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300-304 Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/660138 . Accessed: 04/07/2011 06:40
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FOCUS: ALCHEMY AND THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE
By Bruce T. Moran*
Alchemy is part of the cultural experience of early modern Europe and yet has had to overcome problems of demarcation to be considered relevant to the history of science. This essay considers historiographical and methodological issues that have affected the gradual demarginalization of alchemy among attempts to explain, and ﬁnd things out about, nature. As an area of historical study, alchemy relates to the history of science as part of an ensemble of practices that explored the natural world through natural philosophy and speculative traditions and by functioning as a nexus of social and intellectual life.
ISTORIANS OF SCIENCE HAVE WORKED HARD to restore the indigenous status of subjects sometimes cut off from the conditions that created them. Moving away from “big picture” narratives that vaulted from one individual mountaintop to another, we are now alert in framing the history of science to what John Dewey observed in connection to art—namely, that “mountain peaks do not ﬂoat unsupported; they do not even just rest on the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations.”1 The cultural earth of the period later labeled “early modern” linked ideas, practices, passions, and vocations in a variety of attempts to know the world. In so doing, alchemy made up part of the era’s cultural clay. As both a textual and a practical domain, it combined representation with performance, spiritual experience with material agency, speculative philosophy with the examination of “empirical particulars.” Alchemy supplied a nexus for intersecting ﬁelds of knowledge and techniques of inquiry and brought together as well broad elements of social and intellectual life that connected the
* Department of History, University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada 89557; firstname.lastname@example.org. This Focus section was organized by Bruce T. Moran. 1 John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934; New York: Perigee, 2005), p. 2. Isis, 2011, 102:300 –304 ©2011 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved. 0021-1753/2011/10202-0004$10.00 300
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dynamics of gender, art, patronage, and commerce to the processes of knowledge making.2 Nevertheless, even while allowing for a more pluralistic view of what should count as relevant to the construction of natural knowledge in a period of enormous change, alchemy has had to struggle against its own historiography in ﬁnding a secure place within the history of science. Part of the problem has been its very earthiness. Things, Samuel Johnson observed, were “the sons of heaven,” but words, he declared, were “the daughters of earth.” Beyond the universal problem of representation versus reality, the words of alchemists, many believed, posed special, earthbound difﬁculties, if not obstructions, to “scientiﬁc” inquiry. Alchemy’s terminology seemed to reﬂect an epistemology that was secretive, subjective, and fundamentally noncommunicable. The eighteenth century condemned the entire subject as irrational and esoteric, and early writers in the history of science followed suit. In the 1950s and 1960s the subject was generally denounced as an obstacle to correct thinking, part of the “mystical jungle” of a premodern garden grown to seed. George Sarton described the difference between practical alchemists and practical chemists as one of purpose. Alchemists were after the philosophers’ stone and became interested in other things only when they failed to produce gold. Allen Debus fought for alchemy’s relevance outside its own milieu, arguing for its signiﬁcance to the “Scientiﬁc Revolution” via the tradition of Neoplatonic cosmology and an association with the discipline of chemical medicine.3 Nevertheless, the knowledge tree of history of science remained resistant to adding an extra branch. Until 2002 the annual Isis bibliography compartmentalized alchemy as “Pseudo-science,” a demarcation with which no historical actor self-identiﬁed and one as problematic for historians of astrology and natural magic as for historians of later knowledge constructs like mesmerism and phrenology. Even the apparent alchemical interests of one of the most signiﬁcant ﬁgures in the history of science seemed at ﬁrst to make little difference, partly because, when deﬁned as mystical philosophy, alchemy appeared at odds with informed views of matter. Charles Gillispie, one of the founders of the history of science as a professional ﬁeld, told his students at Princeton that those who thought Isaac Newton had been interested in alchemy were mistaken. How could Newton have been interested in such a subject, since he was interested in corpuscles?4 But it was precisely here, as historians brought to light the extent
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2 A few recent examples, limited to sources in English, include Tara E. Nummedal, “Practical Alchemy and Commercial Exchange in the Holy Roman Empire,” in Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, ed. Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (New York/London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 201–222; Nummedal, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2007); Smith, The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994); Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientiﬁc Revolution (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2004); Ku-ming (Kevin) Chang, “Georg Ernst Stahl’s Alchemical Publications: Anachronism, Reading Market, and a Scientiﬁc Lineage Redeﬁned,” in New Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry, ed. Lawrence M. Principe (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), pp. 23– 43; Deborah E. Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientiﬁc Revolution (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2007); Jessica Rankin “Becoming as Expert” Tractitioner-Court Experimentalism and the Medical Skills of Anna of Saxony (1532–1585), Isis, 2007, 98:23–53; and Simon Werrett, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2010). 3 Charles Coulston Gillispie, The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientiﬁc Ideas (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960), p. 205 (“mystical jungle”); George Sarton, “Ancient Alchemy and Abstract Art,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 1954, 11:157–173, on p. 161; and Allen G. Debus, “Alchemy and the Historian of Science,” History of Science, 1967, 6:128 –137. See also Debus, The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2 vols. (New York: Science History Publications, 1977); and Debus, The Chemical Promise: Experiment and Mysticism in the Chemical Philosophy, 1550 –1800: Selected Essays (Sagamore Beach, Mass.: Science History Publications, 2006). 4 Gillispie, Edge of Objectivity, p. 122.
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to which alchemy affected the views of Newton, Boyle, and other ﬁgures already caught up in the metaphor of “Scientiﬁc Revolution,” that alchemy began to be taken more seriously as a potent cultural force inﬂuencing attempts to understand the operations of nature.5 More precise readings of alchemical texts uncovered communicable and replicable procedures and brought to light theoretical structures linked to medieval traditions of alchemy that were consistent with later assumptions about the particulate nature of matter.6 Of major consequence in the reevaluation of alchemy’s relevance to the history of science have been the historiographical studies of Lawrence Principe and William Newman. Their analyses pointed to the eighteenth century as the source of an epistemological space that distanced the subject from chemistry and aligned it with deceptive and secretive arts like witchcraft and magic. Alchemy, in these terms, presumed disorder, and part of the rehabilitation of alchemy in the history of science has been not only to recognize the origin of this distinction but to confront it as an a priori depiction. A more precise reading of early modern alchemical authors tied alchemy and chemistry more closely together, and in recent writings the two have been joined by means of the rhetorical binding agent of “chymistry.”7 Moreover, studying the indigenous uses of terms like “alchemia” and “chemia” also revealed that in some settings it was alchemy that possessed the status of an art, while chemistry (i.e., chemia) did not.8 In contrast to what Enlightenment writers later perceived, prominent authors of an earlier period insisted that the processes of
5 Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy; or, “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon” (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975); Dobbs, The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991); Richard S. Westfall, “The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Career,” in Reason, Experiment, and Mysticism in the Scientiﬁc Revolution, ed. M. L. Righini Bonelli and William Shea (New York: Science History Publications, 1975), pp. 189 –232; Karin Figala, “Newton as Alchemist,” Hist. Sci., 1977, 15:102–137; Figala, “Die exakte Alchemie von Isaac Newton,” Verhandlungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Basel, 1984, 94:155–228; Michael Hunter, “Alchemy, Magic, and Moralism in the Thought of Robert Boyle,” British Journal for the History of Science, 1990, 23:387– 410; Lawrence M. Principe, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, ´ 1998); Frank Greiner, ed., Aspects de la tradition alchimique au XVIIe siecle (Paris: S.E.H.A., 1998); Michel ` Bougard, ed., Alchemy, Chemistry, and Pharmacy (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002); and William R. Newman and Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2002). 6 William R. Newman, “The Alchemical Sources of Robert Boyle’s Corpuscular Philosophy,” Annals of Science, 1996, 53:567–585; Newman, “Experimental Corpuscular Theory in Aristotelian Alchemy: From Geber to Sennert,” in Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theory, ed. Christoph Luthy, John ¨ Murdoch, and Newman (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 291–329; Newman, Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientiﬁc Revolution (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2006); Antonio Clericuzio, Elements, Principles, and Corpuscles: A Study of Atomism and Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000); Jole Shackelford, A Philosophical Path for Paracelsian Medicine: The Ideas, Intellectual Context, and Inﬂuence of Petrus Severinus, 1540 –1602 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2004); Margaret Garber, “Chymical Wonders of Light: J. Marci’s Seventeenth-Century Bohemian Optics,” Early Science and Medicine, 2005, 10:478 –509; and Lawrence M. 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. 55–74. 7 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. 385– 431; Newman and Principe, “Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake,” Early Sci. Med., 1998, 3:32– 65; Newman, “From Alchemy to ‘Chymistry,’” in The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 3: Early Modern Science, ed. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 497–517; and Principe, ed., Chymists and Chymistry: Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Modern Chemistry (Sagamore Beach, Mass.: Science History Publications, 2007). 8 Bruce T. Moran, Andreas Libavius and the Transformation of Alchemy: Separating Chemical Cultures with Polemical Fire (Sagamore Beach, Mass.: Science History Publications, 2007).
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alchemia were clear and communicable (once one understood their language and references), while the counsels of chemia (linked to Paracelsian traditions of chemical medicine) were obscure. The professor of medicine at Jena, Zacharias Brendel (the younger) (1592–1638), dramatically underscored the situation when he decided in a text later edited by Werner Rolﬁnek, that chemia needed to be restored to the form of an art. He looked for help in what the alchemical author known as Theobald von Hoghelande had written about transmutation in a book aimed at students of alchemy. Chemia, Brendel knew, suffered from a bad reputation. That is why some physicians felt like vomiting at the very mention of the name. Making chemia an art required that it take up the methods of alchemy and attain professional status within medicine. Brendel was not kind to reluctant physicians. Those who refused chemia’s deserved place among the medical arts, he urged—referring to a suggestion made earlier by Thomas Moffett (1553–1604)—should be hung up, smoked, and salted like herring.9 Even as an art, chemia, Brendel observed, was not the scientia scientiarum that some had claimed. Rather, it was, as he called it, a habitus; and the habitus chimicus was made up of practices.10 Indeed, historical alchemy has offered an extremely fertile area for inquiry into various sorts of practice in the history of science, mediating between people, the social world, objects, and texts. As one of many “sites of encounter,” it affected varieties of personal agency while bringing together the tacit dimensions of knowing how and knowing that. In regard to practice, some experiences are shared, and paying attention to the various practices of alchemy offers help in making the scientiﬁc cultures of the early modern and modern worlds a little less remote.11 When practices pass through “the alembic of personal experience,” familiarity ensues.12 For this reason, Primo Levi suggested that chemists (or ex-chemists) of his generation could recognize one another simply by looking at the palms of each others’ hands. “The majority,” he recounted, “have a small professional, highly speciﬁc scar,” obtained when students inevitably broke glass tubes while forcing them through cork or rubber plugs. “Here, in the palm of the working hand, was our mark: the mark of chemists still to some extent alchemists.” Levi recalled that, “despite the drawbacks,” practices like these “nurtured an intense camaraderie linked to the common work,” so that each evening one left the lab “with a sensation of having ‘learned how to do something,’ which,” he added, “life teaches, is different from having ‘learned something.’”13 This particular Isis Focus section is made up of separate historical foci that take up different aspects of alchemy’s relevance in reconﬁguring the dynamics of natural inquiry in the early modern era. In these essays, alchemy blends categories later made distinct, like
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9 Theobald de Hoghelande, De Alchemiae Difﬁcultatibus Liber (Coloniae, 1594), Prooemium, in Jo. Jacobi Mangeti . . . Bibliotheca chemica curiosa (Geneva, 1702), Vol. 1, pp. 336 –368; and Zachariae Brendelii . . . Chimia in artis formam redacta . . . (1630; Jena: Typis Blasii Lobensteins, sumtibus Johannis Reiffenbergeri, 1641), p. 5. 10 On the habitus chimicus see Zachariae Brendelii . . . Chimia in artis formam redacta, pp. 9 –10. 11 On practice theory see Stephen Turner, The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1994); Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1995); and Pickering, “Practice and Posthumanism: Social Theory and History of Agency,” in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. Theodore Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 163–174. 12 Dewey, Art as Experience (cit. n. 1), p. 86 (“alembic of personal experience”). 13 Primo Levi, “The Mark of the Chemist,” in Other People’s Trades, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit, 1989), pp. 97–101. Regarding attention to the various practices of alchemy see, e.g., Bruce T. Moran, Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientiﬁc Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2005).
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the science of matter and the science of life. The section raises questions about the instability of terms, especially the meaning of “natural philosophy”; and it gives prominent place to the practices, both procedural and cultural, that underscore the relevance of experience of various sorts in processes linking accommodation and innovation. These essays do not seek a uniﬁed vision of the relation between alchemy and the history of science. Rather, each presents us with an individual perspective of associations and meanings that ﬁt what to most will be a foreign genre into a broadened acquaintance with the natural world. In this regard, Lawrence Principe directs our attention to terminological issues that have wrenched alchemy out of its own environment. He emphasizes the complications that rhetorical and professional posturing and the reliance on a priori deﬁnitions of science, often grounded in positivism, have created for the integration of alchemy and chemistry. William Newman highlights speciﬁc features of the recent historiography of alchemy that challenge persistent stereotypes in the history of science and offers ways of integrating scholastic and nonscholastic interpretations of matter through analytical insights gained by means of separate, yet allied, laboratory procedures. Historical alchemy becomes a means to gain greater insight into the role of experiment and the possibilities of understanding physical matter in the premodern world. Kevin Chang turns our attention to the fraught relationship between alchemy and vitalism; he also emphasizes alchemy’s role in bridging, as well as establishing, intellectual divisions in science. Some alchemists, he shows, studied matter at the same time they studied life. However, the claims of Georg Ernst Stahl (1660 –1734) not only drew a distinction between “lifeless matter and the living being” but deﬁned a more distant relationship between chemistry and medicine. Since alchemy was never bound by a single deﬁnition, Tara Nummedal underscores the varieties of meaning attached to alchemical practice within distinct social spaces as vernacular alchemists competed for advantage within the alchemical marketplace. She thus identiﬁes alchemical trajectories that maneuvered between intellectual and technical domains and were guided as well by commercial motives related to trade and the production of goods. These are, then, considerations in miniature that approach the relation between historical alchemy and the history of science from different angles. In so doing they offer a multifaceted depiction of ways in which alchemy, in theory and practice, merged with social, cultural, and intellectual processes of explaining and making use of the world in the European early modern era.
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