The Hidden History of Phlogiston: How Philosophical Failure Can Generate Historiographical Refinement

Hyle 16 (2):47 - 79 (2010)

Hasok Chang
Cambridge University
Historians often feel that standard philosophical doctrines about the nature and development of science are not adequate for representing the real history of science. However, when philosophers of science fail to make sense of certain historical events, it is also possible that there is something wrong with the standard historical descriptions of those events, precluding any sensible explanation. If so, philosophical failure can be useful as a guide for improving historiography, and this constitutes a significant mode of productive interaction between the history and the philosophy of science. I illustrate this methodological claim through the case of the Chemical Revolution. I argue that no standard philosophical theory of scientific method can explain why European chemists made a sudden and nearly unanimous switch of allegiance from the phlogiston theory to Lavoisier's theory. A careful re-examination of the history reveals that the shift was neither so quick nor so unanimous as imagined even by many historians. In closing I offer brief reflections on how best to explain the general drift toward Lavoisier's theory that did take place
Keywords Philosophy of Chemistry  Chemical Revolution  phlogiston  history and philosophy of science  scientific change  Lavoisier
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Scientific Understanding: Truth or Dare?Henk W. de Regt - 2015 - Synthese 192 (12):3781-3797.
Scientific Pluralism and the Chemical Revolution.Martin Kusch - 2015 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 49:69-79.
Hysteria, Race, and Phlogiston. A Model of Ontological Elimination in the Human Sciences.David Ludwig - 2014 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 45 (1):68-77.
Inevitability, Contingency, and Epistemic Humility.Ian James Kidd - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:12-19.

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