Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 145–156 | Cite as

What did “theory” mean to nineteenth-century chemists?

  • Alan RockeEmail author


Some recent philosophers of science have argued that chemistry in the nineteenth century “largely lacked theoretical foundations, and showed little progress in supplying such foundations” until around 1900, or even later. In particular, nineteenth-century atomic theory, it is said, “played no useful part” in the crowning achievement of nineteenth-century chemistry, the powerful subdiscipline of organic chemistry. This paper offers a contrary view. The idea that chemistry only gained useful theoretical foundations when it began to merge with physics, it will be argued, is based on an implicit conception of scientific theory that is too narrow, and too exclusively oriented to the science of physics. A broader understanding of scientific theory, and one that is more appropriate to the science of chemistry, reveals the essential part that theory played in the development of chemistry in the nineteenth century. It also offers implications for our understanding of the nature of chemical theory today.


Atomic theory Chemical atomism Theory 



I wish to thank Guillermo Restrepo, Joachim Schummer, Eric Scerri, Mi Gyung Kim, and the other speakers at the ISPC 2011 Summer Symposium in Bogota for their very helpful comments on this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History, Department of HistoryCase Western Reserve UniversityClevelandUSA

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