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  • Recent Work in the History and Philosophy of Chemistry
  • Jeffry L. Ramsey (bio)

In a recent review essay in this journal, Marjorie Grene (1997) remarked that the philosophy of biology is a recent addition to the subfields of academic philosophy. If philosophy of biology is the younger sibling, then the philosophy of chemistry must be the infant of the family. However, the books under review here 1 and a recent explosion of professional activities 2 indicate that the child has a lusty cry. Part of that lustiness is certainly due to the fact that some of the work, like recent philosophy of science and the history of philosophy more generally (cf. Wilson 1992; Friedman 1997, 1998), takes seriously the notion that philosophical issues in the sciences arise within particular but conversationally diverse historical and sociological contexts. [End Page 409]

As a result, readers of this journal should be interested in the books reviewed here. Taken collectively, they argue that we must pay attention to the historically and socially situated nature of both theoretical and experimental practice, of the articulation (or lack thereof) of experiment and theory, and of the legitimation of the discourse of various subdisciplines. Moreover, they demonstrate that the chemical sciences raise these issues in interesting and sometimes unique ways. Chemists should also be interested. These books show that chemistry is deeply conditioned by its history and that it always has been, and still is, imbued by philosophical questions. Last but not least, since many of these books are explicitly philosophical, philosophers of chemistry should be interested in how practitioners treat issues in the nascent discipline. After all, discipline formation makes a difference, even in philosophy. Both Grene and Bensaude-Vincent and Stengers argue that “comfortable generalities” must give way to “local circumstantial analyses” of the practices of scientists and groups of scientists (Bensaude-Vincent and Stengers 1996, p. 9; cf. Grene 1997, p. 273). This is a valuable point to keep in mind.

I begin by discussing how the authors treat issues in experiment, theory, and the social responsibilities of scientists. I then turn to issues and themes addressed in somewhat unique ways in the chemical sciences. These include identity, synthesis, catalysis, and the divide between the natural and the artificial.

Laboratory Practice

In the minds of many, chemistry is the laboratory science par excellence. Thus, one would think that students of science interested in experiment and laboratory practice should be interested in chemistry. The works under review here bear out that judgment while also indicating that historians and philosophers of chemistry have something to learn from the recent literature on experiment.

Bensaude-Vincent and Stengers’s book offers an extended argument for the importance of laboratory practice in historical, philosophical, and sociological studies of the sciences. Their object in writing A History of Chemistry was to “establish chemistry’s position in the world of knowledge and culture” by examining “a combination of three factors that were constantly being redefined: laboratory techniques, professions, and institutions” (1996, pp. 6–7). For them, “the true subjects of this history . . . are the various investigative practices—research strategies, experimental and mental tools—that chemists have devised, as well as laboratory instruments, materials, procedures, institutions, courses and credits. We . . . describe a gamut, if not complete at least varied, of practices that organized the field of chemistry around projects or research programs” (1996, pp. 8–9). [End Page 410] Bensaude-Vincent and Stengers are deeply aware of the ways in which practice encompasses more than just experiment, but they are equally aware that laboratory techniques are of central importance in chemistry.

Their book is filled with examples that illustrate this point. They claim that during the nineteenth century, substitution studies, in which one element is replaced by another in a compound, were driven largely by experimental practices. Although studies of, say, the replacement of hydrogen by chlorine in hydrocarbons did lead to new concepts and new theories, these theoretical developments did not organize the investigation. Similarly, they argue that Berzelius and Leibig did not see the synthesis of urea as disconfirming a grand metaphysical belief in vital forces. Rather, it raised the question of how materials with the same constitutional formula (potassium cyanate...

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