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Metaphor in Chemistry: An Examination of Chemical Metaphor

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Philosophy of Chemistry

Part of the book series: Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science ((BSPS,volume 306))


The function of metaphor in science has been labeled as decorative, persuasive, heuristic, instrumental, facilitating or obstructing. It has sometimes been regarded as inspiring, provoking, perverting or destroying rational thought. Metaphor’s positive role has been noted by philosophers, historians of chemistry, and science education researchers. It has been hailed as a descriptive and explanatory device that stimulates and shapes concept development. I discuss how metaphor functions in science generally, then refine this idea through an examination metaphor’s role in chemical thinking in three contexts: the history and philosophy of chemistry, laboratory research practice, and chemical education. I aim to show how metaphor is already operative in the chemist’s use of the concept of chemical element and that this understanding characterizes chemical thinking in general. The chapter concludes with a discussion of a specifically chemical understanding of metaphor.

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  1. 1.

    T. Nummedal (2011), Bensaude-Vincent and Stengers (1996), Newman and Principe (1998), Dobbs (2002), Merchant (1980), and others.

  2. 2.

    Jeppsson et al. (2013), Aubusson et al. (2006), Tobin and Tippins (1996), Hofmann (1990) and others.

  3. 3.

    Black (1962), Cassirer (1953), Hesse (1966, 1988), Harré and Martin (1982), among others.

  4. 4.

    This is, in fact, what Cassirer (1953) called “radical metaphor” and Kuhn (1977; 1979) referred to as “metaphor-like processes.” This theme is discussed in depth in Sects. 9.5 and 9.6 below.

  5. 5.

    The National Science Foundation and other science agencies have sought to dispel institutional tendencies to polarize the two modes of practice by issuing funding solicitations that call for integrative undergraduate science curricula. For example the NSF’s Undergraduate Research Centers.

  6. 6.

    See Graves’ (2005) treatment of this theme in Sect. 9.4, and Bhushan and Rosenfeld’s (1995) treatment in Sect. 9.5, below.

  7. 7.

    As the story goes, a visiting physicist commented on a horseshoe hanging above the doorway of Bohr’s country home, “Bohr, I didn’t know you believed in such superstitions!” to which Bohr responded: “I don’t, but I’ve heard that it works whether or not one believes in it.”

  8. 8.

    As does Ian Hacking’s (1983) Representing and Intervening.

  9. 9.

    A full discussion of the development of this definition and its impact on chemical research and education appears Sect. 9.6 of this chapter.

  10. 10.

    See, among others, Earley (2009), Harré (2010), Mahootian (2013), Ruthenberg (2009), and Scerri (2000, 2005, 2009), and of course Paneth (1931/1962), who originated this definition.

  11. 11.

    It was translated into English for publication in 1962 as “The epistemological status of the chemical concept of element” in British Journal of the Philosophy of Science. 13, 1–14 and 144–160; it was reprinted in Foundations of Chemistry 5, 2003, 113–145.

  12. 12.

    Analytic philosopher, Max Black (1962) applied rhetoric theoretician I.A. Richards’ interaction theory of metaphor in this manner. Kuang-Ming Wu’s (2001) cross-cultural hermeneutic approach to metaphor affirms this point with examples from several contexts and languages.

  13. 13.

    Nye completely excludes alchemy from her account—this is an important omission that follows in the steps of nineteenth and early twentieth century historiography of science. I. Stengers and B. Bensaude-Vincent’s History of Chemistry, published only a few years after Nye (1994), showed how fundamental concepts of chemistry, such as analysis, isolation and purification were developed to a high degree of sophistication. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, W. Newman and L. Principe provided a wealth of documentary evidence to support the inclusion of alchemy in the history of chemistry. Tara Nummedal discusses the versatility of alchemy’s promotion of chemistry.

  14. 14.

    The term “like attracts like” still enjoys broad usage ranging from matchmaking websites to titles and abstracts of research articles in academic journals of physics, chemistry and molecular biology.

  15. 15.

    Graves focuses more of her analysis on the lab’s use of metonyms than on metaphors, however, the case has been made in section 1 above, that the various genera of non-literal usages of language actually function metaphorically, even if they are not identical in form to metaphors. Kuhn’s (1977, 1979) and Cassirer’s (1953) discussions of this idea are found in Sects. 9.5 and 9.6, below.

  16. 16.

    Pickering’s seemingly odd choice of this term harks back to old-time clothes washing machines which had no spin cycle. Instead, wet clothing were put through the ringer and the resulting “mangle” consisted of diverse items of damp clothing pressed into a single, flat, apparently continuous plank.

  17. 17.

    Fredrik Jeppsson et al. (2013) Exploring the Use of Conceptual Metaphors in Solving Problems on Entropy, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 22:1, 70–120.

  18. 18.

    See Jeppsson et al. (2013, 72).

  19. 19.

    Jeppsson et al. (2013, 72).

  20. 20.

    In three volumes (1925–1929) Yale University Press. Cassirer draws on a broad multidisciplinary pool of evidence from human, social and physical science of the mid-twentieth century.

  21. 21.

    Mahootian 2013 “Paneth’s epistemology of chemical elements in light of Kant’s Opus postumum.” Foundations of Chemistry 15:171–184.

  22. 22.

    As found for example in Lakoff and Johnson (2008).

  23. 23.

    Metonymy is a specific kind of metaphor that makes a part, or aspect, stand for the whole e.g., saying “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

  24. 24.

    Harré 2010, Causal concepts in chemical vernaculars. Foundations of Chemistry 12:101–115


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Correspondence to Farzad Mahootian .

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Mahootian, F. (2015). Metaphor in Chemistry: An Examination of Chemical Metaphor. In: Scerri, E., McIntyre, L. (eds) Philosophy of Chemistry. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, vol 306. Springer, Dordrecht.

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