Priestly, Joseph, The Doctrine of Phlogiston
and the Decomposition of Water, 1st ed.
32) Similarly, we can investigate the linguistic meaning of a legal text that is no longer in force, or that was never enacted, but if the claim that semantic and legal content are identical were true, such investigations would be senseless (33)--the equivalent of an attempt to investigate the nature of phlogiston
Terrence Deacon has listed a number of examples of misplaced concreteness including: Phlogiston
= fire substance, Caloric = heat substance (transferred between things), Luminiferous Ether = medium for wave & field effects, and Elan vital = essence of life.
We have atoms and electricity; we don't have phlogiston
or caloric fluid.
No doubt believers in phlogiston
and Ptolemaic astronomy were sorry to see their theories abandoned.
A Heat Transfer Textbook, Third Edition, Phlogiston
Press, Cambridge Massachusetts
Similarly, in the late-eighteenth century, the oxygen theory was the best explanation of weight relations in chemical reactions while the conflicting phlogiston
theory was the best explanation for why the properties of metals contrasted with the properties of the ores from which they were formed (Kuhn 1977, 323).
This version of scientific realism brings a new perspective on the problem of non-referential concepts of once successful scientific theories: "It took a realist attitude to propose that phlogiston
might exist, and it took a realist attitude to conclude, after some further inquires, that it does not exist after all: in both cases, one believes there is a fact of the matter in virtue of which phlogiston
does or does not exist (.
It is only a matter of time before someone discovers that it is not phlogiston
, but oxygen, that explains the burning of wood.
This is not a trivial problem: in chemistry alone, the lack of a classification system that distinguished mixtures from compounds held back the development of the atomic theory for many decades, and the early chemists' lack of a scheme of classification that would have enabled them to recognize that there are three states of matter, solid, liquid, and gas, contributed greatly to the difficulty of moving beyond the phlogiston
theory of combustion, and impeded the discovery of oxygen .
This book is quite remarkable: it is an exemplar of experimental scientific method, which details her painstaking investigation of new types of chemical reaction, and includes her opinion about the major theoretical issue of her time, the concept of phlogiston
Think too of the friends of phlogiston
, the foes of Gondwanaland