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Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (review)
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.1 (2004) 104-105

William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xv + 344. Cloth, $40.00.

Newman and Principe have produced a masterful study of intellectual context, primarily by correcting the commonly held belief that there was a radical break in the seventeenth century between late medieval alchemy and early modern chemistry. Although their main focus is on George Starkey (the 'alchemist') and Robert Boyle (the 'chemist'), they also provide copious details on the chemical practices and theories of Van Helmont, Benjamin Worsley, Frederick Clodius, and Kenelm Digby, among others. It is hard to do justice to their complex study in a short review. Following a brief summary, therefore, I will limit my discussion to how the authors' conclusions are significant for a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of philosophy in the seventeenth century.

After a helpful introduction, Chapter 1 outlines the differences in the early lives of the English, aristocratic Boyle and the American, Harvard-educated Starkey. Chapter 2's background on late medieval chemistry includes an examination of corpuscular theories within that tradition as well as Van Helmont's arguments concerning the way in which mathematics is useful for explaining "superficial" changes but not the real, internal changes in bodies. Chapters 3 and 4 provide a close study of Starkey's laboratory notebooks. Among the entries, recorded in a style adapted from Scholasticism, there are passages that adopt the secrecy of alchemy, while others show Starkey's effective use of theoretical principles and such experimental quantitative methods as mass balance. Chapter 5 examines Boyle's intellectual context. Newman and Principe argue convincingly for Starkey's role in Boyle's addition of Helmontian elements to the general Baconian program. Chapter 6 looks at the results of Boyle's eclectic mix of chemistry and mechanism. Although Helmontian chemistry played a significant role in Boyle's natural philosophy, the authors attribute his meager interest in quantitative measures and analyses to his attempts to use chemistry as a support for mechanism and as evidence against Aristotelianism. The concluding chapter draws together elements from previous chapters to provide the full argument against the idea of a radical break between medieval alchemy and modern chemistry.

Newman and Principe's reconsideration of traditional categories surrounding the idea of a radical break should provide an impetus for similar reconsideration in the history of philosophy. As they point out, 'the' mechanical philosophy drew from a diverse range of disciplines. Boyle's eclectic and complex attempt to develop a unique version of the mechanical philosophy can be seen in other English philosophers, especially Locke and Newton. This study provides a promising basis for yet more extensive and refined studies of the seventeenth-century milieu. The continuing over-emphasis on the physical principles of Descartes and Gassendi's versions of the mechanical philosophy and the tendency to reduce all mechanism to their view needs revision. Also in need of reconsideration is the currently popular belief that the study of context simply means adding social elements to an uncontroversial intellectual context. As the authors clearly show, much more work on the intellectual context remains to be done.

One line of research in the history of philosophy that could be pursued concerns the role of Francis Bacon in this context. Although Newman and Principe mention the general Baconian ethos, a detailed discussion of Bacon was clearly beyond their scope. Yet Bacon's own debts to chemistry, although frequently unrecognized, seem more significant given this study. Also, it would be interesting to see the extent to which Bacon's works influenced Van Helmont or Starkey. Newman and Principe's claims regarding the novelty of Starkey's notebooks, for example, may be a little overstated. Many of the elements from Starkey's notebooks can be found in Bacon's advice in his Natural and Experimental Histories (1622). In that work, Bacon advised writers to begin by questioning the accuracy of texts, to report experiments as well as their observations on them, to use weights and measures to determine things like the density and rarity of...

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