Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 79–83

Alan Chalmers: The scientist’s atom and the philosopher’s stone: how science succeeded and philosophy failed to gain knowledge of atoms

Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume 279, Springer, Dordrecht, 2009, 287 plus xi pages, $139.00, (Kindle edition, $99.69), ISBN 978-90-481-2361-2


    • Department of ChemistryGeorgetown University
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s10698-010-9102-9

Cite this article as:
Earley, J.E. Found Chem (2011) 13: 79. doi:10.1007/s10698-010-9102-9

Alan Chalmers has strong views about what does and does not deserve to be considered “science.”1 In this book he examines a number of historical developments that are frequently cited in accounts of the origin of the outlook he calls “atomism”– the doctrine that all materials are composed of microscopic components that account for the properties of those materials. In most such episodes the author finds reason to challenge conventional understandings—such as those generally used in introductory chemistry courses—and to take issue with specialized historians and philosophers.

Chalmers holds that “testing the adequacy of scientific claims requires active experimental intervention.” (10)2 Only theories that suggest novel experiments (and can be confirmed by results of those tests) count as science, in his view. Accounts that are merely “accommodations” to otherwise known facts do not qualify. (113) A “key focus” of the present work is “understanding how preconditions necessary to make possible an atomic theory that is experimentally testable came to be.” (11) The author aims to “fruitfully draw a contrast between scientific and philosophical atomism … in order to illustrate instructive differences between the two modes of knowledge.” (13)

“Local historians” concentrate on events in a specific town or a single county: this study concentrates on the history of one sharply-defined aspect of recent science. The back cover of the book points out: “This is not history for its own sake.” The last paragraph of the book states: “I presume that in this book I have been engaged in philosophy (and some history) but I have not been practicing science. One of these days someone should write a book called What is this thing called philosophy? But not me.” (268) Clearly this book is not “philosophy for philosophy’s sake” either.

Chalmers disputes the usual understanding that Leucippus and his pupil Democritus (ca. 460 BC–ca. 370 BC) were originators of atomism. He grants that Democritus used a doctrine involving atoms to refute earlier claims of Parmenides that all change is mere illusion, but argues that Democritus had an “ambivalent attitude to the evidence of the senses” (40) and that his atoms were “stone-like.” (19) On this basis, Pre-Socratic Greek atomism “has little, if any, claim to ancestry of modern scientific atomism.” Subsequently the Epicureans, whose doctrines the Roman poet Lucretius (~99 BC–~55 BC) later summarized, did value observation and modified Democritan atomism to deal with “Zeno’s paradoxes” but nevertheless, in Chalmers’ opinion, they also “did not make significant headway in establishing the existence and properties of atoms.”(57)

Aristotle vigorously opposed the atomistic approaches of Democritus and of the Epicureans, but Chalmers holds that aspects of Aristotle’s discussion3 of how substances may combine “suggest quite openly that substances have minimal parts.”(65) Chalmers considers this identification of “minima” as more of an anticipation of current science than any aspect of the earlier atomisms that Aristotle rejected.

A brief treatment of the thought of the medieval Scholastics focuses on their discussion of whether each entity has one “substantial form” or a multiplicity of such forms. A discussion of the work of two alchemists is largely based on recent historical research of William Newman,4 who identified the author usually designated “Pseudo-Geber” as the thirteenth-century Franciscan, Paul of Taranto. The works of Pseudo-Geber arguably contain the first mention of the important chemicals now known as nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and aqua regia. Whether writing under his own name or that of Geber, Paul used Aristotelian philosophy and recognized the existence of both “minima” and “corpuscles.” Chalmers quotes Newman’s opinion that “it is not too much to view his notion of a fortissimo composition joining discrete corpuscles as having a kinship with the chemical bond of contemporary chemistry” but Chalmers disagrees—pointing out that Paul’s atomism was only “rough and ready,” and in any case Paul’s work did not play a role in the academic discussions of his day.

The second alchemist considered is Daniel Sennert (1572–1637), professor of medicine at the German University of Wittenberg. Sennert used Aristotelian concepts and taught that materials were composed of atoms. Chalmers takes Newman’s opinion to be that Sennert’s research marks “at least the beginnings of experimental knowledge of atoms” (91) but disagrees because “Sennert’s atomism was accommodated to experimental phenomena rather than being confirmed or supported by them.” (93) Chalmers has little or nothing to say about the influence of the fifteenth-century rediscovery of the poetry of Lucretius, or about changes in the notion of chemical “principles” and “elements” from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries that other philosophical accounts5 regard as having been important intellectual influences on early scientists.

Chalmers maintains that the version of “the mechanical philosophy” that Robert Boyle (1627–1691) defended was close to Democritan atomism, since it involved rock-like atoms with unchanging shape and size. (The “philosopher’s stone” mentioned in the book’s subtitle refers to such particles rather than to any alchemical material.) He claims that the supposedly mechanical accounts that Boyle produced of his many chemical experiments were adaptations of his theory to the observations rather than theory-based explanations of those results. He holds that Boyle’s strong opposition to the Scholastic notion of substantial form accounted for his counterproductive opinion that “classifications of substances into kinds are a human imposition rather than one arising naturally from the nature of the substances classified.” (151) Although Isaac Newton was a convinced atomist as well as a mathematician, practicing alchemist, and physicist, “Newton’s atomism was Boyle’s mechanical atomism augmented by the addition of inter-particulate attractive and repulsive forces governed by his laws of motion.” (127). Chalmers claims that “the atomistic matter theories espoused by Boyle and Newton did not productively inform their chemistry nor were they significantly supported by it.”(150)

Chalmers holds that developments in technology (e.g., pharmacy, mining, weaponry)—rather than any theoretical progress—accounted for the rapid increase in chemical knowledge that occurred during the seventeen and eighteenth centuries.6 He generally follows Ursula Klein’s account7 of the clarification of the notions of “chemical substance, chemical compound, and chemical combination” (140) in eighteenth-century France. He argues that the chemical revolution that reformulated that knowledge in terms of the present system of chemical elements did not involve important contributions from atomism.

While agreeing that “Dalton’s atomic theory emerged out of … a Newtonian atomistic theory of gasses” (174) and “the three laws of proportion are straightforward and natural consequences of his theory” (180), Chalmers claims that “there is much that is misleading about seeing Dalton’s atomic theory as the beginnings of a testable theory version of atomism.” (173) Rather than using Dalton’s weight-centered system directly, nineteenth-century chemists developed their own similar approach using “equivalent weights.” Chemistry developed rapidly after Berzelius invented a precursor of the modern system of chemical formulae. This progress led to clarification of the status of isomers and the determinations of reliable molecular weights for organic compounds. Chalmers considers that nineteenth-century organic chemists operated as “agnostic anti-atomists” but that their work finally established modern atomism as a proper part of science. However, “it was a chemical atomism that emerged out of chemical practice and owed little or nothing to the physical atomism that has a strong history from Democritus to Dalton.”

Chapters that concern the discovery of the electron and the development of thermodynamics and kinetic theory8 seem rather anticlimactic; since the author clearly considers that the main thesis of the book is demonstrated by the account of the rise of organic chemistry.

Historians of science are often accused of producing “Whig history.”9 British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper10 described a classic example of this regrettable practice: “The refusal to admit the autonomy of the past, the insistence that the past must be judged in relation to the present, and is responsible to the present, is fundamental to Macaulay’s historical interpretation and is the cause of some of his historical errors.” In presenting evidence to support his thesis, Chalmers systematically ignores context. It is difficult to see how an adequate account of complex intellectual and practical developments could emerge from such a Whiggish approach. Chalmers explicitly notes that distortions result when current concepts are imposed on ancient sources, and writes “I intend my characterizations of past versions of atomism to meet the highest standards a historian could aspire to.” (11) Readers may come to different opinions on how successful he is in this.

While he properly notes that “for Aristotle, form only exists in individual worldly entities” (62), Chalmers neglects to notice that the same restriction applies to Aristotle’s second component of all entities, hyle, generally translated as “matter.” The concept of hyle that figures in Aristotelian hylomorphism was quite different from the notion of matter that emerged in the Renaissance.11 In the modern usage, matter has full existence in its own right. For Aristotle, strictly speaking, hyle (matter) only exists as a component of entities (ousia12). In the hylomorphic system, it is no more possible to have free-standing matter than it is to have free-standing form.13

This is related to one of the authors’ main points—he correctly claims that the notion of the atom that emerged from nineteenth-century chemistry was not the same as the “physicists atom” that had figured in the thought of Boyle and Newton (and perhaps also of Democritus and Dalton). The reactive atoms that emerged from nineteen-century chemistry were far from “stone-like” bits of inertial “matter.” Chalmers understands atomism as holding that properties of composites are adequately understood solely in terms of fully-independent, individual components. This view was a dominant aspect of science in the first half of the twentieth century, and is now advocated by some reductive physicalists in the philosophy of mind and by genetic determinists in biology. However, the author’s decision to end his historical survey in the first decade of the twentieth century was a prudent one. Developments shortly after that time called main concepts of simple versions of atomism into serious question.14 That approach is now recognized as having a limited range of applicability. The main foci of contemporary science have quite different emphases.15

Accepting the book’s second main point—that accommodating one’s theoretical approach to independently known data does not qualify as science—would lead to reclassification of much past and present research, including most modeling and semi-empirical investigations. Chalmers seems to agree with those Scholastics he called “hard line” Aristotelians—in holding that science has a single, clear, and rigid definition (a single substantial form) that excludes all variations from the ideal. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously showed that it is difficult or impossible to define what counts as playing a game. Can doing science be less complex than game-playing? Even if readers may not agree with all the points he raises, the author’s reexamination of historical stories widely used as background for introductory chemistry courses merits the serious attention of professional philosophers and historians, and also of science educators. This book resembles George W. Bush’s 2010 memoir Decision Points (New York: Random House). Both books are based on well-developed presuppositions and are written with a clear aim. Readers who share the presuppositions of each book will be interested, informed, and pleased: readers with other understandings may not react so favorably.


Some years ago the same author wrote What is this thing called science? an introduction to philosophy of science for students not majoring in philosophy.


Numbers in parentheses indicate page-numbers in the book under review.


When considering the discussion of chemical interaction in Aristotle’s Generation and Corruption, Chalmers correctly uses “combination” or “mixt” as translations of the Greek word that is transliterated mixis. Present-day philosophers often erroneously translate this Greek word as “mixture,” even though the English word mixture has a well-defined meaning in modern chemistry—a meaning that is quite different from what Aristotle meant by mixis.


Newman (2006).


E.g., Leclerc (1972).


In A History of Chemistry, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers discuss how such developments influenced the rise of institutions to provide education in chemistry, which also functioned as centers of research.


E.g., Klein and Lefevre (2007).


Chalmers argues that the kinetic theory was not fully established until Perrin’s early twentieth-century experiments on Brownian motion.


Jardine (2003) at pp. 127–128.


Hugh Trevor-Roper (2010). Chapter 11 reprints the “Introduction” to Thomas B. Macaulay, The History of England, edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper (New York: Washington Square Press, 1968).


Ivor Leclerc, op. cit., p. 35.


In its primary meaning, that term refers to any specific individual entity.


Chalmers employs the modern understanding of the word matter in periods where such usage is anachronistic. Few of the investigators that Chalmers considers would have considered themselves as mainly interested in “matter-theory” as Chalmers presumes. The nineteen-century organic chemists that Chalmers regards so highly had more interesting specifically-chemical concerns—including making expensive and rare stuff from cheap and available materials.


d’Espagnat (2006).


E.g., Noble (2006).


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010