off by Chalmers’ demarcationist agenda, by his aims to evaluate the quality of long-past scientific work, and by his essentialism concerning the nature of the Scientific Revolution.  However, I’m not sure that with stronger arguments removed—in a “blind taste test”, so to speak—most historians would not actually be predisposed to favor Chalmers’ description of 17th-century scientific work.

Chalmers and historians of the most recent generation share an overriding interest in the generation and proliferation of “matters of fact” at the expense of deeper examinations of the historical theoretical and epistemic  frameworks in which facts were put to work.  The difference between Chalmers and historians is where Chalmers’ motivation is avowedly philosophical, historians, following particularly in the vein of Steven Shapin, seem more interested in the archival realism that uncovers the cultural difficulties and requirements of trust, which underlie the possibility of a matter of fact (or some other “epistemic thing”) being successfully passed on.

Despite this difference in motivation and methodology, the parallels should not be ignored.  Notably, the last two winners of the HSS Pfizer Award have shared Chalmers’ central contention that the principal achievement of 17th-century science was the establishment of knowledge as an accumulation of empirical matters of fact.  Hal Cook’s Matters of Exchange links the accumulation of reliable empirical knowledge and a concomitant move away from speculative knowledge to be related to the requirements of the Dutch trade culture.  Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House seeks to place credit for the development of a culture of “science” with under-acknowledged botanists, medical practitioners, and gatherers of empirical lore rather than more elite and widely-recognized figures like Francis Bacon.

Historians may claim that the realism provided by intensive archival research allows their work to escape the foibles of philosophers, but I would claim all historiographies of science harbor implicit philosophies of how science can work that render narratives plausible and coherent.  We do well to follow Newman (incidentally, with Lawrence Principe co-winner of the 2005 Pfizer Award for their Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry) in facing these philosophies head-on.  Let’s make our best books talk to each other.



1. Linkism « Evolving Thoughts - May 31, 2010

[…] 31, 2010 · Leave a Comment The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 2: History, Philosophy, and Demarcation: Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda presents the second of two very interesting discussions on […]

2. Thony C. - May 31, 2010

I can only second John’s comment, two excellent articles.

3. Lawrence Principe and the Rehabilitation of Alchemy – another lecture in Utrecht « Heterodoxology - June 8, 2010

[…] into some of the nuances of those debates, one can do much worse than looking at the two recent posts over at Ether Wave – they deal with Principe’s close colleague, William Newman). […]

4. Alchemy, and how to write about it: ESSWE thesis workshop « Heterodoxology - June 27, 2010

[…] Some readers of this blog may be interested in the actual content of the initial talks, and I’ll write a little bit about them. I will particularly focus on Larry Principe’s talk, since this gives me opportunity to follow up on a previous post about his lecture in Utrecht a few weeks ago. Also, for those whose interests are particularly in the history of science, the talk touched on some issues which were discussed over at Ether Wave earlier this spring, e.g. about the concept “natural philosophy” (here, here, here, and here), and the demarcations and interpretations of alchemy (here and here). […]

5. Chymistry and Natural Philosophy Follow-Up « Whewell's Ghost - September 7, 2010

[…] of the historical relationship between natural philosophy and early modern chymistry) and Part 2 (which examines the dispute’s contours in terms of conflicts between a demarcationist […]

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