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Kant's Philosophy of Chemistry

  • Author(s): McNulty, Michael Bennett
  • Advisor(s): Heis, Jeremy
  • et al.

In his Metaphysiche Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft(1786), Immanuel Kant claims that chemistry is an improper, but rational, science. In this dissertation, I explain Kant's conception of chemistry by situating his discussions of the science with respect to his theoretical philosophy and his scientific context.

In the first chapter, I explain why Kant believes chemistry to be an improper science. In the Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft, Kant maintains that the a priori application of mathematics in proper science distinguishes it from improper science. Because of his opposition to mechanical philosophy, which reduces natural phenomena to mathematically expressible qualities, Kant took the application of mathematics to be a nontrivial problem. He contends that there must be a priori, metaphysical principles that validate the application of mathematics to a proper science. Ultimately, Kant argues that the forces of chemistry, unlike those of physics, are incapable of such a priori validation, making chemistry a merely improper science.

The second chapter concerns chemistry's status as a rational science. I contend that rational sciences, unlike mere sciences, are capable of genuine, causal laws for Kant. I argue that there are different kinds of causal laws in different sciences: whereas the laws of physics are conditions for the possibility of experience of external objects, the laws of chemistry are quite different. Kant believes that the cognitive faculty of reason postulates chemical elements as the absolute, fundamental bearers of chemical powers, and that chemical laws are possible only insofar as they follow from the nature of these postulated entities.

In the last chapter, I argue that Kant continues to believe chemistry to be an improper, though rational, science in his unfinished Opus Postumum (ca. 1795-1803). In this work, after his exposure to Lavoisier's chemical revolution, Kant claims that the existence of the caloric can be deduced a priori and that the elements can be enumerated a priori. Nevertheless, I contend that the newly added a priori components neither belong to chemistry nor validate the mathematization of the science. Rather, they are parts of the transition (Übergang), which explains the systematicity of natural science.

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