Experimental history and Herman Boerhaave’s chemistry of plants

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 34 (4):533-567 (2003)
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Abstract

In the early eighteenth century, chemistry became the main academic locus where, in Francis Bacon's words, Experimenta lucifera were performed alongside Experimenta fructifera and where natural philosophy was coupled with natural history and 'experimental history' in the Baconian and Boyleian sense of an inventory and exploration of the extant operations of the arts and crafts. The Dutch social and political system and the institutional setting of the university of Leiden endorsed this empiricist, utilitarian orientation toward the sciences, which was forcefully propagated by one of the university's most famous representatives in the first half of the eighteenth century, the professor of medicine, botany and chemistry Herman Boerhaave. Recent historical investigations on Boerhaave's chemistry have provided important insights into Boerhaave's religious background, his theoretical and philosophical goals, and his pedagogical agenda. But comparatively little attention has been paid to the chemical experiments presented in Boerhaave's famous chemical textbook, the Elementa chemiae, and to the question of how these experiments relate not only to experimental philosophy but also to experimental history and natural history, and to contemporary utilitarianism. I argue in this essay that Boerhaave shared a strong commitment to Baconian utilitarianism and empiricism with many other European chemists around the middle of the eighteenth century, in particular to what Bacon designated 'experimental history' and I will provide evidence for this claim through a careful analysis of Boerhaave's plant-chemical experiments presented in the Elementa chemiae.

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