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|Title: ||The Incompleat Chymist: Being an Essay on the Eighteenth-Century Chemist in his Laboratory, with a Dictionary of Obsolete Chemical Terms of the Period|
|Authors: ||Eklund, Jon|
|Issue Date: ||1975|
|Citation: ||Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology; 33|
|Abstract: ||It would be preferable to be able to call this work "The Compleat Chymist," but the existing title reflects an unfortunate reality. The truth is that our knowledge of the aspirations and activities of chemists in the eighteenth century is woefully incomplete. That this is so suggests first that we have an insufficient number of interested historians of chemistry; and if this remains so it may signify something unfortunate about current historiographic trends.
Specifically, there has been a tendency of late to treat eighteenth-century chemistry as an almost exclusively cerebral science. This is in part an understandable reaction to an earlier historiographic mode which is perhaps best described as Whig-inductivist. Although there were variations, the chemical variety of the basic Whig-inductivist scheme was to describe the experiment, give its contemporary interpretation, translate the phenomenon into modern terms, give the modern interpretation, and then make a normative judgment on the basis of the closeness of fit between the original and the modern interpretation. Sometimes the judgment was omitted, and the work became primarily a series of descriptions of important reactions. Even here, however, there was an implicit judgment in the selection process—those experiments most relevant to modern textbook schemes were the ones chosen for exegesis.
Surely it isn’t necessary here to once again beat down the presumed phoenix of Whig-inductivism, as its evils seem well understood and agreed upon. But to be repelled by the narrow normative excesses of an earlier historiography is one thing; to shun all its practices uncritically is quite another. Thus, it seems to me a non sequitur to arrive at the idea that narratives of experiments are necessarily bad or that all translations of the results into modern terms (assuming one can avoid the all-too-obvious pitfalls) are useless.
More dangerous still is the tendency for historians to largely ignore the details of practice. Without doing an injustice to the intellectual content of the chemistry of that time, such an oversight seems to me to create a serious historical imbalance. Indeed, for historians to assume that the chemists of the eighteenth century were primarily concerned with theory may be to ignore most of their working hours. Certainly by far the greatest portion of the literature in contemporary journals was not concerned with theories of matter but with specific empirical problems related to the determination of chemical composition. Since they were personal vehicles which allowed greater depth, even treatises which one logically would expect to contain discussions of a more philosophical nature were composed, for the most part, of the details of chemical experiments. Surely we must characterize the chemistry of that period in accordance with the actual record left by the chemists of the time.
Although this work is concerned principally with the laboratory settings, equipment, and practices of French and British chemists of the period 1690-1770, nothing seen in the chemical literature of any country seriously weakens the remarks made above.|
|Appears in Collections:||Smithsonian Contributions to History and Technology|
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