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Studies in History

and Philosophy
of Science
Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

Chemistry in the French tradition of philosophy

of science: Duhem, Meyerson, Metzger and
Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent
Department de Philosophie, Universite Paris X, 200 Avenue de la Republique, F 92001 Nanterre, France

Received 22 December 2004; received in revised form 12 May 2005


At rst glance twentieth-century philosophy of science seems virtually to ignore chemistry. How-
ever this paper argues that a focus on chemistry helped shape the French philosophical reections
about the aims and foundations of scientic methods. Despite patent philosophical disagreements
between Duhem, Meyerson, Metzger and Bachelard it is possible to identify the continuity of a tra-
dition that is rooted in their common interest for chemistry. Two distinctive features of the French
tradition originated in the attention to what was going on in chemistry.
French philosophers of science, in stark contrast with analytic philosophers, considered history of
science as the necessary basis for understanding how the human intellect or the scientic spirit tries
to grasp the world. This constant reference to historical data was prompted by a erce controversy
about the chemical revolution, which brought the issue of the nature of scientic changes centre
A second strikingalbeit largely unnoticedfeature of the French tradition is that matter theo-
ries are a favourite subject with which to characterize the ways of science. Duhem, Meyerson, Metz-
ger and Bachelard developed most of their views about the methods and aims of science through a
discussion of matter theories. Just as the concern with history was prompted by a controversy
between chemists, the focus on matter was triggered by a scientic controversy about atomism in
the late nineteenth-century.
2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: France; Epistemology; Chemistry; Revolution; Atomism; Realism.

E-mail address: bensaude@u-paris10.fr (B. Bensaude-Vincent).

0039-3681/$ - see front matter 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
628 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

1. Introduction

For most twentieth-century philosophers, science basically meant physics (Schummer,

2003). Their picture of science has focused on a few episodes such as Galileos law of fall-
ing bodies, Newtons synthesis, relativity theory and quantum mechanics. This is true for
the American tradition from logical positivism to post-positivism. By contrast the French
philosophical tradition, which was characterized by its focus on positive science, as Henri
Bergson pointed out in 1915 (Bergson, 1915, p. 31; Lavelle, 1942, p. 242) did not just echo
the dramatic changes that occurred in physics.1 Noticeably, the French language does not
presuppose that there is one single and uniform philosophy of science since it uses the plu-
ral in the phrase philosophie des sciences. Each science has a chance to shape a philo-
sophical identity of its own. Although mathematics and physics were and still remain
prominent concerns, chemistry played a signicant role in the French tradition.

2. Divergent paths on chemical backgrounds

A number of scientists-turned-philosophers had a background in chemistry and shared

a longstanding interest in this discipline. Pierre Duhem was a physical chemist who aimed
at unifying chemistry and physics. Early in his career, while he was shaping his holistic the-
sis and rejecting inductive methods between 1892 and 1894, he turned his attention to the
philosophy of chemistry (Brenner, 1990, pp. 3053). He rst approached chemistry with a
paper on the chemical formulas based on atomic hypothesis used by contemporary chem-
ists where he developed his view that theories are mere classications of phenomena aimed
at describing rather than explaining them. (Duhem, 1892) Then in 1900 and 1901, he pub-
lished a series of ve papers dealing with the history of chemistry (Duhem, 19001901),
which he bundled together in a volume Le mixte et la combinaison chimique. Note that this
volume entirely devoted to the history and philosophy of chemistry published in 1902 has
only been translated into English one century later, in 2002.
Emile Meyerson was trained as a chemist in Germany, by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen in
Heidelberg, peculiarly. He started a career as a chemist for a French manufacture of dye-
stus. He soon gave up this industrial career to devote himself to philosophy. As he later
confessed, his philosophical interest stemmed from reading Hermann Kopps Geschichte
der Chemie, which he considered as the most complete, the most penetrating and really
the best organized and clearest exposition of a science (Meyerson, 1911, p. 2; my transla-
tion).2 His earlier papers published in the 1890s were dealing with case studies in the his-
tory of early modern chemistry and alchemy (Meyerson, 1884, 1888, 1890, 1891a,b).

To be sure Gaston Bachelard and Alexandre Koyre were convinced that the crisis of reason generated by
relativity theory and quantum mechanics had determined their epistemological choice (Castelli-Gattinara, 1998).
Koyre confessed that those two new physics theories, added to the previous crisis of foundations in mathematics,
sharpened his understanding of scientic change (Koyre, 1966, pp. 1415). Bachelard criticized the previous
generation because he was convinced that a new scientic spirit had emerged in 1905 with Einsteins relativity
theory and quantum mechanics and he set himself up as spokesman of this radical break in science. However, this
paper will argue that the so called rupture did not bring about a radical break in philosophy of science.
It is dicult to know if Meyerson refered to Hermann Kopps 184347, Geschiichte der Chemie,
Braunschveicg, Vieweg or to Kopps second history of chemistry, D.e Entwickelung der Chemie in der neueren
Zert, 1873, Munich, Oldenbourg, where he gave a balanced view of Lavoisiers achievements in order to settle the
controversy about the founder of chemistry.
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 629

Unlike Duhem he never published an entire volume devoted to chemistry. However he

extensively discussed chemistry in his major works, Identite et realite (1908), De lexplica-
tion dans les sciences (1921) and Du cheminement de la pensee (1931).
Bachelard himself, who started his career as a secondary teacher of physics and chem-
istry, did not forget about chemistry. Not only did his reading of early modern chemists in
the town library of Dijon determine his view of a prescientic era, but he paid a lot of
attention to modern chemistry as well. He devoted an entire book to it, Le pluralisme cohe-
rent de la chimie moderne in 1932 (not translated into English). He later returned to the
subject in La philosophie du non (1940) and in Le materialisme rationnel (1953).
Helene Metzger received university training in crystallography and during World War I
she wrote La genese de la science des cristaux, a narrative of the emergence of crystallog-
raphy in the eighteenth century (1918). She later devoted herself to detailed historical stud-
ies in the history of chemistry, especially early modern chemistry (Metzger, 1969 [1923]
and Metzger, 1974 [1930]). Whereas Duhem, Meyerson and Bachelard cultivated a histor-
ical approach to the philosophy of science, she rather developed a philosophical method
in the history of science, the title of one of her papers published in 1937.
To what extent did the focus on chemistry shape the French philosophical reections
about the aims and foundations of scientic methods? This paper tries to shed a new light
on the French tradition of philosophy of science by pointing to a possible connection
between the controversies that divided the chemical community by the end of the nine-
teenth century and two distinctive features of French philosophy of science: an early inter-
est in scientic change, especially in the impact of scientic revolutions, on the one hand,
and a focus on the issue of matter, on the other hand.
History of science was ourishing in France at the turn of the twentieth century. The
positivist movement initiated by Comte, who recommended a historical approach to the
sciences, led to the establishment of history of science as an academic discipline with
the creation of a chair at the College de France in 1892, then one at the Sorbonne in
1909. As Anastasios Brenner convincingly argued, at the turn of the twentieth century
French philosophers of science were struggling with the heritage of Auguste Comtes pos-
itivism (Brenner, 2003). While a number of themHenri Poincare, Pierre Duhem, Gus-
tave Milhaud, Edouard Leroypromoted a conventionalist philosophy labelled new
positivism (nouveau positivisme) others such as Meyerson and Bachelard sought to over-
come the positivistic tradition.
Hence their divergent philosophical choices: Duhem is known as a positivist and anti-
realist philosopher who clearly demarcated science from metaphysics and religion, whereas
Meyerson is famous for his robust realism and his claim that there is no science without
ontology. Bachelard rejected both Duhems positivism and Meyersons realism and pro-
moted a technical materialism. Metzger was less polemical with Duhem and Meyerson
as she managed to nd a way of her own between anthropologists, philosophers and his-
torians. In view of such disagreements is it possible to identify the continuity of a tradition
that would be rooted in their common interest for chemistry?

3. No philosophy of science without history

French philosophers of science, in stark contrast with analytic philosophers, considered

history of science as the necessary basis for understanding how science works, or more pre-
cisely, how the human intellect or the scientic spirit tries to grasp the world. This constant
630 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

reference to historical episodes can be traced back to Auguste Comtes Cours de philoso-
phie positive and Augustin Cournot who used history in the service of their philosophical
purposes. Duhem and Meyerson did the same but they were content with glimpses on past
episodes. They both cultivated history and became erudite in order to study epistemolog-
ical puzzles. For instance, although Meyerson clearly stated that for him historical
research was not an end but a means, (Meyerson, 1930 [1908], p. 9) he confessed that
the study of pre-Lavoisieran chemistry raised a fundamental question about the nature
of science: It is impossible not to feel that it is a veritable science, in the most rigorous
sense. However this science seems, at rst glance, totally dierent from ours (ibid.).
Duhems and Meyersons investigations in early modern chemistry were prompted by a
erce controversy about the chemical revolution which brought the issue of the nature
of scientic changes centre stage.
When Thomas Kuhn, in the preface to The structure of scientic revolutions, acknowl-
edged the inuence of two French authors, he did not refer to the mainstream tradition.3
Koyre had invited him to read Meyerson and Metzger, two outsiders who were deeply
concerned with the phlogiston theory that prevailed before modern chemistry. The reason
for their inuence on him is that they had developed a specic way of dealing with past
and obsolete science.
This historiographical attitude subverting the common standard condemnation of early
modern science emerged in the context of a erce controversy that divided German and
French chemists. Who is the founder of chemistry: Stahl or Lavoisier? This question,
loaded with nationalistic interests as it was in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian
War, stimulated the emergence of professional history of science both in France and Ger-
many.4 The controversy was sparkled by Adolphe Wurtzs opening sentence of his Dic-
tionnaire de chimie: Chemistry is a French science. It was constituted by Lavoisier of
immortal memory. These words published in 1868 created uproar. Two German chemists,
Jacob Volhard and Hermann Kolbe, reacted strongly to what they considered a mark of
blind chauvinism. Volhard responded with a historical account of the chemical revolution
that minimized the role of Lavoisier. Compared to Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph
Priestley, Lavoisier was a dilettante, an amateur chemist who appropriated the ndings
of other chemists. Lavoisier did not really overthrow Stahls phlogiston; he simply ven-
tured an alternative interpretation, using caloric instead of phlogiston. Lavoisier did not
bring about a revolution; he rather continued the tradition initiated by Stahl.
Such denials of Lavoisiers importance prompted international protests from Russian
and British chemists including a German chemist, Albert Ladenburg. One major impact
of this controversy was to revive historical studies of the chemical revolution, even at
the academic level with doctoral theses on this topic both at Berlin University and at
the Sorbonne. The foundation of chemistry became a battleeld where the alternatives

Kuhn evokes his rst steps into the history of science during his Junior Fellowship at Harvard: In particular I
continued to study the writings of Alexandre Koyre and rst encountered those of Emile Meyerson, Helene
Metzger, and Anneliese Maier . . . their works, together with A. O. Lovejoys Great chain of being, have been
second only to primary source materials in shaping my conception of what the history of scientic ideas can be
(Kuhn, 1996 [1962], pp. viiviii). In The essential tension, Kuhn confessed that he draws the attention of his
students to Meyersons and Leon Brunschvicgs historical practices while condemning their philosophical views
Kuhn, 1977, pp. xv, 108.
On this controversy see Metzger (1932), Bensaude-Vincent (1983, 1993), Rocke (1990), Meinel (2005).
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 631

of continuism and discontinuism were shaped. French positivist historiography supported

the view of a radical break while the German historiography favoured a continuist view
and forged the notion of Stahl as Lavoisiers precursor.
The German context guided Meyersons rst step into the history of chemistry. His rst
publication dealt with Jean Rey, an obscure French seventeenth-century physician, later
recognized as Lavoisiers precursor because of his account of the increasing weight in met-
als during calcination.5 Meyerson did not support the German consensus about the role of
precursors. He rmly concluded that Jean Rey did not anticipate Lavoisiers view on the
role of air in combustion and calcination and could not be viewed as a precursor. On this
occasion, he pointed out that Rey relied on a principle of conversation of matter thus sug-
gesting that his science was embedded in metaphysics. This early case study was his rst
encounter with conservation principles which he would later consider as a priori metaphys-
ical assumptions and the necessary roots of scientic endeavours.
Duhem who was a fervent patriot explicitly committed himself in the controversy about
Lavoisier. In 1915, he wrote a pamphlet entitled La chimie est-elle une science francaise? (Is
chemistry a French science?) (Duhem, 1916). Given the context of World War I and the wave
of hatred that it raised among intellectuals on both sides of the Rhine river we can guess that
Duhem wanted to restore the prestige of Lavoisier. However he also acknowledged Stahls
contribution to chemistry and reproached French historians for their nave claim that Lavoi-
sier founded chemistry on virgin soil. He thus wrote a detailed account of early modern chem-
istry, running from John Mayow and Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century up to
Lavoisier. This historical survey was meant to demonstrate that chemistry before Lavoisier
was not an obscure and pre-scientic knowledge. Duhem argued that even prior to Lavoisier,
French chemistry was better than German chemistry. Chemists such as Gabriel-Francois
Rouelle and Pierre-Joseph Macquer improved Stahls doctrine thus exemplifying the clarity
and simplicity of the spirit of our nation (Duhem, 1991 [1915], p. 105). This pamphlet was a
reply to Ostwalds Leitlinien der Chemie (1906), which claimed that Lavoisiers theory was
just Stahls theory turned around.6 To this continuist view in line with the German tradition,
Duhem did not oppose a discontinuist interpretation (Ariew & Baker, 1992). Rather he
argued that Lavoisier tied together the bits and pieces of truth provided by his predecessors
and foreign colleagues. Let us not refuse our admiration to the precursor but it does not
diminish the admiration that we owe to the true inventor (Duhem, 1991 [1915], p. 105).
Meyerson, born in a Jewish family in Poland, educated in Germany and having elected
France as his homeland, had no obvious patriotic bias. In an appendix to Lexplication dans
les sciences entitled Resistances to Lavoisier s chemistry, he denounced chauvinistic prej-
udices in both camps. In particular he stressed that Lavoisier did not author the law of
matter conservation since it was an a priori principle underlying all knowledge. Meyerson
strongly supported Duhem in the rehabilitation of Stahl. His theory was extremely (and
even excessively) rational since it presupposed a principle of conservation not only of the
quantity of matter but of qualities as well, more specically of combustibility. Lavoisiers
contribution was to limit the function of conservation to the quantity of matter, thus

Meyerson discussed two other cases of precursors: Turquet de Mayenne as precursor of the invention of
hydrogen (Meyerson, 1935 [1888]) and later on David Humes precursors in the rst appendix to Explanation in
the sciences (1991 [1921]).
Ostwald (1906). Metzger noticed that the French translation published in 1910 curiously omitted the few
sentences where Ostwald acknowledged Lavoisiers contribution to chemistry. See Metzger (1932).
632 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

physicalizing chemistry. He [Lavoisier] has no need at all of being aggrandized, since he is

certainly one of the most authentic great men humanity has ever produced in any eld
(Meyerson, 1991 [1921], p. 562). In fact this lengthy appendix is the rst non-Lavoisier-
centred historical account of the chemical revolution. Meyerson nely described the reac-
tions of staunch phlogistonists such as Scheele, Priestley, Richard Kirwan and Macquer.
Rather than considering the losers in the phlogiston controversy as blind and stupid minds,
he emphasized the consistence of their attitudes.7 Meyerson provided a symmetric account
of the controversy and he pointed out that this historical line was inspired by his epistemo-
logical inquiry about the power of explanatory theories.
We beg the readers indulgence for having dealt at some length with this particular
phase of the evolution of science. As has been obvious from the beginning of this
work, our epistemological opinions are founded principally on an examination of
the role of explanatory theories. And since . . . it is rst and foremost to history that
we look for revelations on this subject, we are led to speak continually of the birth
and death of these theories and to examine how reason behaves in these scientic
revolutions. (Ibid., p. 599)
The phlogistonist chemists resistance testies to the resilience of explanatory theories.
Does it mean that Meyerson denied the existence of scientic revolutions as suggested by
a number of commentators (Metzger, 1987, pp. 98, 105; Biagioli, 1987)? Indeed Meyerson
claimed that science will ever rest on the same intangible a priori. The often quoted last sen-
tence of Explanation in the sciencesEveryone always and in all circumstances has reasoned
and still reasons in an essentially invariable waysupports this claim (Meyerson, 1991
[1921], p. 542). However his view of Lavoisiers revolution in the same volume suggests that
sciences do change while the human intellect operates along the same line. Far from denying
scientic revolutions, Meyerson dramatized them; he presented them as improbable events
because of his insistence on their costs. Explanatory theories have an inner strength, which
acts as a major obstacle to scientic change. Consequently innovations cost a huge amount
of painstaking eorts and inevitably raise controversies. Meyerson closed this appendix on a
famous quotation suggesting a comparison between the dicult foundation of Roma and
the foundation of modern chemistry: Rarely has Virgils Tantae molis erat been more appli-
cable than in the case of this formidable chemical revolution (ibid., p. 563).
The polemical view of scientic change that Meyerson conveyed with his emphasis on
the resilience of explanatory theories was incorporated in the mind itself by Bachelards
notion of epistemological obstacles. For Bachelard scientic spirit is in a continuous state
of revolution. The conict is between two alternative tendencies within the human mind.
Hence an alternative historiographical choice. In La formation de lesprit scientique
(1938), unlike Duhem and Meyerson, he had no respect for the past as he set himself as
the champion of a new scientic spirit. Whereas Duhem and Meyerson attempted to
restore the rationality and the consistence of early modern chemistry, Bachelard presented
it as an exemplar of irrational and pre-scientic spirit. For him Lamarcks resistance to
Lavoisiers theory instantiated a typical obstacle to science: the overemphasis on observa-
tion rather than on experimentation (Bachelard, 1972 [1953], p. 219). Bachelard picked up a

In Du cheminement de la pensee Meyerson drew general conclusions from such episodes: Never has mankind
in its ensemble been slightly more stupid than it is nowadays. The vanity of living beings prevent them from seing
the good reasons and the audacy of ancient theories (Meyerson, 1931, pp. 569571; my translation).
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 633

few quotations from eighteenth-century chemists arbitrarily chosen, and concluded that
they were close to alchemy. He deliberately avoided addressing the issue raised by Meyer-
son about the rationality of pre-modern science as he split the past of science in two cate-
gories: outdated or lapsed history on the one hand, and sanctioned history on the other.
The former was but a collection of images and prejudices, a receptacle of moods as Metz-
ger featured it (Metzger, 1987, p. 190). Chemistry, in particular, is described as a cluster of
beliefs guided by fantasy and sexual imagery rather than by reason. Its irrationality did not
result from a lack of knowledge or a lack of data. Rather it resulted from the primacy of
imagination over reason that is still vivid and legitimate in poetry and literature. In thus
characterizing a period of the history of science by the predominance of imagination, Bach-
elard reinvented Comtes characterization of the theological era without knowing it. He just
updated Comtes view by adding a vague reference to Carl Jungs psychoanalysis. The
formation of the scientic spirit (subtitled Contribution to a psychoanalysis of objective
knowledge) requires the repression of imagination and sex impulses. Thus the epistemolog-
ical rupture means breaking with the past and with common sense, with life interests, pas-
sions and opinion all together. As Michel Serres once argued, Bachelards Formation
denes a kind of puritan ascetic ideal, a deontology as much as an epistemology (Serres,
Nevertheless in his eort to emphasize the rupture which divided eighteenth-century
chemistry from modern science, Bachelard did not point to Lavoisier. For him Lavoisier
was not the founder of modern chemistry. He belonged to the era of substantialist chem-
istry focused on conservation principles. Although he clearly advocated a discontinuist
view of the history of science, Bachelard never used the phrase revolution in chemistry.
He rather praised the gradual emergence of arithmetical harmony through the periodic
system and the electronic reinterpretation of the periodicity of chemical elements. He cel-
ebrated the subordination of empirical diversity to the power of reason.8
However, the best witness of the importance of chemistry in the French tradition is
Helene Metzger. Unlike Bachelard, Duhem and Meyerson she devoted most of her schol-
arship to the history of chemistry. She went much further than any of them in detailed his-
torical studies reported in the two volumes Les doctrines chimiques en France du debut du
XVIIe a la n du XVIIIe siecle 1969 [1923] and Newton, Stahl, Boerhaave et la doctrine chi-
mique (1974 [1930]). Although she wrote a balanced review of Bachelards La formation,
she rmly disagreed with his practice of history, as she recommended assessing past doc-
trines according to the intellectual expectations of their times rather than by our own stan-
dards. Just as Duhem and Meyerson, she wanted to understand the process by which the
human mind acquires knowledge of the world through the history of science. She went
back to the case of Jean Rey who initiated Meyersons discussions about precursors in sci-
ence (Metzger, 1939). She clearly stated that the issue at stake was the notion of historical
liation, and she drew a rm methodological conclusion: in such debates, historians
of science should be more concerned with explanatory schemes than with explananda.
She minimized the role of Lavoisier in the history of science as she credited him for minor
innovations (Metzger, 1935): i) far from inventing the modern denition of element

At this stage of his career, Bachelard was rather close to Leon Brunschvicg, his thesis supervisor, who shaped
a very inuential idealistic philosophy of science (Brunschvicg, 1922). For an overview of Bachelards
epistemology see Gaukroger, 1976, Gutting, 1987.
634 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

Lavoisier just made his fellow chemists aware that elements were redened as simple
substances; ii) he did not invent the law of conservation which belonged to common sense;
iii) he beneted from improved and sound analytical techniques which secured experimen-
tal results from Boyles scepticism; iv) he also took advantage from the natural classica-
tions of reactions set up by eighteenth-century chemists. Not a single discovery should be
credited to Lavoisier, his contribution to chemistry is strictly circumscribed:
Lavoisier who here like elsewhere discovered nothing, metaphysically speaking,
transformed the orientation of the chemists thought in achieving an immense
advance by his works in what could be named experimental awareness; we do not have
to investigate the relationsloose or closethat bind the advances in experimental
awareness with the advances in theoretical awareness . . . (Ibid., p. 21; my translation)
As for the oppositions to Lavoisiers theory, Metzger described them as the expression of
an alternative dynamical view of chemistry:
If Lametheriethe editor of the Journal de physique unjustly forgotten today, if
Lamarckthe illustrious pioneer of evolutionism unjustly unknown in his time,
fought with an extreme violence the chemical revolution and undervalued its impor-
tance, it was not the result of any regrettable and unfortunate accident. On the con-
trary here we witness one of the phases of the eternal battle fought by two opposite
sorts of minds who assign two dierent and incompatible aims to science; however
despite their endless and restless combats, despite daily appearances, researchers
eectively collaborate in the construction always in progress and never completed
of human science. (Ibid., p. 26; my translation)
Metzger, who extensively quoted Herman Kopp, Ferdinand Hoefer and Meyerson, was
above all interested in early modern chemistry.9 She published detailed investigations of
those textbooks that Bachelard just quoted as witnesses of epistemological obstacles.
Rather than rejecting the worldview expressed by so-called prescientic authors, she tried
to penetrate and understand their systems. To make herself the contemporary of early
modern chemistry, such was her major goal. According to Michael Heidelberger she
was the intersection of Meyersons philosophy with the practice of a working historian
(Heidelberger, 1990, p. 151). Indeed she had frequent contacts with Meyerson, who super-
vised her earlier essays.10 But she sometimes rebelled against his paternalist attitude, as a

In 1923 when she published Les doctrines chimiques, Metzger relied heavily on Kopp, Hoefer and Meyerson.
She acknowledged her debt in a self-critical note written to George Sarton (letter dated 21 August 1923, in
Freudenthal, 1990, p. 252).
That Meyersons attempt to mentor Metzger generated ambivalent feelings is manifest in her correspondence
with George Sarton. For instance, in a letter dated 6 December 1924, she mentioned that Meyerson advised her to
submit her study of Stahl to Isis and she added: Il dit que ce chapitre est beaucoup mieux que tout le reste et
attribue ce fait, a ce quil la surveille avec quelque severite! (Freudenthal, 1990, p. 253). In a letter dated 14 April
1927 she openly mentioned a disagreement raised by the publication of her volume Les concepts scientiques
(Metzger, 1926) and even pretended that she had written all her work oustide his inuence: Jai revu une ou deux
fois M. Meyerson qui a pris le parti dignorer mon petit livre et detre fort aimable; il veut absolument que je lui
fasse un index pour son futur travail sur le meme sujet ou a peu pres; je cherche une formule pour refuser poliment
et sans le peiner. Jai pour son eort une vive admiration, sil le desire je me declarerai son eleve ou son disciple
(bien que tout ce que jai ait ecrit ete en dehors de son inuence), mais je me refuse a etre lesclave du plus grand
philosophe du monde puisque la nature ma fait un cerveau (ibid., p. 255).
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 635

letter she wrote to Meyerson published in Isis reveals (Chimisso & Freudenthal, 2003). In
fact through her historical investigations, her contacts with George Sarton and others, she
developed positions of her own both about the practice of history and about science. As a
historian she went beyond the intellectual reconstruction of past science. She aimed at
reconstituting the social milieu or rather the common opinion from which great works
emerged as she commented on her 1923 book.11 For her, science is grounded not only
in metaphysics but also in a cultural ensemble. It cannot be separated from a mentality
orientation, that historians have to characterize in an attempt to become the contempo-
rary of the works under investigation. In this perspective, history of science requires more
than logic and scientic skills: a kind of empathy with past scientists and their epochs.
Metzger assumed that science rests on a priori but unlike Meyerson she admitted more
than one single a priori, a variety of a priori so heterogeneous that they could be incom-
patible. Furthermore a priori are changing over time (Metzger, 1987, p. 46). Although she
sometimes inclined toward a historical relativism, she still relied on traditional criteria of
truth such as the adequacy between theory and empirical data or simplicity.
To summarize, chemistry played a signicant role in the rejection of positivist history of
science. The hot and chauvinistic debates about the founder of chemistry drew attention to
scientic revolutions. This notion, which had been used as an unproblematic category, was
extensively questioned through a reappraisal of the chemical revolution. However, three
rival concepts emerged from the history of chemistry. For Duhem a scientic revolution
was a long process of maturation of the national spirit. By contrast, Bachelard and Metz-
gerdespite their opposite historiographical choicesadvocated a discontinuist view of
revolutions as radical changes, of the mind itself for Bachelard, of worldview for Metzger.
Meyerson developed a middle view of revolutions as a mere reorganization of knowledge,
which did not aect the intellect itself.

4. No philosophy of science without matter theories

A second strikingalbeit unnoticedfeature of the French tradition is that matter the-

ories are a favourite subject with which to characterize the ways of science. Duhem, Mey-
erson and Bachelard developed most of their views about the methods and aims of science
through a discussion of matter theories. Just as the concern with scientic revolutions was
initiated in the context of the controversy over Lavoisier, the focus on matter was
encouraged by a controversy raised by chemists about atomism in the late nineteenth
In addition to the debate over the founder of chemistry, the chemical community was
divided by a no less hot controversy about atomism. In Representing and intervening, Ian
Hacking stressed the importance of late nineteenth-century debates about the existence of
atoms and molecules for the philosophy of science and noted that the very term scientic
realism dated back from this time (Hacking, 1983, p. 64). This general remark is partic-
ularly relevant for Duhem and Meyerson. Both of them shaped their philosophical posi-
tions in view of the atomic theory that prevailed in organic chemistry in the late nineteenth
century. The use of structural formulas and molecular models for organic compounds was
grounded on two hypotheses: i) atoms combine to form molecules; ii) atoms are dened by

Letter to George Sarton dated 21 August 1923 in Freudenthal (1990), p. 252.
636 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

their capacities for combination, that is, their valences (or atomicity). Chemical atomism
did not necessarily lead to ontological assumptions about the existence of atoms. For
instance August von Kekule who conjectured the hexagonal structure of benzene, the basis
of most articial organic compounds manufactured by the end of the nineteenth century,
denied the existence of atoms. More precisely, he excluded the ontological issue from
chemistry, as belonging to metaphysics. From a chemical standpoint, Kekule considered
atoms as of absolute necessity, while from a metaphysical standpoint he did not believe
in the real existence of discrete indivisible units of matter.12
Although atomic chemists refrained from ontological commitments, they were heavily
criticized by a number of chemistsespecially Marcellin Berthelot and Henri Sainte-Claire
Deville in Pariswho reproached them for speculating upon unobservable entities.
Duhem had studied under Sainte-Claire Deville at the Ecole Normale Superieure and
vehemently opposed Berthelots principle of maximum work in his rst doctoral thesis.
He also rejected chemical atomism, but his rejection was based on dierent reasons. He
defended a mathematical and abstract view of chemical theory rather than prescribing
to conne science to observable entities (Maiocchi, 1992). In his article on Chemical nota-
tion, Duhem developed two major arguments (Duhem, 1892; 2002 [1902], Ch. 8). First,
atomic structural formulas convey the nave representation of persistent atoms juxtaposed
and bound by hooks and spikes. Second, the atomic theory is unable to account for the
fact that the properties of a chemical compound dier from those of its constituent ele-
ments. Duhem nevertheless regarded atomic formulas as very useful instruments of
The aptitude of the structural formula to indicate the pathway by which the system-
atic synthesis of a given body can be performed is one of the greatest advantages that
commends our admiration of the present chemical notation. (Duhem, 2002 [1902], p.
Structural formulas are useful provided they be considered as symbolic representations of
possible combinations. Altogether they are mapping the interactions of all possible com-
binations (whether they have been performed in a laboratory or not). Atoms are symbols
and nothing else. The message is clear. Atomistic assumptions are neither necessary nor
sucient to explain the laws of chemical combinations. Nevertheless atomist chemists still
imagine hooks and spikes and they think than such nave images can explain why and how
some atoms bind together to make complex molecules.
A few years later Duhem adopted a dierent and very strange strategy as he recalled
ancient and archaic philosophical theories to present his position in a hot scientic contro-
versy. Duhems title Le mixte (unfortunately translated by Mixture) might have sounded

The question whether atoms exist or not has but little signicance in a chemical point of view: its discussion
belongs rather to metaphysics. In chemistry we have to decide whether the assumption of atoms is an hypothesis
adapted to the explanation of chemical phenomena. More especially have we to consider the question, whether a
further development of the atomic hypothesis promises to advance our knowledge of the mechanism of chemical
phenomena. I have no hesitation in saying that, from a philosophical point of view, I do not believe in the actual
existence of atoms, taking the word in its literal signication of indivisible particles of matter. I rather expect that
we shall some day nd, for what we now call atoms, a mathematico-mechanical explanation, which will render an
account of atomic weights, of atomicity, and of numerous other properties of so-called atoms. As a chemist,
however, I regard the assumption of atoms, not only advisable, bus as absolutely necessary in chemistry (Kekule,
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 637

odd and provocative to his colleagues. The term mixt belongs to the Aristotelian tradi-
tion. It had been used by chemists in the eighteenth century but it was outdated and
out of use by the end of the nineteenth. Duhem clearly intended to revive Aristotelian
concepts against the prevailing atomist and mechanistic views (Needham, 1996). Such is
the alternative suggested by the familiar example of sugared water in the introductory
What in general, then, is a mixt? Some bodies, the one dierent from the other, are
brought into contact. Gradually they disappear, they cease to exist, and in their
place a new body is formed, distinguished by its properties from each of the ele-
ments, which produced it by their disappearance. In this mixt, the elements no
longer have any actual existence. They exist there only potentially, because on
destruction the mixt can regenerate them. And the characteristics which determine
the mixt belong not only to the body as a whole, but also to each part, however
small, that the mind can cut out of the homogeneous body. (Duhem, 2002 [1902],
p. 5)
By contrast, the atomists say:
Each drop of water is composed of a multitude of molecules. The same holds for
each small crystal of sugar. When sugar is put in the presence of water, the mol-
ecules of sugar are not destroyed nor altered, but like prisoners who break away
from their common chain, they are dissolved and, without breaking or modifying
the molecules of water, they slip between them. The sugared water is therefore not
at all homogeneous, with the smallest part possessing the same properties as the
whole. In sugared water, the water and the sugar subsist, juxtaposed but not con-
founded. Sugared water might be called a mixture (melange) for the same reason
that the contents of this sack is said to be a mixture of wheat and straw. (Ibid.,
p. 7)
To Duhem, atomic explanations are supercial for they do not account for the vexing
question raised by chemical transformations: how is it that from the union of two bodies
a third body emerges whose properties are totally dierent from those of the ingredients?
Duhem rejects the reasoning involved in atomistic explanations: the properties of com-
pounds cannot be deduced from those of constituent elements or atoms. Macroscopic
properties are irreducible to microscopic entities. His criticism included Lavoisierian
chemistry as well since elements are not conserved as such in chemical reactions. They
do not actually exist in the compound; they are potentially present. Duhem revived
the Aristotelian notion of potential to claim that the compound is irreducible to the sim-
ple. However, he deprived the Aristotelian potential of its ontological status when he
translated it into the terms of thermodynamics (Vauthelin, 2003). Duhem thus nally
adopted an anti-realist position. His treatise of chemical mechanics published in 1911
was a grandiose attempt, based on the notions of states and changes of state, to provide
a unied and coherent mathematical theory of chemical combinations of heat, electricity
and magnetism. Only measurable quantities and qualities had to be taken into account
without supposing substances behind them. He thus promoted a descriptive and phe-
nomenological science modelled after thermodynamics, a science that no longer claimed
to explain experimental laws by going back to irreducible metaphysical elements of
638 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

Duhems philosophical choice had a political impact in the context of another hot
debate going on in France around 1900. In 1895 a controversy over the bankruptcy of
science brought to the forefront the question of the limits of science. Metaphysicians
and catholic thinkers claimed that science was unable to achieve the great expectations
and great promises that it had raised. Scientists such as Berthelot and Charles Richet
replied in positivistic terms: science only aims at establishing facts and subsuming them
under experimental laws; science never promised anything (Paul, 1968). Although Duhem
remained silent during the controversy, he clearly supported the view that science was con-
ned to laws and should be demarcated from metaphysics: searching for causes was the
task of metaphysics, grasping reality was the privilege of religion. There is no pathway
leading from the knowledge of a set of phenomena to the knowledge of the substances
in which they occur.
By contrast, Meyerson claimed that metaphysics is embedded in science, that scientists
continually make ontological assumptions. Given this realistic commitment, one would
guess that he would ght against Duhem as he did against Comte. Unexpectedly however,
in the preface of his rst book Identity and reality, Meyerson acknowledged the inuence
of four philosophers, Emile Boutroux, Henri Poincare, Henri Bergson and Duhem. None
of them advocated rationalism or realism. Meyerson had an ambivalent attitude toward
Duhem and did not usually include him among his frequent criticisms of positivism. In
a letter to the French philosopher Andre Lalande, who questioned him about such a
silence in the manuscript of Du cheminement de la pensee, he wrote that he had doubts
about the authenticity of Duhems positivism and phenomenism:
He knows too much the way of thinking of a savant to fully adopt such claims and
he frequently uses unorthodox expressions. I may not be a good judge in this respect.
I took a lot from him and it is possible that while reading him I lent him some
What could be the reasons for this secret empathy? Was Meyerson impressed by
Duhems thermodynamics? For most commentators, who rely only on Identity and reality,
Meyerson is the one who claimed that Carnots principle is the irrational that nature
opposes to the human minds tendency to identication, the sign that nature is not pene-
trable to reason, that the real is irrational (Biagioli, 1988). However, thermodynamics is
just one of the many pathways leading to Meyersons emphasis on irrationals. He also
sought the laws which rule the human mind in many other domains. Meyersons second
book Explanation in the sciences reveals three major impacts of chemistry on his
i) The title of the rst chapter clearly states that all explanations are explanations of
something. Science requires the notion of things (Meyerson, 1991 [1921], Ch. 1). It is

Vous avez raison et jajouterai son nom ici a ceux de Comte et de Mach. Ce qui fait que jhesite souvent
quand il sagit de lui, cest que son positivisme et son phenomenisme ne me paraissent pas tres bon teint. Il
connaissait trop bien la pensee du savant pour adopter entierement ces formules et sexprime donc frequemment
dune maniere heterodoxe. Mais peut-etre ne suis-je pas tres bon juge a cet egard. Jai pris beaucoup chez lui, et il
se peut quen le lisant, je lui ai prete de ses idees (Meyerson to Lalande, Meyerson Papers, Jerusalem, The Central
Zionist Archives, Correspondance L/60, p. 18; my translation). Therefore in the published version of Du
cheminement de la pensee the criticism of positivism included also Duhem. The expositions of physics would be
meaningless if one attempted, even for an instant, to give up the postulate of the existence of objects independent
from our sensations (Meyerson, 1931, p. 118; my translation).
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 639

driven by an ontological need that leads to the reication of agents and causes. Scientists
are no dierent from common sense in their robust realism. Electrons and atoms are even
more things than ordinary things because they are more persistent than the objects of our
sense data. Scientists cannot help ascribing experimental laws to nature itself, because
there are no rapports without supports (Meyerson, 1985 [1925], pp. 5253, Meyerson,
1931, p. 116). Postulating the reality of atoms and electrons is as necessary to them as
breathing (ibid., Ch. 1). Therefore, Meyerson could not take chemists scepticism about
atoms seriously. He simply distrusted their positivist claims of ontological non-
He [Kekule] sometimes expressed reservations but as one can feel it was just to pay
lip service, as a formality. In his heart, he strongly believed in the existence of atoms,
of their molecules and of their bonds, as he manipulated them rough and ready
exactly as if they were objects of common sense. (Meyerson, 1911, p. 22; my
Meyerson was shocked by what he considered a mark of duplicity from his mentors
while he was an apprentice chemist in Germany. On the eve of his life he even confessed
that this feeling was the driving force that led him into philosophy of science:
Concerning the reality of chemical atoms, the faith of laboratory chemists was as
robust twenty, thirty or even forty years ago (i.e. when I was young and entered
the domain) as it could possibly be. To speak plainly, my astonishment in front of
the patent discrepancy between the researchers intimate conviction and the philo-
sophical conviction that he claimed to have adopted only to pay lip service (i.e. with-
out any inuence on his work in action) was the starting point of the reections
which lead me to search for a new epistemology.14
This confession suggests that chemical atomism played a leading role in the emergence of
Meyersons major claim that there is no science without ontology.
ii) Explanation in the sciences makes it clear that Carnots principle excluding identity of
time is only one of the various irrationals that reality opposes to our intellects tendency to
identication. Chemistry brings about additional irrationals, two recalcitrant givens. One is
the existence of irreducible qualities, of material properties that cannot be reduced to geo-
metrical gures. The second one is the existence of multiple chemical elements. As stated in
Chapter 6, material diversity is the equivalent in space of Carnots principle in time, a rad-
ical obstacle to the intellects eort to identity. The true element, that which has to remain
undecomposable, undestructible, uncreatable, is by denition an irrational, something that
reason is condemned to acknowledge as an eternally recalcitrant given (Meyerson, 1991
[1921], pp. 170171). For Meyerson the reduction of chemical atoms to physical atoms does
not dissolve irrationality. The electrical units (electrons, ions, protons) are as occult and as
obscure as the billiard balls of classical mechanics. And he rmly concluded that: Scientists
or philosophers, we all know that reality is inaccessible. We all know that whatever we can
do we will never eliminate irrational from the image than we shape of it (Job, 1913, p. 60,
my translation). Later on, in Du cheminement de la pensee Meyerson resolutely discarded a

E. Meyerson, letter to Bertoud of 1925 (Meyerson Papers, Jerusalem, The Central Zionist Archives, File 408/
11); my translation.
640 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

possible reduction of chemistry to physics and identied the irrational proper to chemistry
as being quality (Meyerson, 1931, p. 501). Quality is a kind of essence of chemistry that
pervades all its history. To those historians who missed that point the history of chemistry
will always remain opaque (ibid., p. 503; my translation). Finally the very existence of
chemistry as an independent science proves that rational hopes of total reduction of diver-
sity are chimerical.
Perhaps the most we are able to conjecture is that there will likely be grounds for
admitting new irrationals. What leads us to envisage this eventuality is that chemis-
try in spite of all attempts that have been made throughout the ages, or at least since
chemistry has existed as a science, to incorporate it into physics, still unquestionably
presents all the characteristics of a distinct science. (Meyerson, 1991 [1921], p 167)
Meyersons comments on the explanation of Mendeleevs periodic system in terms of
electronic structure (Chapter 8) suggest that two trends are competing within chemistry:
experimental evidence tends to impose an increasing diversity of chemical elements while
our a priori tendency to identity denies or at least attempts to reduce the individuality of
chemical elements. Meyerson illustrates this competition through the history of chemistry
from Lavoisiers table of thirty-three simple substances to William Prouts hypothesis of
the unity of matter and radioactivity (ibid., pp. 216230).15
More directly, however, chemistry challenges our reason. In Du cheminement de la
pensee, a book embracing mathematics, language and logic, chemistry is used to cast
doubts on the validity of our use of the sign = when we tend to equal causes and eects.
The minds will to assume the permanence through chemical changes, or the conservation
of elements in chemical reactions led chemists to equal the inputs and outputs of chemical
reactions. For Meyerson, chemical equations usually considered as the landmark of Lavoi-
siers modern and positive chemistry, involve an absurdity. Like Duhem, Meyerson uses a
familiar chemical example to convey his view but he preferred ordinary salt rather than
sugared water. When chemists write the equation Na + Cl = NaCl they obviously suggest
the conservation of matter. However, taken literally this formula is a nonsense: how can
we assume that the addition of a soft metal such as sodium and a greenish gas like chlorine
equate a colourless salt? (Meyerson, 1931, 54-55, pp. 8485). Here Meyerson raises the
same point as Duhem in Le mixte: How a body can emerge from two other bodies with
entirely new properties? What is the mode of existence of elements in a chemical com-
pound? However, instead of going back to Aristotles notion of potential (a notion which
led him to Hegel in Chapter 9 of Explanation in science), he compared the chemists way of
reasoning to that of so-called primitive people. In writing chemical equations chemists
behave exactly like the totemic Bororos described by the anthropologist Lucien
Levy-Bruhl. Bororos were said to violate the non-contradiction principle when they
declare that Bororos are araras, that is, parrots. Similarly, chemists cannot formally

Strangely enough Meyerson further developed this view of chemistry as torn between two competing
tendencies in his book dedicated to Einsteins relativity theory in 1925. While he described relativity theory as a
victory of identity over the irrational notion of force imposed by Newtons physics, while he also acknowledged
that recent science has identied electricity and light, electricity and matter, Meyerson carefully sought to qualify
the triumph of identity by recalling the ongoing ght between reduction and diversity in chemistry. The history of
chemistry thus illustrates Meyersons major point that rational hopes of total reduction of diversity are chimerical
(Meyerson, 1985 [1925], 204218) (Fruteau de Laclos, 2004).
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 641

equate the ingredients and the products of a chemical reaction: the sign = expresses our
intellects chimerical and absurd expectation that had we got a complete knowledge of the
world, antecedents and consequents would be recognized as identical. Therefore the Dutch
chemist van t Ho was perfectly right in replacing the sign equals by a simple arrow,
which just suggests that the union of sodium and chlorine gives sodium chloride
(Meyerson, 1931, pp. 276278).
In addition to illustrating the absurdity of our reasons eort to identication, this
example points to another important aspect of Meyersons realism that is worth empha-
sizing because it conveys a constructionist view of science. Chemists rely on two dierent
notions of element: elements taken in their atomic state and elements taken in their
molecular state. Only the former is veritable since it is the only one susceptible to enter
into combinations. Yet never we can see it since as soon as it is isolated, it becomes the
latter (Meyerson, 1931, p. 883; my translation). For Meyerson, the reality of atoms is
an intellectual construction. Atoms are realas Jean Perrins demonstration of molecular
reality suggestedalthough they are not, and perhaps never will be, observable (Meyer-
son, 1930 [1908], pp. 410424).
Meyerson, a former practitioner of chemistry, drew no less important lessons from
chemical practices. Above all, chemistry led him to revise and qualify his early anti-pos-
itivistic claim that science is not aimed at prevision and action. From his professional
experience in industrial chemistry Meyerson was well aware that structural formulas
were meant for predicting new compounds and that the slightest dierences between
two compounds could make an enormous dierence in their behaviours. It did not
escape him that there was a contradiction between prediction and explanation. The
former requires a mind attentive to changes and individual dierences while the latter
deploys the minds tendency to permanence and identity. Once again sodium chloride
helps make the point. When I see a soft metal and a yellowish gas giving birth to
colourless crystals, as in the reaction of chlorine upon sodium, how can I assume that
what remains is more important than what has changed? (Meyerson, 1931, p. 527; my
translation). Because chemistry has a hybrid identity as science and technology, it
clearly points to the limits of the relevance of our intellects tendency to identication.
Instead of identity and permanence, what matters for action is the non-identical, the
non-permanent and the unpredicted. Thus chemistry is the science that Meyerson
invariably mentioned to convey a polarity between two alternative faces of reason:
on the one hand, reason urging for the eternal identity of Parmenidess sphere and
on the other hand, reason facing permanent challenges, always at risk. For instance
in The relativistic deduction when Meyerson emphasizes two tendencies of science
(197), he presented chemistry as a science that was shaped by a constant battlewhich
is at the same time a collaborationbetween these two conceptions: the one tending to
arm the diversity of substances, for which the diversity is essential and ultimate, and
the other assuming that this diversity is only apparent and conceals a fundamental
unity (Meyerson, 1985 [1925], 204, pp. 185186).
Although Bachelard often shaped his views in opposition to Meyerson, as when he
wrote La valeur inductive de la relativite (1929) in response to La deduction relativiste,
he also shared some of Meyersons views. In particular his rst essay on chemistry Le
pluralisme coherent de la chimie moderne (1932) is based on a broad scheme that sounds
rather Meyersonian: chemistry is a science oscillating between identity and diversity,
between unity and multiplicity. Bachelard argued that the philosophy of chemistry is
642 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

not as substantialist as it seems to be (Theobald, 1982). Although chemistry is concerned

with individualities and qualities in matter it has been able to overcome the early and
nave belief that qualities were reied individual substances. In other words, chemistry
is an exemplar of a science overcoming prescientic realism in order to work a general
and mathematical synthesis. Bachelard de-dramatized Meyersons pathetic view of an
inner conict embedded in science. In his view, the irrational diversity of chemical ele-
ments has acquired some coherence and rationality in the periodic system. Mendeleev
embraced and subordinated individual substances to the master scheme expressed in
the general law of dependence of chemical properties on the atomic weight of elements.
In the electronic structure of atoms, Bachelard saw the promise of a reduction of chem-
istry to numbers. Here he found the model of what he would later call a non-Cartesian
epistemology (Bachelard, 1984 [1934], Ch. 6). Whereas Duhem referred to Aristotle and
Meyerson to Parmenides and Democritus, Bachelard preferred Pythagoras. He envis-
aged the future of chemistry as an explanatory science under the auspices of a substan-
tial harmony (ibid., p. 225). In The new scientic spirit, he even stated that with the
electron theory number became an attribute, a predicate of substance, that chemical
substance was no more than the shadow of a number (Bachelard, 1984 [1934],
pp. 7982). While giving up substantial entities, chemistry nevertheless aims at under-
standing what happened in reality (Bachelard, 1973 [1932], p. 174; my translation).
Realism and harmonism were closely intertwined, almost synonymous in this essay.
Neither reality nor harmony were considered as immediate data that science would
simply record. Rather harmony is a form of reasoning (an extension of induction pro-
ceeding from class to class) that we apply to the variety of empirical data in order to
construct reality.
Here is a special feature of modern physical science: it becomes less a science of facts
than a science of eects. . . . Here is a philosophy of active empiricism in stark con-
trast to the philosophy of immediate and passive empiricism which takes the experi-
ence of observation as a judge. (Ibid., pp. 228229; my translation)
In 1934, Bachelard claimed that in its eort to overcome substantialism, modern chem-
istry experienced a metaphysical sublimation of matter and provided an examplar of
mathematical realism (Bachelard, 1984 [1934], p. 81). Later on, however, in La philosophie
du non (1940) and Le materialisme rationnel (1953), Bachelard paid more attention to the
role of technology in science. The technological dimension of chemistry, its active trans-
formation of matter, suggests a similarity between the laboratory and the factory.16 Here
is a science where the human mind deals no longer with nature but with its own creations.
Chemical substances are never natural. The chemist knows a substance through its making
rather than through its analysis or decomposition. Chemical species can only be dened at
the end of a process of purication in a laboratory or as the end product of a process of
synthesis. Chemical compounds are dened by their activities as products of technique. In
other words, chemistry is a science dealing with artefacts, a science of the facticious.
Chemical substances are hybrid products of techniques and rationality. Three major
claims derive from this new look at chemistry.

In a paper emphasizing the importance of technology in Bachelards epistemology, Mary Tiles virtually
ignores chemistry, as she exclusively refers to his 1928 Essai sur la connaissance approchee (Tiles, 2005).
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 643

First, real is the end product of a process of realization.17 Sugar comes back as a
favourite example to support a novel ontological position:
Realizations have to be multiplied. One has more chance of knowing sugar by mak-
ing sugars than by analyzing a particular sugar. In this plan of realizations, one is not
looking for a generalization anyway, one is looking for a systematization, a plan.
The scientic mind has then completely supplanted the pre-scientic mind. To our
way of thinking, then this is reverse realism . . . It is the foundation of chemical ratio-
nalism. (Bachelard, 1968 [1940], pp. 47 .)18
The Cartesian geometrical science of solids generated a metaphysics that disqualied mat-
ter in order to better praise the magnicence of human mind. Modern chemistry renders
this metaphysics obsolete and calls for a metachemistry.
Metaphysics could have only one possible notion of substance because the elemen-
tary conception of physical phenomena was content to study a geometrical solid
characterized by general properties. Metachemistry will benet by the chemical
knowledge of various substantial activities. It will also benet by the fact that true
chemical substances are the products of technique rather than bodies found in
reality. This is as much as to show that the real in chemistry is a realization. (Ibid.,
p. 45)
Whereas Cartesian metaphysics deprived matter of all properties in favour of an all-pow-
erful human mind, in metachemistry matter is no longer the poor relative of mind. Matter
itself is as intelligent as it is dialectized. Bachelard could well tacitly reply to Meyersons
view of the real as irrational when he stated:
In the face of a reality which has been so surely constructed, let philosophers equate
substance, if they will, with that which evades cognition in the process of construc-
tion, let them continue, if they will, to dene reality as a mass of irrationality. For a
chemist who has just realized a synthesis, chemical substance must, on the contrary,
be equated with what one knows about it. (Ibid., p. 47)
Second, chemistry also contributed to Bachelards notion of phenomenotechnics. This no-
tion is not the outgrowth of quantum mechanics and of its inevitable interaction between
observers and observed. It rst emerged from Bachelards extensive reections on atomis-
tic intuitions when he described the apparatus of Millikan and of Stern and Gerlach as
being directly inspired by theories (Bachelard, 1933). At this stage, however, the instru-
ments were just reied theorems, they were under the dominance of theory. Chemistry,
however, invited a new epistemology more attentive to instrumental practices and
concerned with the stu of science. The emphasis on facticious, on the synthesis of real-
ity, reinforced Bachelards view that there is no direct access to nature, no knowledge of
nature without the mediation of instrumental techniques. Instruments even shape our
views of matter. For Bachelard, it is clear that a materialism based on the use of scales

On Bachelards metachemistry see Nordmann (Forthcoming).
As early as 1930, Bachelard emphasized that analysis did not provide a real knowledge of the composition of a
substance. Analysis is not even the right criterion with which to assess the elementary nature of a substance.
Instead Bachelard proposed to dene elements as agents of chemical reactions whose weight increases through all
chemical reactions.
644 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

(i.e. on matter conservation principle) cannot be the same as a materialism based on spec-
troscopy (i.e. on inscriptions of energy) (Bachelard, 1972 [1953], p. 110).
Third, chemistry inspired Bachelards dynamical philosophy of matter. Whereas philos-
ophers inspired by classical mechanics separate matter and energy, at the school of chem-
istry philosophers learn that matter is energy.
Formerly people used to say: matter has an energy; they attached energy to matter as
they harnessed a horse with a plough. The notion of matter was thus limited, by a
fast dialectics, to its character of inert matter, of a matter that does not require
the idea of inner energy. Indeed it was right to choose this limitation, to impose this
dialectics in some areas of scientic organization, in a regional rationalism such as
rational mechanics where it is indierent to know whether the mobile is made of
iron, of stone, or of copper. But this externalist materialism . . . is no longer sucient
as soon as one deals with contemporary chemical science, as soon as one wants to be
aware not only of chemical phenomena but of the inner dynamics of chemical phe-
nomena, a dynamics which opens the way to novel achievements by bringing about
the veritable explanation of materialistic phenomenology. (Ibid., p. 177; my
It is worth noticing that Bachelard did not learn the identication of matter and energy
in relativity theory but in chemistry. It was the essentially energetic root of chemical phe-
nomena which taught him that phenomena are more than a simple appearance; they are
the expression of energy. Ironically Bachelard came to support energetism fty years after
the closure of the controversy between atomists and energetists. Far from encouraging an
upsurge of anti-realism close to Duhems position, Bachelard assumed that in the domain
of chemistry one has to take the notion of energy as a primitive reality (ibid., p. 178; my
translation). He did not conne this view to chemistry so as to dene a regional epistemol-
ogy. On the contrary, he rmly generalized:
To static materialism, the materialism of energy adds an activist materialism. It is a
quite new research eld. A philosopher who would be at the school of the modern
chemist would be astonished in discovering the prodigious variety of the changes
of matter. (Ibid., p. 192; my translation)

5. A forgotten tradition?

Finally, what did happen to this chemistry-inspired tradition? Was it totally super-
seded by the growing importance of physics in epistemology? Metzger was not able
to create a research tradition for two major reasons. As Cristina Chimisso emphasizes,
she held an uneasy position in the French milieu during the interwar period (Chimisso,
2001a,b). Although she was well integrated in the circles where history and philosophy
of science were cultivated and debated in Paris, although she had international connec-
tions, she remained marginal because she was a woman with no prestigious diplomas.
Like Meyerson she never got an academic position, but unlike him she never enjoyed
recognition and authority, especially due to the fact that her career was interrupted
in 1944 by her deportation to Auschwitz. Her philosophical method in the history of
science (Metzger, 1987, Ch. 4) was overcome by Bachelards historical approach to
the philosophy of science.
B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648 645

As Bachelard moved up in the academic establishment (he got a chair at the

Sorbonne in 1940), he eclipsed the works of Meyerson and Duhem. Furthermore, his
French disciples and commentatorsSuzanne Bachelard, Dominique Lecourt, Michel
Fichant among othersoverlooked the part played by chemistry in his works (Fichant
& Pecheux, 1969; Lecourt, 1975). They preferred to discuss physics, geometry or poetics
and literature. One reason may be the attitude of the French chemistry community in
the post-war period. As they nally introduced quantum theory in the interpretation of
the nature of chemical bonds and reaction mechanisms, French chemists adopted a low
prole. They advocated strong links between physics and chemistry in their research
programs as well as in their teaching. Chemistry more and more appeared as an applied
science with great industrial potential but whose theoretical foundations lay in physics.
Such a practice-oriented discipline seemed totally unattractive, and boring to young
philosophers. Georges Canguilhem, Bachelards successor at the Sorbonne, was a
philosopher and a medical doctor who devoted his scholarship to the history and phi-
losophy of medicine. It does not mean, however, that the interest for chemistry faded
out. The philosophy of chemistry resurfaced in the works of Francois Dagognet,
Canguilhems successor at the Sorbonne, who dealt with various topics ranging from
Pasteur, to medicine, pharmacy, photography and the construction of space in geogra-
phyall kinds of science concerned with concrete stu rather than abstract concepts.
His historical essay on the language of chemistry outlined an epistemic contrast between
vocal and scriptural languages (Dagognet, 1969). More recently Dagognet revitalized
Bachelards materialism in the light of more recent advances in chemistry (Dagognet,
Thus the philosophy of chemistry has never been totally neglected in France, although
it has never been mainstream and never the topic of a research school. Therefore the com-
plaints of a number of chemists and philosophers about the predominance of physics have
to be qualied (Mosini, 1996; Scerri & McIntyre, 1997; Schummer, 1997). To be sure,
physics had an overarching inuence on the philosophy of science throughout the twenti-
eth century, but it was never a monopoly in France. In this respect, the recent initiatives to
develop a philosophy of chemistry with such journals as Foundations of chemistry and Hyle
should take the advantage of revisiting this longstanding tradition rather than taking their
inspiration from analytic philosophy.

6. Conclusion

To conclude this too supercial survey, I would like to emphasize that the purpose was
less to trace liations and inuences than to revisit a number of famous philosophers in
light of the debates going on in their times. The early twentieth century was a rich period
of dialogue between scientists and philosophers in France. The controversies in chemistry,
so far obscured by the more familiar debates about non-Euclidean geometries and the new
physics theories, had a signicant impact on the landscape of French philosophy of science.
First, the hot debates over the founder of chemistry provided an opportunity to exper-
iment with a new anti-positivist attitude through a reappraisal of outdated and rejected
theories. It encouraged French philosophers of sciences to submit their epistemological
choices to historical tests and to use history in order to improve our knowledge of
the human mind. In this respect the French tradition split into two alternative trends at the
second generation when Bachelard used contemporary science as a judge to assess the
646 B. Bensaude-Vincent / Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 36 (2005) 627648

degree of scienticity of past theories, whereas Metzger developed a kind of hermeneutical

approach sympathetic to the doctrines of the past.
More importantly, the debates raised by chemical atomism helped to place criticisms of
the old notion of substance at the forefront of all reections on science. Therefore matter
theories played a leading role and prompted the distinctive concern among French philos-
ophers of this period for Ancient Greek science. The traditional notion of substance as a
permanent substrate of changes appeared as a hypothetical entity generated by classical
physics. Chemistry led Duhem, Meyerson and Bachelard to a critical revision of the meta-
physical notion of substance. They all addressed one and the same issue: how to deal with
the assumption that something stands beneath, that something remains permanent and
unchanged through changes.
Duhem answered those questions by recapturing Aristotles notion of potential as
opposed to actual in the context of thermodynamics. He thus reached a kind of compro-
mise. On the one hand he could advocate a science free of metaphysics since thermody-
namic potentials rid himself of Aristotles ontology but, on the other hand, he respected
the common sense realistic conviction that something had to be conserved, to lie beneath.
Meyerson by contrast never tried to work out a compromise. Instead he created a tra-
gic pathos with his emphasis of the dierence between nature and thought (Heidelberger,
1990, p. 154). Human cognitive enterprises are all the more pathetic that the conict is not
simply between mind and nature. As Meyerson clearly stated in his formulation of the
epistemological paradox, the contradiction lies on both sides (Meyerson, 1991 [1921],
Ch. 13). The human intellect and nature as well, present a dual face of rationality and
With Bachelard, we return to a more serene view since conicts dissolve in what he
called the dialectics of reason. The quest for permanence was just an earlier stage that
the new scientic spirit superseded through an active process of rationalization of matter
resulting in a mutual construction of reality and rationality.
To nish I would like to reect on my own historiographical enterprise. Does it make
sense to emphasize the impact of one particular science on philosophical doctrines, which
clearly advocated the unity of scientic spirit? Indeed Duhem, Meyerson and Bachelard
aimed at characterizing the scientic method in general. Unlike Auguste Comte they
did not assume that each science has its own method. However even though they did
not develop a regional epistemology they did attempt a regional philosophy of the sci-
ences. As Meyerson stated, each science has its own irrationals. And the challenge posed
by chemistry is that its irrationals are incorporated in matter: they are everywhere, in a
glass of sugared water or in the kitchen salt that we use everyday.


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