- Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution
For the past half-century, historians have struggled to explain alchemy's place in the scientific revolution. In a series of detailed studies, scholars have explored the question through the lives and work of individuals, examining how alchemy fit into the other intellectual, social, and cultural endeavors of a Paracelsus or an Isaac Newton. In this valuable new volume, Bruce Moran skillfully knits together this monographic work and returns to the big question: what role did alchemy play in the changing understanding of nature that we call the scientific revolution? [End Page 366]
At its most basic, Distilling Knowledge offers a long-overdue survey of the history of European alchemy from the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. Moran patiently explains the logic behind this ancient understanding of nature, then follows European alchemical ideas and practices as they developed in response to the shifting cultural and intellectual currents of the early modern period. Exploring all of alchemy's medical, metallurgical, philosophical, and mystical dimensions, he shows clearly why this rich tradition offered such a valuable resource for professors of medicine and housewives alike in early modern Europe.
Moran argues that alchemical ideas and practices raised critical questions at the heart of rethinking nature in the early modern period: the relationship between making and knowing, the composition of matter, and what made bodies (human and material) behave as they did. Sometimes, of course, alchemical writers "got it wrong" from the modern perspective, but that should not trouble the historian: "Simply put," Moran reminds us, "the history of science does not always have to be written as a giant success story" (p. 7). Even if some aspects of alchemy eventually ceased to be part of the modern understanding of nature, he argues, the fact that alchemists challenged, agitated, inspired, and "extended the repertoire of imaginable opinion" made them crucial players in driving forward the scientific revolution (p. 187).
Distilling Knowledge also uses alchemy subtly to challenge the standard narratives of the history of science. Moran undermines the persistent notion of the scientific revolution as "the story of the triumph of human reason over mysticism, magic, and the occult" (p. 4). This narrative, he points out, relies on a whole slew of binaries (between irrational, secretive, and disordered alchemy and rational, open, and ordered science, for example, or between theoretical positions such as vitalism and mechanism). Both the master narrative and these "supposed opposites," however, collapse under Moran's analysis, as he patiently but persistently uses alchemy to draw attention to points of overlap and coexistence, "not necessarily of either/or but of both/and" (p. 158). The result is a much messier story than that of the heroic victory of science over alchemy, but one that more accurately captures the "sometimes inharmonious intellectual and social mixture of learned and artisan, of occult, spiritual, and mechanical" in early modern science and medicine (p. 187).
Moran's mastery of his subject and his erudite but accessible writing make this the perfect introduction to alchemy. Likewise, historians of science who still have trouble situating alchemy in the scientific revolution (and the neglect of alchemy in recent surveys indicates that many do) will appreciate Moran's succinct argument on that point. Specialists in the history of alchemy will find much that is familiar, and although the call for a new focus on "processes" and "procedures" as objects of study—"doing and making," rather than the usual "motions, matter, personalities, theories, and discoveries" (p. 6)—does point to an important new direction, this book does not go quite far enough. One is left to wonder about the practices of artisanal and unpublished alchemists, for instance, largely missing here but accessible through archival work. Perhaps it is for future historians [End Page 367] of alchemy to take up this task, however, and to consider how those practices fit into the masterful narrative that Moran offers here.