Phlogiston and You!

In the Natural Sciences class I’m taking, we’ve spent the last couple weeks working through various attempts to understand the nature of heat. As it turns out, Bacon “got it right” early on by proposing that heat was in some sense motion, but it is surprising how tenacious the view of heat as some type of “fire particle” was. The theory of phlogiston (i.e., fire-matter united with other types of matter in chemical compounds) was so stubbornly adhered to that the person who (arguably) discovered what we would now call oxygen thought he had actually produced something called “dephlogisticated air,” and even Lavoisier, who properly discovered and named oxygen as such, maintained a variation on the phlogiston theory with his notion of heat particles called “caloric.”

We started the class the the pre-Socratics, and I was working my way through Being and Time during those weeks, so for me this whole class has been framed by the “question of the meaning of Being.” It seems to me that a lot of these problems could’ve been avoided had the scientists in question thought more attentively about that question. For instance, it seems to me that in all their texts, there’s a latent conceptual distinction between heat-as-substance and heat-as-effect — why should the latter be limited to cases where the former is present? And if it shouldn’t, what work is the notion of a heat-substance really doing? Can’t there “be” heat in some sense even if it’s not a substance?

Further, it seems to me that the advent of modern science in rebellion against Aristotelian scholasticism follows a familiar pattern where surface-level polemic masks a deeper solidarity: in this case, both share the metaphysics of substance. I wonder if a more authentic return to Aristotle and specifically to his theory of potentiality as one of “the ways in which being is said” may have provided a more fruitful conceptual framework.

4 thoughts on “Phlogiston and You!

  1. I saw a programme on the BBC the other day about thermodynamics, which made me appreciate the intellectual leap involved in the abstraction of “energy”; the idea that an object being hot, an object moving at a certain speed, and an object being at a particular height, all in some sense contain the same “thing” is actually a really strange one. I guess there is a certain modulation in the metaphysics of substance here – from substance understood in terms of more-or-less everyday objects (phlogiston being mostly the same sort of thing as water), to a much more abstract “substance” like energy.

  2. Right now we’re going through some of the initial experiments that established that mechanical energy and heat energy are in some sense “the same thing” — and it is really counterintuitive. Rumsford, for instance, set up an experiment where friction was produced in a box full of water, and he displayed a childlike wonder that the water could actually be brought to a boil by purely mechanical means.

    Another point that I’m not giving enough credit to is the fact that heat really does behave like a fluid at a sufficiently macro level. So assuming there’s some kind of “fire-fluid” would’ve fit perfectly with the data at a certain point in the development of scientific instruments and experiments.

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