The sceptical chymist
From the introduction:
Sceptical Chymist deals with the experimental evidence, and the reasoning based thereon, adduced by the " hermetick philosophers " that is, the followers of the Aristotelian doctrine to prove that all " mixt bodies " are compounded of four elements earth, air, fire, and water; and with the experiments and reasoning whereto the " vulgar spagyrists " of more than two centuries ago that is, those who analyse and synthesise material things appealed for proof of their assertion that the principles of things are three in number, and are salt, sulphur, and mercury.
On the face of it, no great interest seems to belong now to a discussion about the four elements and the three principles, conducted at a time when physical science had not taken definite form when men's ideas about the changes of material things were vague and inchoate when exact methods of investigating these changes were unknown when moral qualities were attributed to inanimate objects, and the examination of natural events was regarded as a part of " contemplative philosophy " rather than a branch of experimental inquiry. But, let the questions discussed by Boyle in The Sceptical Chymist be stated in then* most general form, the importance and interest of them are seen to be great and universal \ It is impossible to look around without noticing that most things are constantly changing. If spring is changing into summer as it is changing now scarce a moment passes unmarked by the coming of a deeper green; the laburnum, whose depending flowers were yesterday tipped with yellow, today delights the eye with a feast of colour; the apple blossom is fading and the fruit is setting; the meadows which a week ago were arrayed in the gorgeous yellow robes of kingcups are now showing a more sober greenness; a morning visit to the garden reveals tenderly coloured shoots that were not visible yesterday; the orange-yellow of the gorse is duller than it was a week ago, and gives place to the purer colour of the broom.
One must ask many questions. How are these never-ending changes affected? Can we, by seeking, discover a limit to the changes of matter? Can we discover the order and the method of the myriad metamorphoses that delight us? How shall we attain some definite knowledge of nature's transmutations? Shall we look inwards, and, constructing a universe of our own, project that on to external nature; or shall we, as far as we can, put away all preconceived opinions, and painfully investigate objective facts, undeterred by the reproach that we are banishing poetry from nature, that we are dethroning divine reason, and taking crude empiricism to be our guide? These questions, and questions like these, have been asked by men during many millenniums.
The Sceptical Chymist deals with such questions and gives us deep-going objections to the answers given to them by the intellectualists of the seventeenth century, and the outlines of answers framed by a great scientific investigator of nature. It is true that Boyle lived before the methods of physical science had been classified and made incisive, before great conceptions, at once rigid and flexible, had been gained by students of natural science; but it is also true that Boyle was a man of genius. It is the special prerogative of genius to go direct to the centre of things, to see what Clerk- Maxwell when a boy used to call "the particular go " of a thing, to seize the essential and let the nonessentials pass. Like every true genius, Boyle was in advance of his time. Genius is not produced by the spirit of the age; it is the spirit of the age that is produced by genius. We may greatly profit from the study of Boyle's book.
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