, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 201-222
Date: 13 Oct 2011

From phlogiston to caloric: chemical ontologies

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Abstract

The ‘triumph of the anti-phlogistians’ is a familiar story to the historians and philosophers of science who characterize the Chemical Revolution as a broad conceptual shift. The apparent “incommensurability” of the paradigms across the revolutionary divide has caused much anxiety. Chemists could identify phlogiston and oxygen, however, only with different sets of instrumental practices, theoretical schemes, and philosophical commitments. In addition, the substantive counterpart to phlogiston in the new chemistry was not oxygen, but caloric. By focusing on the changing visions of chemical body across the revolutionary divide with a more sensitive probe into the historical actors’ material manipulations and linguistic usage, we can historicize their laboratory realities and philosophical agenda. An archeology of chemical bodies that configures the fragile stability of the material worlds chemists created in succession promises a philosophical horizon that would recognize our hybrid (natural–artificial) environment as an evolving investigative object of science.