Disciplinary specialization–alchemy and chemistry

In another post, I said that as a system becomes increasingly complex, it may split itself into subsystems. This happens in academic departments and research specializations. Consider the branches of chemistry. There are five main branches of chemistry–organic, inorganic, analytical, biochemistry, and physical. Each of these, of course, is broken down into several subdisciplines. Each specialty becomes its own social system with very little in common with other specialties. Everything outside of the specialty becomes the environment. The more specialized chemistry becomes, the less meaningful it becomes to speak of chemistry as a discipline. Thus, for a scientist to say she is “a chemist” comes to have very little meaning. This is case of semantic change reflecting structural change.

We can see the decreasing relevance of the word chemist in a Google Books Ngram.

Google Books Ngram for the word chemist, 1800-2015

This graph shows that the word chemist started appearing less often in books, many of which are in major university libraries, after 1919.

Biochemistry as a specific scientific discipline began sometime in the 19th century, or a little earlier, depending on which aspect of biochemistry is being focused on.

A crucial breakthrough for organic chemistry was the concept of chemical structure, developed independently in 1858.

Inorganic compounds have been known and used since antiquity; however, the chemical nature of these substances was unknown until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the modern field of Coordination Chemistry emerged.

Most of the major developments in analytical chemistry take place after 1900. In particular many of the basic spectroscopic and spectrometric techniques were discovered in the early 20th century and refined in the late 20th century.

Modern physical chemistry originated in the 1860s to 1880s with work on chemical thermodynamics, electrolytes in solutions, chemical kinetics and other subjects.

Wikipedia and other sources

The common assumption is that “pre-scientific” fields like alchemy are replaced by scientific fields like chemistry. But it’s possible that things like alchemy disappear when they become overly fragmented or complex. This might be something worth investigating. We tend to think religion has become irrelevant in contemporary “developed” societies, but maybe it’s actually become so fragmented that we hardly notice religion as a broad concept? When it’s so fragmented, the concept becomes unsustainable and meaningless.

The decline of European alchemy was brought about by the rise of modern science with its emphasis on rigorous quantitative experimentation and its disdain for “ancient wisdom”. Although the seeds of these events were planted as early as the 17th century, alchemy still flourished for some two hundred years, and in fact may have reached its peak in the 18th century. As late as 1781 James Price claimed to have produced a powder that could transmute mercury into silver or gold. Early modern European alchemy continued to exhibit a diversity of theories, practices, and purposes: “Scholastic and anti-Aristotelian, Paracelsian and anti-Paracelsian, Hermetic, Neoplatonic, mechanistic, vitalistic, and more—plus virtually every combination and compromise thereof.”


Lawrence Principe (“Alchemy Restored” 2011), shows that 19th century scientific discourse used alchemy as the “other” in its self-definition, very much like it used religion—mocking and distorting it. In premodern natural philosophy, religion, philosophy, and “science” were not separated or treated as as antagonistic to each other. Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and others belonged to this tradition of natural philosophy. Alchemy was called chrysopoeia.

The banishment of chrysopoeia—increasingly called “alchemy” in the early eighteenth century—from respectable chemistry remains a topic of study. Yet it is clear that developments in the
understanding of nature had little to do with it. No new theories or experiments sounded the death knell for chrysopoeia, and the arguments used against it in the 1720s were the same as those used routinely and ineffectively since the Middle Ages. Early eighteenth-century antialchemical rhetoric, however, laid new emphasis on fraudulent practices. It was spokesmen for scientific societies and institutions . . . where chemistry was struggling to take on a new identity in terms of professionalization and social legitimacy, who led the charge. They cast alchemy as an intellectual taboo, its practitioners as socially unacceptable and disruptive, and its content and practice as something other than the chemistry they represented. This campaign was so successful that chrysopoeia disappeared from respectable circles within a generation (although some of the most prominent eighteenth-century chemists who rejected it publicly continued to pursue it privately).

Principe, L. M. (2011). Alchemy Restored. Isis102(2), 305–312. https://doi.org/10.1086/660139

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