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The philosophy of chemistry considers the methodology and underlying assumptions of the science of chemistry. It is explored by philosophers, chemists, and philosopher-chemist teams. For much of its history, philosophy of science has been dominated by the philosophy of physics, but the philosophical questions that arise from chemistry have received increasing attention since the latter part of the 20th century.[1][2]


Foundations of chemistry

Major philosophical questions arise as soon as one attempts to define chemistry and what it studies. Atoms and molecules are often assumed to be the fundamental units of chemical theory,[3] but traditional descriptions of molecular structure and chemical bonding fail to account for the properties of many substances, including metals and metal complexes[4] and aromaticity.[5] Chemists frequently use non-existent chemical entities like transition states[5] and resonance structures[4][5] to explain the structure and reactions of different substances; these explanatory tools use the language and graphical representations of molecules to describe the behavior of chemicals and chemical reactions that in reality do not behave as straightforward molecules. Some chemists and philosophers of chemistry prefer to think of substances, rather than microstructures, as the fundamental units of study in chemistry. There is not always a one-to-one correspondence between the two methods of classifying substances.[3] For example, many rocks exist as mineral complexes composed of multiple ions that do not occur in fixed proportions or spatial relationships to one another.[4]

A related philosophical problem is whether chemistry is the study of substances or reactions.[3] Atoms, even in a solid, are in perpetual motion and under the right conditions many chemicals react spontaneously to form new products. A variety of environmental variables contribute to a substance's properties, including temperature and pressure, proximity to other molecules and the presence of a magnetic field.[3][4][5] As Schummer puts it, “Substance philosophers define a chemical reaction by the change of certain substances, whereas process philosophers define a substance by its characteristic chemical reactions.”[3]

Philosophers of chemistry discuss whether nature is symmetric as between right-and left-handedness. Organic (i.e., carbon-based) molecules are those most often handed one way or another, i.e., "stereo-specific." Left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars are the basis of the chemistry of life. Chemists, biochemists, and biologists alike debate the origins of this stereo-specificity. Philosophers want to know if life emerged as it did contingently, amid a lifeless and symmetrical chemical world, or did life emerge, in part, because chemistry was already stereo-specific? Some speculate that humans will know the answer only when we can compare earth-bound life with extraterrestrial life. Some philosophers question whether humans want nature to be symmetrical, thereby causing them to resist or ignore evidence to the contrary.

One of the most topical issues is determining to what extent physics, specifically, quantum mechanics, explains chemical phenomena. Can chemistry, in fact, be reduced to physics as has been assumed by many, or are there inexplicable gaps? Some authors have recently suggested that a number of difficulties exist in the reductionist program, notwithstanding our increasing knowledge of the microcosmic realm. The noted philosopher of science, Karl Popper, among others, predicted as much.


Chemistry is in a sense the paradigmatic laboratory science, one that predates both experimental and theoretical physics. While astronomers have to get along without experimenting directly on the distant objects of their attention, and biologists have to experiment within ethical and legal restraints on more available objects, chemistry conforms to, and indeed gave rise to, textbook explanations of what constitutes the scientific method.

One theme arising from chemical experiments is the value of ambiguity as a spur to the type of science that chemists do. Emily R. Grosholz and Roald Hoffmann, for example, have argued that equivocations in chemistry have helped bridge the gap between experiment and theory, thereby advancing the field. Such an argument challenges preconceptions to the effect that the more fully concepts are clarified, the more useful they will prove.

Philosophers of chemistry

Several philosophers and scientists have focused on the philosophy of chemistry in recent years, notably, the Dutch philosopher Jaap van Brakel, who wrote The Philosophy of Chemistry in 2000, and the Maltese philosopher-chemist Eric Scerri, editor of the journal "Foundations of Chemistry" and author of Normative and Descriptive Philosophy of Science and the Role of Chemistry in Philosophy of Chemistry, 2004, among other articles. Scerri is especially interested in the philosophical foundations of the periodic table, and how physics and chemistry intersect in relation to it, which he contends is not merely a matter for science, but for philosophy.[6]

Although in other fields of science students of the method are generally not practitioners in the field, in chemistry (particularly in synthetic organic chemistry) intellectual method and philosophical foundations are often explored by investigators with active research programmes. Elias James Corey developed the concept of "retrosynthesis" published a seminal work "the logic of chemical synthesis" which deconstructs these thought processes and speculates on computer-assisted synthesis. Other chemists such as K.C. Nicolaou (co-author of Classics in Total Synthesis) have followed in his lead.

Further reading




  • Philosophy of Chemistry, J. van Brakel, Leuven University Press, 2000. ISBN 9-05867-063-5
  • Philosophy of Chemistry : Synthesis of a New Discipline, Davis Baird, Eric Scerri, Lee McIntyre (eds.), Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. ISBN 1402032560
  • The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, E.R. Scerri, Oxford University Press, New York, 2006. ISBN 0195305736
  • Of Minds and Molecules: New Philosophical Perspectives on Chemistry, 'Nalini Bhushan and Stuart Rosenfeld (eds.), Oxford University Press, 2000, Reviewed by Michael Weisberg


  1. ^ Weisberg, M. (2001). Why not a philosophy of chemistry? American scientist. Retrieved April 10, 2009 from [1]
  2. ^ Scerri, E.R., & McIntyre, L. (1997). The case for the philosophy of chemistry. Synthese, 111: 213–232. Retrieved April 10, 2009 from here
  3. ^ a b c d e Schummer, Joaquin. (2006). Philosophy of science. In Encyclopedia of philosophy, second edition. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  4. ^ a b c d Ebbing, D., & Gammon, S. (2005). General chemistry. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
  5. ^ a b c d Pavia, D., Lampman, G., & Kriz, G. (2004). Organic chemistry, volume 1. Mason, OH: Cenage Learning.
  6. ^ Scerri, Eric R. (2008). Collected Papers on Philosophy of Chemistry. London: Imperial College Press. ISBN 978-1-84816-137-5.  

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