Synthesis, Arabic Etymological Fun, and Beginning a Dissertation

One of the primary activities that chemists engage in is synthesis, the production of new molecules out of already-known components. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann has argued in recent years that this focus on synthesis is part of what makes finding a philosophy of chemistry so difficult, because philosophers don’t really have cause to talk about synthesis in other areas and so don’t have a ready-made vocabulary or history of thinking about problems associated with the making of things. I always thought this was a sort of cute and interesting, and correct, point, but never knew what to do with it.

Then I decided to teach a unit on alchemy in my Myth and Science class last Tuesday.

While preparing my lecture, I stumbled across some etymological fun that played with translations between Greek and Arabic synonyms and cognates for various words describing metallurgical and alchemical practices. (Thanks to J.D. Trout for the reference to the Encyclopedia of Islam, which kicked all of this off!) This is what I found: one of the Arabic synonyms for “al-kimiya” (the word we get “alchemy” from) is “al-san’a,” whose Greek cognate is “ποηισις,” or “poeisis.” “Poeisis” is the term Aristotle used to describe a particular division of the sciences, the “poetical” or “productive” sciences, which he distinguished from the “theoretical” and the “practical” sciences. Alchemy was, according to Aristotle, one of these productive sciences, whose aim was to produce knowledge for the purpose of (surprise!) making things, rather than knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself (the aim of the theoretical sciences–physics, etc.) or knowledge for the sake of living a better life (the aim of the practical sciences–ethics, etc.).

Do you see what this means? Hoffmann’s distinction is not just a cute new way of pointing out one aspect of the marginalization of philosophy of chemistry. It is a (possibly unwitting, as there is no reference to Aristotle in Hoffmann’s article) modern-day take on a distinction between chemical-type practices and physics-type practices that goes all the way back to HPS’ favorite dead Greek guy.

More importantly, fans of chemistry and philosophy of science, this means that Aristotle saw a really fundamental difference between alchemical practices (which were, to be fair, largely metallurgical at the time) and the practice of physics that is not really acknowledged by the philosophy-of-science community today. Taking up this distinction and using it to really show what is different and special about the practice of chemistry seems to be an important step in developing a mature philosophy of chemistry that is not simply parasitic on the philosophies of other sciences (i.e. one that is not mainly concerned with the reduction of chemistry to physics, or biology to chemistry).

Anyway, my lecture on Tuesday was just great fun and I even talked to my students a bit about Hoffmann, and I’ve incorporated the upshot of my etymological spelunking into an abstract that considers why chemical explanation is different than explanation in physics, using Bob Batterman’s characterization of what constitutes an explanation in physics–mainly because I think it is a better characterization of explanation than most, and partly because I have a paper on explanation due to Bob in a few weeks. More on that after the paper is written, which is what I should be doing now.

But before I go back to being a responsible producer of seminar papers, I have to share a little more of my excitement about this Aristotelian connection. I think this may be a jumping-off point for the dissertation that is looming, and (as my adviser is quick to point out) what I need to do next is figure out where to go from here. He thinks the explanation route is too “tame,” which I think is true, if irritating. I guess the next logical step is to read up on foundational issues associated with synthesis, and look at what Aristotelian commentators have said about the productive sciences in modern times. Which reminds me, I need to e-mail someone to help me with some references for the latter. Apparently a lot of work on the productive sciences has been done in connection with philosophy of medicine and some with aesthetics, but not much with chemistry or alchemy. Which, I think, bodes well for me.

Sigh. Enough putting off the real work with reports of exciting discoveries.


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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