Was Early Eighteenth-Century Chemistry an Empirical Science?

  • Bernard Joly
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 331)


The Table des diffrents rapports observs entre les différentes substances which Etienne-François Geoffroy established 1718 seems, at first sight, to have been built solely on the basis of many observations made by chemists in their laboratories during the seventeenth century as well as on the works that himself and others chemists of the Parisian Académie royale des sciences, such as Wilhelm Homberg and Louis Lémery, had recently undertaken. In view of this, it seems that Geoffroy can be called a Newtonian because he didn’t build any hypothesis, refraining from giving any references to chemical principles or theories.

At the same time, he was said by Fontenelle and others to have introduced tenets of the Newtonian attraction, while we can see that, in fact, he was alluding to Homberg’s theory of the “Soufre principe” and maybe also to some alchemical considerations taken from the works of J.J. Becher. Hence, on closer examination, the “Table des rapports” appears to be overloaded with theories. Moreover, in the early eighteenth-century, chemistry seems to have made the same ambiguous use of laboratory operations that ancient alchemy: experiments weren’t designed to confront the theory with matters of fact, but rather to visualize or to make visible the main aspects of a chosen theory.

In my paper, I shall explore precisely those intricate links between theory and experience, in order to specify the limits of empirical knowledge in eighteenth-century chemistry.


Chemical principles Chemistry Experiment Etienne-François Geoffroy 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of LilleVilleneuve d’AscqFrance

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