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Alchemy Restored

Author(s): LawrenceM. Principe

Source: Isis, Vol. 102, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 305-312
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Alchemy Restored
By Lawrence M. Principe*
Alchemy now holds an important place in the history of science. Its current status
contrasts with its former exile as a pseudoscience or worse and results from several
rehabilitative steps carried out by scholars who made closer, less programmatic, and more
innovative studies of the documentary sources. Interestingly, alchemys outcast status was
created in the eighteenth century and perpetuated thereafter in part for strategic and
polemical reasonsand not only on account of a lack of historical understanding.
Alchemys return to the fold of the history of science highlights important features about
the development of science and our changing understanding of it.
Netherlands took place at Leiden in December 1737. The speaker was the physician
Abraham Kaau, and he entitled his address On the Joys of the Alchemists.
While the
title might seem to promise a positive portrayal of alchemy, Kaaus oration was in fact a
mocking account of the ancient art, and one can imagine his audiences laughter at
alchemys expense. By 1737, in the Netherlands at least, alchemy had no serious public
defenders. The subject had become emblematic of foolishness, a relic of the past, a source
of amusing entertainment (as Kaau used it), or an example of what chemistry was not. In
1737, chemistry was a serious academic discipline and an increasingly important com-
mercial practice, and in Kaaus mind alchemy had very little connection with it.
This was not the case just twenty years earlier. In September 1718, an earlier generation
of Leiden professors had gathered to hear the inaugural oratie of their newly appointed
professor of chemistry. This new chemistry professor was, ironically enough, Abraham
Kaaus uncle and a much more famous personHerman Boerhaave. In 1718, the trans-
mutation of metals into gold remained a serious topic of study for many and one of the
enterprises that most readily characterized chemistry for the general public. Boerhaave did
not mock chemistrys past, but he did nd it necessary to apologize for it. Entitled
Chemistry Purging Itself of Its Errors, his oration defended chemistry from critics. I
* Department of the History of Science and Technology and Department of Chemistry, 301 Gilman Hall,
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218.
Abraham Kaau, Declaratio academica de gaudiis alchemistarum, in Perspiratio dicta Hippocrati (Leiden,
1738). I exclude from the list of Dutch alchemical orationes inaugurales the oratie I gave at Utrecht University
on 1 June 2010, which forms a basis for the present essay.
Isis, 2011, 102:305312
2011 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.
must talk about chemistry! Boerhaave lamented. About chemistry! A subject disagree-
able, vulgar, laborious, far from the affairs of intelligent people, and ignored or considered
suspect by the learned . . . a discipline fruitful of errors, the poorest in good fruit, the
progenitor of poverty, the bankruptor of wealth, the destruction and ruin of common
Boerhaave was both embarrassed by and proud of chemistry. We are horried and
embarrassed by the silly nonsense into which the crowd of chemists plunges with sinful
trespass. What fables, superstititions, and fancies! Hardly anywhere can more raving
madness be found. His words are understandable only when we recognize that many in
his audience did not see a clear distinction between what we call alchemy and chemistry.
The search for metallic transmutationwhat we call alchemy but that is more accu-
rately termed chrysopoeiawas ordinarily viewed in the late seventeenth century as
synonymous with or as a subset of chemistry. This terminological issue is why William
Newman and I suggested using the archaically spelled chymistry to refer to the entire
subject before its separation into alchemy and chemistry in the early eighteenth century.
Many chymists pursued chrysopoeia as part of their activities, and in doing so they
employed the same techniques, instruments, and guiding principles as in the rest of their
work. All their chymical activities were unied by a common focus on the analysis,
synthesis, transformation, and production of material substances. The sundering of chryso-
poeia from chymistry was under way when Boerhaave spoke in 1718, and he is among
those who promoted it, explaining that the new chemists of his daylike himselfwere
busy making their subject respectable and that his colleagues had nothing to fear from this
questionable subject.
The banishment of chrysopoeiaincreasingly called alchemy in the early eighteenth
centuryfrom respectable chemistry remains a topic of study. Yet it is clear that devel-
opments in the understanding of nature had little to do with it. No new theories or
experiments sounded the death knell for chrysopoeia, and the arguments used against it in
the 1720s were the same as those used routinely and ineffectively since the Middle Ages.
Early eighteenth-century antialchemical rhetoric, however, laid new emphasis on fraud-
ulent practices. It was spokesmen for scientic societies and institutionslike Bernard de
Fontenelle and E

tienne-Francois Geoffroy at the Academie Royale des Sciences and

Boerhaave at Leidenwhere chemistry was struggling to take on a new identity in terms
of professionalization and social legitimacy, who led the charge. They cast alchemy as an
intellectual taboo, its practitioners as socially unacceptable and disruptive, and its content
and practice as something other than the chemistry they represented. This campaign was
so successful that chrysopoeia disappeared from respectable circles within a generation
(although some of the most prominent eighteenth-century chemists who rejected it
publicly continued to pursue it privately).
Herman Boerhaave, Sermo academicus de chemia suos errores expurgante (Leiden, 1718), rpt. in Elementa
chemiae, 2 vols. (Paris, 1733), Vol. 2, pp. 6477, on pp. 6566; for an English translation see E. Kegel-
Brinkgreve and Antonie M. Luyendijk-Elshout, eds., Boerhaaves Orations (Leiden: Brill, 1983), pp. 193213.
On Boerhaave see John C. Powers, Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical
Arts (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, in press).
Boerhaave, Sermo academicus de chemia suos errores expurgante, p. 66; and William R. Newman and
Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake, Early
Science and Medicine, 1998, 3:3265.
This topic forms one major theme of my forthcoming Wilhelm Homberg and the Transmutations of
Chymistry; for a brief version see Lawrence M. Principe, A Revolution Nobody Noticed? Changes in Early
Eighteenth-Century Chymistry, in New Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry, ed. Principe (Dordrecht:
306 FOCUSISIS, 102 : 2 (2011)
Subsequent developments made alchemys original unity with chemistryor other
scientic practicesseem increasingly implausible. Late eighteenth-century Germany
saw a resurgence of alchemy, but within secret societies. The late nineteenth century
witnessed a broader revival of alchemy, but within the context of Victorian occultism.
These Victorian occultists reinterpreted alchemy as a spiritual practice, involving the
self-transformation of the practitioner and only incidentally or not at all the transformation
of laboratory substances. Early twentieth-century psychoanalysts reexpressed this occult-
ist interpretation in clinical terms and claimed that alchemical texts actually described
psychological processes and archetypal images. These latter-day interpretations became
standard explanations of historical alchemy, such that with every passing generation
alchemy became more and more distanced from chemistry and from scientic thought in
Thus, when the history of science emerged as a professional discipline, alchemy
seemed far from anything scientic. The positivist outlooks of the day recapitulated
Enlightenment polemics, and early historians of science presented alchemy as not simply
nonscientic, but antiscientican obstacle to progress. George Sarton penned an ex-
tended rant against the extraordinary muddle of alchemy and labeled alchemists as all
fools or knaves, or more often a combination of both in various proportions. In 1952
Herbert Buttereld famously wrote that modern scholars who study alchemy end up
tinctured by the same sort of lunacy they set out to describe.
(Did he have particular
contemporaries in mind?) Alchemys separation from the history of science thus contin-
ued to deepen for over two centuries.
Remarkably, the speed of alchemys rehabilitation today rivals that of its eighteenth-
century demise. Historians of science are now paying unprecedented attention to alchemy,
and other academic elds are likewise acknowledging its wide inuence and cultural
relevance. Has the entire discipline of the history of science become tinctured by lunacy?
A brief retrospective on alchemys rehabilitationand the opposition to its revival
highlights developments in both our discipline and our wider understanding of science.
Several steps paved the way for alchemys revival. The careful researches of Julius
Ruska, Paul Kraus, and others addressed long-standing biobibliographical problems.
Walter Pagel and Allen Debus championed the importance of iatrochemistry, especially in
the cases of Paracelsus, Van Helmont, and their followers. Few scholars, however, dared
approach European chrysopoeia seriously. Among those who did, Frank Sherwood Tay-
lor, founding editor of Ambix, should be singled out. He wrote his 1952 The Alchemists
with great historical sensitivity, insight, and modesty, endeavoring to understand alche-
mists on their own terms at a time when most others relied on supercial or programmatic
assessments. Such foundational work did not, unfortunately, penetrate far into the eld.
Another key step was the revelation that canonical gures of the Scientic Revolution
pursued chrysopoeia seriously. This development threw steadfast believers in Enlighten-
Springer, 2007), pp. 122, esp. pp. 814; and Principe, Transmuting Chymistry into Chemistry: Eighteenth-
Century Chrysopoeia and Its Repudiation, in Neighbours and Territories: The Evolving Identity of Chemistry,
ed. Jose Ramon Bertomeu-Sanchez, Duncan Thorburn Burns, and Brigitte Van Tiggelen (Louvain-la-Neuve:
Memosciences, 2008), pp. 2134. See also John C. Powers, Ars sine arte: Nicholas Lemery and the End of
Alchemy in Eighteenth-Century France, Ambix, 1998, 45:163189.
See Lawrence M. Principe and William R. Newman, Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy,
in Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, ed. Newman and Anthony Grafton
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 385431.
George Sarton, Boyle and Bayle: The Sceptical Chemist and the Sceptical Historian, Chymia, 1950,
3:155189, on pp. 161162; and Herbert Buttereld, The Origins of Modern Science, 13001800 (New York:
Macmillan, 1952), p. 98.
FOCUSISIS, 102 : 2 (2011) 307
ment or positivist rhetoric on the horns of a dilemmaeither alchemy was more rational
than they believed or their heroes were less so. Newtons alchemy would not have become
a cause cele`bre of the 1970s and 1980s had eighteenth-century and subsequent genera-
tions not recrafted Newton into the very model of the modern scientist and presented
alchemy as something removed fromindeed, opposed toscience. Nor would Newtons
alchemy have been kept hidden for so long as an embarrassment. The nineteenth-century
biographer David Brewster recoiled at Newtons voluminous notes on the most con-
temptible alchemical poetry and his study of texts that were the obvious product of a
fool and a knave.
The commission that examined Newtons manuscripts for Cambridge
University concluded that the alchemical materials were of very little interest and his
theological work not of any great value. These unimportant materials were returned
to their owner and eventually bundled up into lots for the infamous Sothebys auction of
Study of the alchemical papers gathered by John Maynard Keynes and given to
Cambridge in 1946 was sporadic at rst and sometimes took the form of sifting nuggets
of positive chemistry from mystic alchemy using anachronistic or programmatic
criteriathe latter explained away or more often simply ignored.
But thanks to persistent
scholars like R. S. Westfall and B. J. T. Dobbsdespite the then-meager understanding
of alchemy they had to draw on and the criticism they received from more hidebound
historiansit is now common knowledge that Sir Isaac Newtons alchemy occupied him
as seriously as optics or mathematics, just as his theological pursuits rivaled his physics
in terms of the time and energy he spent on them.
Robert Boyle received similar treatment. The image crafted for him was that of a
Father of Modern Chemistry who cleared the way for modernity by sweeping away
misguided alchemy. When biographers examined Boyles papers in the 1740s, they
discarded many alchemical materials as worthless. Given the disrepute attached to al-
chemy by that time, it was not something they wanted to have connected to their hero.
Ironically, much of this materialsuch as the work on transmutational processes Boyle
called his Hermetick Legacyhad already been pilfered shortly after his death in 1691,
but then probably on account of its perceived value. The surviving material documents
unambiguously Boyles lifelong chrysopoetic activities, his search for the philosophers
stone, and his attempts to contact adepti.
Once again, some authors (but not all)
David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, 2 vols. (Edinburgh,
1855), Vol. 2, pp. 374375. Note how Sarton parroted Brewsters phrasing in Boyle and Bayle.
A Catalogue of the Portsmouth Collection of Books and Papers (Cambridge, 1888), p. xix. On Newtons
papers see Rob Iliffe, A Connected System? The Snare of a Beautiful Hand and the Unity of Newtons
Archive, in Archives of the Scientic Revolution, ed. Michael Hunter (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998), pp.
137157; and Peter Spargo, Sotheby, Keynes, and Yahuda: The 1936 Sale of Newtons Manuscripts, in The
Investigation of Difcult Things: Essays on Newton and the History of the Exact Sciences, ed. Peter Harman and
Alan Shapiro (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 115134.
The tendency is visible in the 1888 Catalogue of the Portsmouth Collection of Books and Papers, p. xix; it
is clear in Marie Boas and A. Rupert Hall, Newtons Chemical Experiments, Archives Internationales
dHistoire des Sciences, 1958, 11:113152.
Richard S. Westfall, The Role of Alchemy in Newtons Career, in Reason, Experiment, and Mysticism in
the Scientic Revolution, ed. M. L. Righini Bonelli and William R. Shea (London: Macmillan, 1975), pp.
189232 (see Marie Boas Halls critical response, Newtons Voyage on the Strange Seas of Alchemy, ibid.,
pp. 239246); and Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newtons Alchemy; or, The Hunting of the
Greene Lyon (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975).
Lawrence M. Principe, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton Univ. Press, 1998), esp. pp. 1126. On the fate of the papers see Michael Hunter and Principe, The
Lost Papers of Robert Boyle, Annals of Science, 2003, 60:269311; on Boyles biographies see Hunter, Robert
Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (London: Pickering, 1994).
308 FOCUSISIS, 102 : 2 (2011)
endeavored to ignore or explain away Boyles alchemy, simultaneously elevating his 1661
Sceptical Chymist into an epoch-making book, a death warrant that struck at the
root of alchemy (it wasnt and it didnt).
As with Newton, revealing Boyles alchemy
was sometimes met with resistance or even outrageI recall being yelled at during an
international conference in the 1990s for defaming Boyle and more recently have had
my claims about Boyle and alchemy attributed to the use of hallucinatory drugs.
Current scholarship now removes any grounds for surprise (or horror) over the likes of
Boyle or Newton studying alchemy. Further research continues to add to the roster of
well-known gures who seriously pursued chrysopoeia. Now that we recognize alchemy
as part of natural philosophy, we should instead be surprised if early modern thinkers
interested in the constitution and manipulation of matter had not studied or pursued
chrysopoeia. Hand-in-hand with historiographical developments beyond earlier great
men narratives, historians of science are revealing how ubiquitous chymical practice
including chrysopoetic endeavorsreally was. Alchemy extends from well-known gures
to a host of lesser-known characters in and out of academic, medical, courtly, and private
settings and across the whole social and intellectual spectrum of projectors, entrepreneurs,
reners, miners, and others, all the way to brewers, shoemakers, and drapers.
Indeed, one
of the most important features of the new historiography of alchemy is the recovery of its
diversity and dynamism.
Part of the rhetorical strategy of the eighteenth century, and of
debunkers of alchemy ever since, was to lump all chrysopoeians together, enabling the
criticism (or parody) of a part to be extended to the whole. In 1722, for example, Geoffroy
cited the most celebrated instances of transmutational fraud and allowed them to be
extrapolated to the whole of chrysopoeia. Subsequent writers routinely picked marginal
gures or ideas as representative of the whole or lumped excised snippets from authors
widely separated in time and cultural context together into an undifferentiated pastiche.
Interestingly, authors from opposite ends of the spectrumpositivists and occultists
converged on this point. For the former, alchemy was distinguished from progressive
science by being static, an unchanging body of inherited ideas based on a priori reason-
ings and unresponsive to observations. The latter, encouraged by the notion of continuity
promoted by ancient wisdom narratives prominent in esoteric circles, crafted all-
embracing, transtemporal denitions of alchemy. Both viewpoints have been raised even
recently in objection against the new historiography of alchemy.
Certainly, some chryso-
poetic authors facilitated such treatment by rhetorically claiming a unity to the alchemical
E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1957), p. 273.
One footnote cannot encompass the outstanding work that displays the breadth of alchemy, but see Bruce
T. Moran, The Alchemical World of the German Court (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1991); Tara E. Nummedal, Alchemy
and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2007); and Pamela H. Smith, The
Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press,
Lawrence M. Principe, Diversity in Alchemy: The Case of Gaston Claveus DuClo, a Scholastic
Mercurialist Chrysopoeian, in Reading the Book of Nature: The Other Side of the Scientic Revolution, ed.
Allen G. Debus and Michael Walton (Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Press, 1998), pp. 181200; and
Principe, The Alchemies of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton: Alternate Approaches and Divergent Deploy-
ments, in Rethinking the Scientic Revolution, ed. Margaret J. Osler (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,
2000), pp. 201220.

tienne-Francois Geoffroy, Des supercheries concernant la pierre philosophale, Memoires de lAcademie

Royale des Sciences, 1722, 24:6170. For an example of the continued deployment of such outdated notions see Brian
Vickers, The New Historiography and the Limits of Alchemy, Ann. Sci., 2008, 65:127156; see likewise the
trenchant critique of such notions in William R. Newman, Brian Vickers on Alchemy and the Occult: A Response,
Perspectives on Science, 2009, 17:482506.
FOCUSISIS, 102 : 2 (2011) 309
quest (all the sages say one thing) and by reinterpreting earlier authors to support their
own ideas, thereby creating a supercial impression of uniformity.
But careful contextual readings of alchemical texts now continue to reveal that alchemy
was never monolithic or static. Early modern European alchemy alone displays a stag-
gering diversity of theories, practices, and purposes: Scholastic and anti-Aristotelian,
Paracelsian and anti-Paracelsian, Hermetic, Neoplatonic, mechanistic, vitalistic, and
moreplus virtually every combination and compromise thereof. Arguments ourished
over the starting material(s) for the philosophers stone, just as diverse theories drawing
on substantial forms, semina, particles, principles (one, two, three, four, or vedepend-
ing on the author), and other concepts abounded to explain its transmutational abilities and
the nature of chymical change. Experimental results and observations fed into both theory
and practice. Notwithstanding the caricature of alchemists single-mindedly seeking the
philosophers stone, legions of hopeful chrysopoeians in fact collected, traded, and
experimented with a myriad of processes for less potent transmuting agents known as
particulars, and most practitioners diversied their activitiesfor practical economic
reasons, if nothing elseto include pharmaceutical and commercial production. Such
diversity renders it impossible to make blanket statements about the content and inuence
of alchemy without careful qualication and guarantees that we will have much to learn
about alchemy for many years to come.
Another key step toward resituating alchemy in the history of science required getting
a handle on what alchemists actually did every day. The enigmatic character of alchemical
texts seemed to defy understanding. Rhetorically motivated parodies from the eighteenth
century or misguided interpretations from the nineteenth and twentieth lled the resultant
vacuum, providing a consensus that, whatever alchemists did, it was neither chemistry nor
scientic and in some cases was not even related to the material world. Of course, many
scholars did enumerate specic contributions from alchemy, often by identifying the
earliest appearance of some substance or technique.
Such endeavors were valuable but
could do little to rehabilitate alchemy as part of the history of science, both because these
isolated rsts t easily with the notion that alchemists stumbled on things more or less
by accident and because the extraction of such positive nuggets left the bulk and fabric of
alchemical writings, theories, and practices, especially chrysopoetic ones, unexplained.
Thus it was necessary to show that apparently incomprehensible, seemingly fanciful, or
metaphorically expressed texts actually rested on practical chemical foundations. The
desire to know what alchemists actually did in practice led meinitially back in the early
1980sto try to replicate their results, to see what they saw (and often enough smell what
they smelled, although I continue to draw the line at tasting what they tasted). Eventually,
many processes that seemed implausible were found to work once impurities present in
early modern starting materials were taken into account. Boyles transmutation of gold
into silver worked exactly as he described, even if his silver turned out to be silvery
antimony. Even some of the most bizarre alchemical imagery supposedly hiding routes
toward the philosophers stone, once decoded, yielded surprising and workable processes
that must have required astonishingly well-developed experimental techniques.
E.g., John Maxson Stillman, The Story of Early Chemistry (New York: Appleton, 1924), rpt. as The Story
of Alchemy and Early Chemistry (New York: Dover, 1960); and J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, 4 vols.
(London: Macmilllan, 19611970).
Lawrence M. Principe, Chemical Translation and the Role of Impurities in Alchemy: Examples from Basil
Valentines Triumph-Wagen, Ambix, 1987, 34:2130; Principe, The Gold Process: Directions in the Study of
Robert Boyles Alchemy, in Alchemy Revisited, ed. Z. R. W. M. van Martels (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp.
310 FOCUSISIS, 102 : 2 (2011)
ingly, just as the revelation of Boyles and Newtons alchemical endeavors did not always
nd a warm welcome, neither did these results or the very technique of replicating
experimentsby either die-hard alchemical skeptics or exponents of the then-prominent
sociological schools. It is particularly encouraging, therefore, to witness the recent interest
in historical replications, not just in alchemy but across the history of science, as a tool for
increasing our historical understanding. Together with fresh understanding of the theo-
retical systems chrysopoeians developed, and the clear-minded interplay between theory
and practice, these new ndings proved that alchemists could not be written off as
fabricators of imagined processes, mere empirics, or frauds.
While prevailing attitudes toward alchemy (formerly among historians, and still today
among much of the general public) required that pioneers in the eld emphasize how
alchemy was truly part of the history of sciencein short, opposing the routine label of
pseudoscienceit would obviously create an unsatisfactory view of alchemys richness,
character, and context to reduce it to some sort of protochemistry. But I know of no
modern scholar who maintains that alchemy is part of science in the modern sense. The
point is that it was fully part of contemporaneous natural philosophy. This important
distinction can be too easily obscured by an automatic usage nowadays of natural
philosophy as a historiographically correct substitute term for science without
adequate reection on the difference of meaning. Over half a century ago, Walter Pagel,
defending the study of topics that positivistic historians of the day saw as rubbish,
emphasized that early modern thinkers pursued Philosophia Naturalis, dened suc-
cinctly as nature in her entirety, cosmology in its widest sensethat is a mixture of
Science, Theology, and Metaphysics.
In the eyes of earlier generations, the theological,
religious, and metaphysical content of alchemical texts disqualied them from being part
of the scientic tradition, even while those same eyes overlooked similar features in
early modern physics, astronomy, or natural historyindeed, in all of early modern
science. Alchemical textslike other contemporaneous natural philosophical textsare
implicitly structured on the vision of a tightly interconnected cosmos of God, man, and
nature that is full of meaning, purpose, and symbol. In this context chymical transforma-
tions frequently and easily carried linkages for their authors with ideas in theology,
literature, mythology, and other elds that since the eighteenth century have been con-
sidered extraneous. The shift away from such comprehensive perspectives is clear in
Boerhaaves oration, for example; as a pedagogical reformer and Calvinist biblical
literalist, he was horried by the metaphorical use of Scripture to support specic
laboratory processes and by the linkage of chymical ideas to Christian doctrines. The key
rolesometimes explicit, always implicitof theology and metaphysics in alchemy does
not disqualify it as part of the history of science any more than these same features in, for
example, Kepler or Newton would disqualify their work.
Indeed, the rehabilitation of alchemy helps broaden our understanding of what is meant
by science, its development, and its evolving place in society. Alchemys exile resulted
200205; and Principe, Apparatus and Reproducibility in Alchemy, in Instruments and Experimentation in the
History of Chemistry, ed. Frederic L. Holmes and Trevor Levere (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), pp.
5574. Detailed descriptions of decoding and replicating transmutational and other chymical processes appear
in my forthcoming The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, in press).
Walter Pagel, The Vindication of Rubbish, originally published in the Middlesex Hospital Journal (1945),
rpt. in Religion and Neoplatonism in Renaissance Medicine (London: Variorum, 1985), pp. 114, on p. 11; see
the similar denition of natural philosophy as a topic in which physics, metaphysics, and theology could meet
and negotiate their claims in Dennis Des Chene, Physiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and
Cartesian Thought (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1996), p. 3.
FOCUSISIS, 102 : 2 (2011) 311
from a conscious redrawing of the boundaries of science, and the modern resistance to
assertions of alchemys importance came from proponents of a narrow view of what
counted as science. This view was shaped by eighteenth-century rhetoric and enhanced by
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century positivism, progressivism, and a priori or norma-
tive philosophical or political formulations about science. Alchemy represented the
other, a convenient foil against which chemistry or science in general could be set off.
Alchemys estrangement exemplies how science does not always develop by means of
cold reason or demonstrable experiment. Transmutational alchemy, vilied by declama-
tion rather than disproved by demonstration, was ostracized for the sake of professional
expedience at a time in which there was no way to know that its goals were physically
unobtainable. Chemists of the day had the problem of their social status and reputation to
solve, and the public sacrice of transmutational alchemy was the way they chose to solve
itcleansing their eld and dening themselves as reputable by marking out a disrep-
utable other. An analogous dynamic explains the antagonism of some twentieth-century
historians and scientists toward claims for alchemys importance and its connection to
major gures. They were invested in a particular foundation myth of science. To maintain
it, they needed alchemy to be something other, something in opposition to which
modern, rational, experimental science could dene itself and upon which they could in
turn dene themselves. Hence the intensely personal nature of some of their attacks. There
was no place for alchemy in accounts of the canonized heroes of modern science. A
similar incredulity or dismissal (and often by the same individuals) sometimes greeted the
fact that religion was a crucial motivating force behind the Scientic Revolution and that
our heroes from the period were almost invariably committed Christians.
Over the past
fty years, insistence on the importance of alchemy (and theology) has broadened our
disciplines vision and enhanced our understanding of the ever-evolving thing we call
Alchemys exclusion illustrates strategic redenitions of science, while its rehabilitation
points to the contextual nature of those denitions. One gift offered by the history of
science is the recognition that science is a far messier process than simple models, wishful
thinking, or programmatic philosophies will allow. It collects elements from unexpected
sources and synthesizes them in unexpected and unpredictable ways. It is never a
mechanical or impersonal processnor would we want it to be. While the laws of nature
exist independently of us, the ways we choose to conceive of them, to explore or not to
explore them, to describe or not to describe themthat is to say, scienceis a very human
affair, lled with all the complexities and simplicities, errors and insights, pettiness and
nobility that customarily attend human activity. And, to be sure, alchemy forms an
important part of that story.
For the case of religion see Margaret J. Osler, Religion and the Changing Historiography of the Scientic
Revolution, in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, ed. Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and
Stephen Pumfrey (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010), pp. 7186.
312 FOCUSISIS, 102 : 2 (2011)