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Chalmers on Newman on Chalmers on Newman on Boyle May 13, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Alan Chalmers

There is a new entry in the dispute between Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman over the legacy of Robert Boyle (1627-1691): Alan Chalmers, “Understanding Science through Its History: A Response to Newman,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011): 150-153 (free).  For EWP’s previous coverage, see here and here.

Although the disagreements over Boyle stretch back further, this particular back-and-forth began as Chalmers criticized Newman’s characterization of Boyle’s contributions to chemical science as presenting a misleading portrait of progress.  Newman countered that Chalmers misreads his arguments about the place of Boyle’s chemical philosophy in the history of chemistry and natural philosophy.  Further, he argued that Chalmers’ portrait of Boyle’s failure to advance chemistry or an atomistic mechanical philosophy through his chemical experiments misreads the nature of Boyle’s philosophical project.

Now Newman’s portrait of Boyle’s seems secure, and there is no question that working out historical actors’ projects is a valuable line of historical inquiry.  Instead, tables turned, Chalmers draws a programmatic distinction between his and Newman’s historical projects, and defends his project’s legitimacy: his “kind of history is not the only legitimate kind … it is an important and informative kind that does not” — contrary to Newman’s allegations — “involve a misguided integration of history and philosophy of science.”  The central question seems to have become whether histories of scientific work can be valid when divorced from an interest in projects that actors explicitly pursued.

Chalmers’ history is at its core demarcationist.  As he argues, “My overall aim is to understand and characterize the distinctive features of scientific knowledge.  My study of the history of atomism is carried out with that end in view.”  The questions that Chalmers brings to history, as worked out in his The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone (2009), revolve around when and how it became possible to draw a scientific conclusion that atoms existed, rather than to philosophically accommodate observations to atomistic hypotheses.

Chalmers’ characterizations of “philosophy” and “science” defy actors’ categories, but he nevertheless argues that they describe actors’ ideas well.  He argues that the key accomplishment of the Scientific Revolution was its realization that experiment can serve as a valuable means of validating knowledge.  Boyle’s pneumatics worked in just this manner, but, he argues, his chymistry did not, attached as it was the formulation of atomistic hypotheses of chemical action.

Chalmers acknowledges that actors’ ideas do not cleanly map onto his interest in those ideas (my emphasis):

I identify practices in the work of seventeenth-century figures that are recognisable as experimental science, insofar as specific claims about the material world were established as a result of stringent experimental testing….  I am able to pick out examples of experimental science from the work of the likes of Boyle and Newton but there was much more to their work than that, of course.  Both those figures were also involved in philosophy, theology, alchemy and other practices.  Identifying the details of those practices and the relations between them is a legitimate task for historians.  Newman provides his own list of questions about seventeenth-century science and philosophy that can legitimately be put to a historian but which I do not directly address.  I do not focus on such questions, not because I do not regard them as important, as Newman asserts, but because they are other than the questions I have chosen to put to history.

In posing a set of questions to history, in selecting out parts of history that seem relevant to those questions, Chalmers is arguing that the contours of the historical record need not dictate the terms of historical analysis.  Newman argues that Chalmers’ approach constitutes a “toggle-switch model” of history, wherein the historical record is of interest only insofar as it conforms to the terms of the historian’s queries.

Chalmers argues that if in the case of pneumatics Boyle used experiment to answer questions that conformed to an experimental design, then to argue that the idea was not used in other cases is not an anachronistic claim or an empty query. In fact, he claims, “I have identified texts that I use as evidence that Boyle was aware of the gulf between the mechanical philosophy in the strict sense and the kind of knowledge that can be sought and vindicated via experiment” (i.e. between speculative systems and verifiable claims).

Newman, to the contrary, claims that Chalmers’ portrayal of early modern experiment constitutes a “positivist manifesto” (defining the term, I gather, after the physical philosophy of Ernst Mach, 1838-1916), which disregards how early modern natural philosophers actually understood experimental philosophy to work.

Chalmers, for the record, argues, “My recent book on atomism concludes with an account of how highly theoretical knowledge of unobservable atoms was confirmed by experiment.  This is not a positivist thesis.”

Proper definitions of positivism aside, as I have said before, speaking as a non-specialist on this crucial issue, I believe Newman is on the firmer ground in arguing that Boyle saw no major difference between his methodology in pneumatics and his methodology in chymistry.

But even if this is so, could it nevertheless be legitimate to “pick out” particular aspects of a historical actor’s thought, regardless of how that actor may have understood that aspect to integrate into the rest of this thought?  Is there a crucial difference between this and, say, picking out a Foucauldian “discourse” from the historical record?

I would venture to say that Chalmers’ project is legitimate, but, for me, unattractive.  It is legitimate in that historians of ideas may trace ideas in history regardless of historical actors’ appreciation of those ideas.  To trace out two different experimental strategies, which may have only later emerged as an intellectually important difference, would be a task that is of use.

However, to claim that a particular historical actor’s use of a particular strategy was “unproductive” seems an uninteresting conclusion, since historical actors evidently felt something was being accomplished.  Further, if it were the case that a properly scientific mode of explanation did clearly emerge as Chalmers says it did, then perhaps there would be some attraction in picking out Boyle’s pneumatics as a positive data point, and his chymistry as a null data point in the process of this emergence.  However, it seems to me that, given the ongoing importance of speculative ideas in areas ranging from cosmology to geology to economics, and the failure of even much useful laboratory science to consistently conform to Chalmers’ definition of “science”, narrating the career of Chalmers’ “science” seems like an unattractive proposition for historians of the sciences.


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