The function of microstructure in Boyle’s chemical philosophy: ‘chymical atoms' and structural explanation


One of several important issues that inform contemporary philosophy of chemistry is the issue of structural explanation, precisely because modern chemistry is primarily concerned with microstructure. This paper argues that concern over microstructure, albeit understood differently than it is today, also informs the chemical philosophy of Robert Boyle (1627–1691). According to Boyle, the specific microstructure of ‘chymical atoms’, understood in geometric terms, accounts for the unique essential properties of different chemical substances. Because he considers the microstructure of ‘chymical atoms’ as semi-permanent, Boyle considers these stable entities as operationally irreducible, even if they are not ontologically fundamental. While it is generally believed that our contemporary concern over structural explanation is a function of modern chemistry’s emphasis on microstructure, this discussion of structural explanation in Boyle will serve as a case study to illustrate the manner in which many of our contemporary concerns have deeply historical origins and the manner in which the history of chemistry can substantively inform issues in contemporary philosophy of chemistry.

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  1. 1.

    Some of the scholars who reject the view that Locke was an ontological realist about natural kinds are Margaret Atherton, Lisa Downing, and Jan-Erik Jones See: Atherton (2007), Downing (2007), and Jones (2016).

  2. 2.

    Boyle himself never uses the term ‘structural realism’ to describe his position. Rather, it is a term that I am using to capture the extent of Boyle’s ontological commitment to the existence of operationally stable microstructure. It is important to point out, however, that the ‘structural realism’ that I attribute to Boyle is distinct from contemporary structural realism within philosophy of science and philosophy of physics. Although there are many versions of contemporary structural realism, this view generally purports to resolve the realism/antirealism debate by advocating antirealism regarding unobservable causes, while advocating realism regarding the mathematical and structural content of our scientific theories (Worrall 1989). More recently, James Ladyman has called for a distinction between epistemic structural realism, according to which we only know the structure of relations between things rather than things themselves, and ontic structural realism, according to which only structure exists (Ladyman 1998). It is clear that Boyle’s views do not fit with contemporary structural realism, since Boyle was an epistemic and ontic realist through and through, not only about microstructure but also about unobservable causes and fundamental particles.


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Correspondence to Marina Paola Banchetti-Robino.

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Banchetti-Robino, M.P. The function of microstructure in Boyle’s chemical philosophy: ‘chymical atoms' and structural explanation. Found Chem 21, 51–59 (2019).

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  • Robert Boyle
  • Microstructure
  • Chymical atoms
  • Operational irreducibility
  • Structural explanation