Philosophy Philosophy of Chemistry
William Mark Goodwin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0018


Certain episodes in the history of chemistry have been of recurring interest to philosophers. These include the chemical revolution at the end of the 18th century and the gradual move toward atomism through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally and not surprisingly, given the historical turn in the philosophy of science, a general interest and concern with the history of chemistry is evident in most philosophical work in this field. The philosophy of chemistry as a distinct subdiscipline has, however, a relatively short history. Initially, interest in this new field centered on issues of reduction and the unity of the sciences—in particular, on the relationship between chemistry and physics. Subsequently, the range of issues explored by philosophers working in this field expanded substantially. One avenue of expansion has been into issues surrounding the classification of chemical substances and in particular the relationship between microscopic and macroscopic characterizations of chemical kinds. These issues connect up with broader themes in the philosophy of language and metaphysics where some have appealed to microstructure as constituting the essence of natural kind terms. Following broader trends in the philosophy of science, there has been interest in both the distinctive nature of chemical inquiry and the range of cognitive tools used within it. The pragmatic orientation of chemistry shows up in both the aims of chemists—manifest in the focus on synthesis—and in the prominent role of empirical feedback in theory development. Similarly, the complexity of chemistry (relative to standard philosophical models of scientific inquiry) has led to the development of distinctive conceptual tools—such as mechanisms and molecular orbitals—designed to manage and unify the vast array of chemical knowledge. Lastly, nonlinguistic representations, such as structural formulas and potential energy diagrams, are obviously a central part of chemical discourse. Philosophers have begun to try to understand how the distinctive conceptual tools and representations of chemists help them get a grip on the phenomena they study.

General Resources

Two journals are devoted primarily to the philosophy of chemistry. Hyle is an online journal, while Foundations of Chemistry is available in print as well as online. Both journals have useful websites. Weisberg and Needham 2010 is a review article on the philosophy of chemistry.

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