Thursday, September 24, 2009

Our New Series: Building Your Own Jaki Library

I seem to have less and less time - I really do not understand why that is. But that ought not concern you - you ought to be concerned with your own work, and the work of our Society - which must be in service of Truth, or it is an utter waste of time.

And so, even though we have made little progress in some formal "foundation" of our Society, we are trying to serve Truth by studying and considering the writing of Duhem and Jaki, and the larger context of Science - writ large - and its history and its philosophy.

One of the difficult tasks we face is to collect the works of these men. As you know, some are presently in print, some are out of print, and some are insurmountable challenges (in my own case, because I cannot read French). But we do have at least some preliminary guides to their publications, so we have a starting point for our book-shopping.

Today, I shall begin a new series which will suggest certain books we might desire in our "Jaki Library". Note, I do not claim to know that any of these books were truly among those of SLJ (or of PD, for that matter) but that does not matter for our purpose. The titles are important for our study. So, I will merely provide some titles which are mentioned in those books, and in some cases I can even mention a place where one may acquire them: the wonderful Dover Publications.

To begin, I have selected an important book by Lavoisier which Fr. Jaki mentions in several places, notably here:
It was Becher's terra pinguis that was renamed phlogiston by Stahl in 1703, or motion of heat and fire, which according to Stahl formed the metals when mixed with calx.

Farfetched as this generalization [about the nature of matter - the "elements"] was, it presented before very long a clear-cut challenge to quantitative verification, which in turn led to a revolution in chemistry, a revolution that also meant a parting with views claiming too much authority in the scientific investigation of matter. The lion's share of the credit for ushering in this revolution and a better understanding of the elements should no doubt go to Lavoisier. He towered above his fellow chemists not only in seeing more deeply in the jumble of accumulated data but also in having a keener appreciation of the extent of what still might remain unknown in man's understanding of matter. Lack of caution was indeed the shortcoming for which he took his predecessors to task. to task. Such criticism was valid not only of the predecessors and followers of Stahl but also of those who, like Peter Shaw, John Friend, Boerhaave, and others, were prompted to dogmatic statements by their hopes that the chemistry of their day could be made an exact science along the lines of Newtonian physics. To both groups applied the remark that Lavoisier made in the preface to his Elements of Chemistry (1789): "All these chemists were carried along by the influence of the genius of the age in which they lived, which contented itself with assertion without proofs; or, at least, often admitted as proofs the slightest degrees of probability, unsupported by that strictly rigorous analysis required by modern philosophy." The scope of these harsh words was, however, not so much a self-righteous indictment of the failure of his forbears in chemistry, as a warning of the debilitating influence that the state of mind of individuals or the "genius" of an age might have on scientific research. To advance science therefore was to break with inherited ways of thought, a break with blatantly careless reasonings, "scientific" prejudices, and self-flattery, or, in short, to initiate a revolution. To this he referred as early as 1773 in his laboratory notebook, where he described his program as one that "seemed destined to bring about a revolution in physics and chemistry."

Still, the prospect of revolutionizing a fundamental branch of science did not go to his head. He spoke of the safeguards with which he intended to repeat experiments to establish the real import of hundreds of experiments performed before him, and he never lost sight of the most important of his goals, which he stated in 1777 as follows: "It is time to bring chemistry to a more rigorous way of reasoning." This rigor he achieved in a measure far surpassing any of the chemists before him. But the price of rigor was a cautious, noncommittal attitude to be taken at junctures where almost anyone else would have been carried away into making "definitive" statements.

The temptation of doing so must have been high in view of the exciting vista that opened before him once he recognized the role of the oxygenic principle and turned his back on phlogiston. As he put it in the same Mémoire: "Once this principle is admitted, the chief difficulties of chemistry seem to dissipate themselves and to vanish, and all the phenomena may be explained in astonishing simplicity." Yet, when chemistry came to be laid on firm ground for the first time in his Elements of Chemistry, Lavoisier's tone could not have been more soberingly objective. It might have reminded the reader of Newton, correlating the most disparate phenomena through a single mathematical relation, without committing himself ever so slightly to the nature or cause of gravitation. Similar was the manner in which Lavoisier presented his views on the elements. About their nature and number he wrote that it "can be speculated upon in a thousand different ways, not one of which, in all probability, is consistent with nature." Consequently he contented himself with saying that his definition of an element was a provisional one and depended on the actually available chemical means of decomposing substances. Anything that could not be further reduced was therefore for the time being to be considered an element; or to quote him, an element "is the last point that analysis is capable of reaching." None of the thirty-three elements he listed did he want to endow with an aura of absolute finality, although twenty-three of them took their places in Mendeleev's table. Although he listed the caloric as an element, he added that one is "not obliged to suppose this to be a real substance." In the same vein he explicitly indicated that what he called the "earths" might soon cease to be considered simple bodies. This was a conjecture, however, and Lavoisier felt a duty to advise his reader: "I trust the reader will take care not to confound what I have related as truths, fixed on the firm basis of observation and experiment, with mere hpothetical conjectures."

To emphasize the wide difference between conjectures and experimental evidence was not to be construed as an intent to depreciate theory. Dangerous as the "spirit of systems" proved for science, no less to be feared, according to Lavoisier, was the inordinate accumulation of facts. Long and painstaking efforts deserved, in his view, more than being left in disorder and confusion. Theory, Lavoisier argued, had to have rather a liberating effect on scientific investigation: it had to show the road to clarification without curtailing the freedom of the investigator to follow a new lead, as fresh data came to light. This was a timely reflection, for the process of conquering unknown areas began to accelerate more rapidly than ever in the study of matter. "Chemistry advances towards perfection," wrote Lavoisier, "by dividing and subdividing," and of this process he found it impossible to say "where it is to end."

But he too had his moments of weakness as a scientific prognosticator. Contrasting the chasms of the chemistry of yesterday with the vision of a great synthesis suddenly looming ahead, he could not resist the lure of sanguine expectations: "We have ground to hope, even in our own times, to see it [chemistry] approach near to the highest state of perfection of which it is susceptible." His days, however, were not the ones destined to see the completion of chemistry, even if the Revolution had not extinguished in a second the brilliance of a genius, which a hundred years won't suffice, as Lagrange remarked, to reproduce. The extent of the secrets of matter was not to be measured in the small units of complacent hopes.

It was the precision of Lavoisier's balance that led to the abandonment of the concept of phlogiston and made possible the reorganization of the study of matter on a basis that was designed to emulate the clarity of the Newtonian system. As the younger Herschel put it, the mistakes and confusion of Stahlian chemistry "dissipated like a morning mist as soon as precision came to be regarded as essential." Phlogiston theory was only one of the various non-mechanical theories that came to be abandoned during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chiefly under the impact of increased precision in measurement.
[SLJ, The Relevance of Physics 150-3, 249]
Clearly, this is an important book - but elsewhere Father Jaki noted:
All copies of the few editions and translations of Lavoisier's Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789) are on the rare books list.
[SLJ, The Only Chaos, 180]
Since he wrote in 1990, Dover Publications reprinted a translation, and so you can now acquire your own copy of Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry.

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