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Clericuzio on Alchemy, Chemistry, Medicine, and Natural Philosophy December 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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First off, for readers interested in current efforts to refine historical knowledge about early modern natural philosophical programs: there is a project blog, founded this past August, being run out of the University of Otago in New Zealand, called Early Modern Experimental Philosophy.  Do read.

Andreas Libavius (1555-1616)

This post is a further look at intellectual issues surrounding the relationship between early modern “chymistry” and the pursuit of natural philosophy, as discussed in a much earlier post on the dispute between Bill Newman and Alan Chalmers concerning the nature of Robert Boyle’s chymistry.  There I understood Newman to argue that, to Boyle, philosophically important chemical knowledge deriving from experiment would have had to be fit within his mechanical philosophical framework, and that chemical taxonomies would not have fit that bill.  Of course, in the seventeenth century, natural philosophy occupied one niche amid a full array of agendas to which chemistry was relevant.  Many of these are dealt with in a recent article by the University of Cassino’s Antonio Clericuzio: “‘Sooty Empiricks’ and Natural Philosophers: The Status of Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century,” Science in Context 23 (2010): 329-350.

One of the main difficulties of talking about “chemistry” (to use Clericuzio’s favored generic signifier) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries appears to be that there was no coherent conception of what chemistry was all about.  Where it is now possible possible to look at any substance in the world and consider its chemical composition, at that time chemical phenomena were understood to be a subject of relevance to more delimited activities.  Chemical transformation was common, for instance, in metallurgical practice, but most physical processes had no obvious chemical component.  Alchemy was a significant, and well-known tradition, but the philosophical significance of alchemical transformations was unclear, and they had no firm place in the canons of knowledge.  The instability in ideas surrounding just what chemical substances were supposed to be, and thus what kind of knowledge about their transformation could be alleged, led to the development of a rich set of polemics and intellectual jockeying, which is what Clericuzio’s piece maps out.

Tracing this thought to the medieval period, Clericuzio notes early disputes over whether alchemy constituted “science” (a body of knowledge founded on principles) or “mechanical art” (a practical, but ungrounded body of knowledge), which hinged on disputes over the reality of transmutation of substances.

In this context, transmutation needs to be understood within the tradition of Aristotelian natural philosophy, as interpreted by scholars such as Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280), Vincent of Beauvais (c.1190-1264?), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wherein substances possess properties by virtue of their formal cause. Chemical transformation caused difficulties for the Aristotelian system, because substances and their formal causes were held to be immutable, even as it was apparent that properties of materials changed radically with chemical transformation.  Reworking how scholars coped with this problem has been one of the greater triumphs of the recent historiography of alchemy and chymistry.

For Clericuzio’s paper, it is mainly only important that scholars such as Vincent of Beauvais and Thomas Aquinas understood the impossibility of transmutation to consign alchemy to the practical mechanical arts, though as a practical form of knowledge it held an important place in Roger Bacon’s (c.1214-1294) early empiricism.

Later scholars, however, resisted the conflation of alchemy with practical chemistry as mere arts.  Paracelsus (1493-1541) viewed alchemy as the “art of separation” rather than the transmutation of metals — analysis by fire played a central role.  He and his followers ambitiously reformulated natural philosophy in terms of alchemical processes (“chymia explained Creation in terms of distillation, sublimation, and coagulation”), which also formed the basis of his reformed medicine.  Agricola (1494-1555), on the other hand, distanced the art of mining from alchemy, and sought to ground mineralogy and metallurgy in more traditional Aristotelian causes.  According to Clericuzio, “Agricola’s views may have been the inspiration for [Andreas] Libavius’ [1555-1616] project to establish chemistry as a didactic discipline, though Libavius never ruled out the transmutation of metals, as Agricola did.”  For his part, Libavius attacked the Paracelsians for undermining the Aristotelian framework and trafficking in obscure terminology.  He sought to ground the art of alchemy in sounder principles.

The relationship between chemistry and medicine is, I think, one of the most interesting pieces of this puzzle.  Paracelsus’s amalgamation of alchemy and medicine was clearly influential, although the extent of his influence varied.  Jena professor of anatomy, surgery, and botany Werner Rolfinck (1599-1673) was critical of Paracelsus and distinguished chemistry from alchemy, but also urged the importance of chemistry as an empirical body of knowledge that aided pharmaceutical practice.  In Paris, proponents of iatrochemistry (medical chemistry) asserted the importance of chemical knowledge in medical education, against the opinion of the Paris medical faculty.  Notably Guy de la Brosse (1586-1641) was instrumental in the foundation of the Jardin du Roi in 1640 and in ensuring that chemistry had a place in its activities.  Nicaise Le Fèvre (c.1610-1669), who worked from the Jardin du Roi from 1651, divided chemistry into “philosophical chemistry”, which dealt with theory and was close to natural philosophy; iatrochemistry, which was a mixed discipline; and practical pharmaceutical chemistry.

Finally, there is the place of chemical knowledge in natural philosophical reform, which must be understood as an attempt to achieve conceptual and linguistic purity, with the accumulation of reliable practical knowledge as a subsidiary concern.  Here the study of chemical phenomena Would be viewed mainly as a springboard to more general philosophical knowledge.  Such studies had to be framed within the strictures of a framework designed to guarantee conceptual coherence.  Within the philosophy of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), all phenomena had to be reduced to the mechanical action of corpuscles in order to avoid conceptual error.

The philosophy of Robert Boyle (1627-1691) had less stringent requirements for the reduction of phenomena, but nevertheless insisted upon some form of mechanism being posited to avoid ascribing the properties of substances to their nature, which included chemical phenomena. Boyle definitively did not view medicine as reducible to chemistry, which distinguished him clearly from the Paracelsians and the followers of Jean-Baptiste van Helmont (1579-1644).  He “maintained that chemistry can help understand physiology and pathology, but cannot explain the whole animal economy”; other forms of mechanism were required as well.

All in all, Clericuzio’s synthesis is extremely valuable, including discussions of a number of writers not included in this brief recap.  I think there is some loss of clarity by putting “the status of chemistry” at the heart of the presentation, and, in particular, the question of whether or not they argued for chemistry as an “independent discipline”.  This seems to me like an infringement of the historiographical concerns of 19th-century science onto earlier periods.

This matters, because “chemistry” seems to have been something that fit within different agendas in different ways, but was never a field of study in and of itself.  Chemistry might have been a totalizing natural philosophy (as it was for the Paracelsians), a branch of phenomena explainable according to the terms of a broader natural philosophy (as it was to Aristotelians, and mechanistic reformers like Descartes and Boyle), a key component of medicine, or a practical art of metallurgists and apothecaries.  No scholars seem to have situated chemical knowledge as a philosophically particular form of knowledge amid other forms of knowledge, as would so clearly become the case after Lavoisier (1743-1794).

Naturally, proponents of different agendas would discuss the value of others’ work in terms of its relevance to their own agendas.  The delineation and clarification of these agendas and their ambitions seems to me the best thing that historians in this area are accomplishing.  The place of chemical phenomena and practices within these agendas is an important question, but it seems to me that, for the sake of historical clarity, the agendas, not “chemistry” itself, should be at the center of this analysis.

Related internet find: Justin E. H. Smith’s 2009 comments on another paper of Clericuzo’s, with some useful historiographical discussion.



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