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How to Run a Historiography, or: Chymistry Rides High July 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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I know, I know, my scholarly crush on the chymistry literature is probably getting a little embarrassing. But I want to make sure everyone is taking notes like I am, because William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and their crowd are really putting on a clinic on how to run a proper historiography. The latest lesson is in putting together a good Isis Focus section: “Alchemy and the History of Science”, organized by Bruce Moran, and available free of charge in the latest issue.

I’ve been very happy to see this specialty spring to success, receiving both scholarly praise and public exposure in places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Economist, and the New York Times. I am a bit worried that this success will be held up as simply a product of the virtues of historical scholarship. To an extent it should be, for reasons I will discuss, but I also think it’s important that the rest of us — including those of us working in decidedly remote terrain like 20th-century science — pay close attention to what these scholars are doing particularly right.

The key reason why it is easy to see chymistry’s success as simply a product of history of science scholarship is because what has been accomplished fits quite nicely into narratives that historians tell about themselves as people who resurrect lost or maligned practices, and who lend a sense of contingency and uncertainty to the debates that produced later faits accomplis. In the Focus section, chymistry’s scholars play up exactly this aspect of their work.

To my mind, Principe’s piece, “Alchemy Restored”, is the real gem here — do read it if you read nothing else in this section. I’ve seen hints that scholars in all sorts of areas are becoming increasingly sensitive to the importance of longue durée historiographical analysis, paying attention to how the terms in which the history of a subject is discussed can be set in place almost as soon as the events take place, and how these terms can then be replicated while still being reworked for centuries.

(I’m reminded of Richard Staley’s analysis of the proto-history of relativity assembled by Einstein himself in 1907, concealing his personal path to his own insight until later recovered by historians, notably Gerald Holton.)

Principe is able to identify a fairly precise point in the early eighteenth century where the tradition of alchemy fell prey to the polemics of champions of chemistry, such as Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757), Étienne-François Geoffroy (1672-1731), and Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), who drew a clear distinction between it and alchemy. Their goal was to secure the tenuous respectability of chemistry while confining disreputable inquiries to the alchemy rubric, particularly chrysopoeia (the transmutation of base metals). Principe notes that this move was more strategic than intellectual: there was at that time no particularly compelling reason to rule chrysopoeia out, and, in fact, some chemists who publicly shunned it continued to take a private interest in it.

The real strength of Principe’s account is that this does not simply serve as an origin point for the historiographical invisibility or disrespect of alchemy, which boundary-shattering historians can now remove. Principe also charts revivals in late-eighteenth century Germany and late-Victorian occultism. Particularly in the latter, the spiritual and symbolic elements of alchemy, distinguished from a now highly professionalized chemistry, were actually emphasized by its proponents, because alchemy was to be practiced as a way of transforming the spiritual self. According to Principe:

These latter-day interpretations became standard ‘explanations’ of historical alchemy, such that with every passing generation alchemy became more and more distanced from chemistry and from scientific thought in general. Thus when the history of science emerged as a professional discipline, alchemy seemed far from anything scientific. The positivist outlooks of the day recapitulated Enlightenment polemics, and early historians of science presented alchemy as not simply nonscientific, but antiscientific — an obstacle to progress. George Sarton [1884-1956] penned an extended rant against the ‘extraordinary muddle’ of alchemy and labeled alchemists as all ‘fools or knaves, or more often a combination of both in various proportions.’ In 1952 Herbert Butterfield [1900-1979] famously wrote that modern scholars who study alchemy end up ‘tinctured by the same sort of lunacy they set out to describe.’

Principe does an important service in establishing the rather deep roots of the recent historiographical reverse-course on alchemy, tracing it through the importance granted to the iatrochemistry (medical chemistry) of Paracelsus (1493-1541) and Joan-Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644) by historians Walter Pagel (1898-1983) and Allen Debus (1926-2009); as well as through Ambix founder F. Sherwood Taylor’s (1897-1956) willingness to take even chrysopoeia seriously in The Alchemists (1952).

Principe also points to the importance of the historiographical problem of reconciling great early modern scientific figures’ interest in alchemy with their greatness. Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) alchemical interests were known to — and repulsed — his nineteenth-century biographer, physicist David Brewster (1781-1868). However, following the purchase of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts by John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), scholars such as Richard Westfall (1924-1996) and Jo Dobbs (1930-1994) began the often thankless task of reintegrating Newton’s alchemy into his philosophical thought.

Importantly, the alchemy/chymistry historiography’s sense of what its main accomplishment is has not just been the revitalization of historiographical interest in the subject — rather, it is the understanding that has followed from this revitalization. William Newman’s piece, appropriately titled “What Have We Learned from the Recent Historiography of Alchemy?”, performs an oft-neglected historiographical task: the consolidation of gains.

I cannot, cannot, CANNOT emphasize enough how important the consolidation of gains is, especially when communicating historical research to someone like myself with a sincere interest in the subject, but who is not, and never will be, a specialist in the area.

Newman discusses alchemy as an unusually early point of intersection between high natural philosophy and experiment, which undermines what Newman calls the “non-interventionist fallacy” previously inhabiting accounts of the practice of Scholastic philosophy (i.e., it consisted only of disputations about the nature of readily apparent phenomena). He also discusses various phenomena, such as the apparent persistence of robust corpuscles through chemical transformation, and how they were handled in Aristotelian and corpuscular varieties of natural philosophy. One can now also pinpoint the rise of certain intellectual practices, such as the use of cycles of analysis and synthesis, the conservation of mass (rather than matter) through chemical reactions, and the “negative-empirical principle” which defines the bounds of chemical inquiry in terms of what materials chemical techniques can access.

I would emphasize the fact that close attention to intellectual/technical history has been central to the gains made in the chymistry/alchemy literature, including a resuscitation of interest in the unique meaning and practice of natural philosophy (as opposed to it being an archaic term for “science”), which, as I have previously noted, was a big concern in the historiography of the early 1980s, but fizzled out thereafter.  The literature has also been refreshingly not shy in considering the cataloging the intellectual differences among alchemists and chymists to be a historiographical priority.

It seems to me that an interest in the intellectual history of vitalism has always thrived in certain corners of history of philosophy, even when historians of science moved on from intellectual history. As Kevin Chang notes here, accounting for the phenomenon of life was an important problem in alchemy, and different philosophers incorporated vitalist matter theories into corpuscular theories in a variety of ways, which he partially catalogs.

As important as technical-intellectual history has been to the revitalization of this literature, it should not be regarded as a retrenchment into the history of scientific ideas. In her piece, Tara Nummedal observes how essential it has been to link intellectual history to histories of artisinal practice (as researched particularly by Pamela Smith), as well as histories of the marketplace, the court, religion, and literature, among other areas.

It’s surely more difficult to consolidate gains in the history of practice than in intellectual history, especially into only a few pages, but I do wish where Nummedal gestures at the sheer “multivalence” of chemical practice, we were given a few more touchstones and toeholds into the traditions and changes that occurred. I am hard-pressed to think of a literature these days that isn’t impressed with the multivalence of its subject matter, and how “contested” it was, and so I think the thing to be done is really to try and parse out the key traditions and to communicate the specifics as much as possible. I am eager to learn more here.

All in all, I take great satisfaction in the fact that one of the nerdiest corners of the historiography is also one of the most publicized. The historians of alchemy, chemistry, and “chymistry” have not been afraid to develop their own interlinked internalist concerns, and have taken important steps here, and in endeavors like the Chymistry of Isaac Newton website, to make these concerns accessible to outsiders. At the same time, they have integrated themselves well into other areas of historiography, and into public media as well as I think can realistically be expected.

This Isis Focus section takes pains to make this literature palatable to other historians by engaging their sense of what constitutes historiographical virtue. We, in turn, should pay close attention to what this group is doing, since it would be too easy to take their feats for granted as a natural product of historical inquiry. To build a historiography this way takes enormous work and unusual self-critical reflection.


1. Rebekah Higgitt - July 3, 2011

Thanks for this summary of the section – I agree, it’s great stuff.

2. Thony C. - July 4, 2011

Thanks for posting this Will and please don’t loose your scholarly crush on the chymistry literature it has been both informative and highly educational up till now.

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