Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 171–184 | Cite as

Paneth’s epistemology of chemical elements in light of Kant’s Opus postumum

  • Farzad MahootianEmail author


Friedrich Paneth’s conception of “chemical element” has functioned as the official definition adopted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry since 1923. Paneth maintains a distinction between empirical and “transcendental” concepts of element; furthermore, chemical science requires fluctuation between the two. The origin of the empirical-transcendental split is found in Immanuel Kant’s classic Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787). The present paper examines Paneth’s foundational concept of element in light of Kant’s attempt, late in life, to revoke key distinctions made in his Critique, including that of regulative and constitutive functions of reason. In a section of his Opus postumum devoted to the “Transition from the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science to Physics,” Kant bends his philosophical system to address the newly emerging sciences of matter of his time. Specifically, he tried, without success, to develop the transcendental ground for microscale motions of bodies encountered in physical, electrical and chemical processes. Paneth’s discussion of chemical element does not take the Opus postumum into account, which is why it begins with a rejection of Kant’s rejection (in his earlier writings) of chemistry’s status as science. I make the case that Paneth’s definition of element effectively maintains something very like Kant’s critical separation of regulative and constitutive principles, while a advancing the concept of chemical science.


Chemical element Kant Opus postumum Complementarity Metaphor Epistemology Regulative and constitutive 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Liberal StudiesNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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