How chemistry shifts horizons: Element, substance, and the essential

Foundations of Chemistry 11 (2):65-77 (2009)
Abstract
In 1931 eminent chemist Fritz Paneth maintained that the modern notion of “element” is closely related to (and as “metaphysical” as) the concept of element used by the ancients (e.g., Aristotle). On that basis, the element chlorine (properly so-called) is not the elementary substance dichlorine, but rather chlorine as it is in carbon tetrachloride. The fact that pure chemicals are called “substances” in English (and closely related words are so used in other European languages) derives from philosophical compromises made by grammarians in the late Roman Empire (particularly Priscian [fl. ~520 CE]). When the main features of the constitution of isotopes became clear in the first half of the twentieth century, the formal (IUPAC) definition of a “chemical element” was changed. The features that are “essential” to being an element had previously been “transcendental” (“beyond the sphere of consciousness”) but, by the mid-twentieth century the defining characteristics of elements, as such, had come to be understood in detail. This amounts to a shift in a “horizon of invisibility” brought about by progress in chemistry and related sciences. Similarly, chemical insight is relevant to currently-open philosophical problems, such as the status of “the bundle theory” of the coherence of properties in concrete individuals.
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