I've always "known" that the phlogiston theory was naive and unsupported by the facts, which is why it was toppled pretty much instantaneously by Lavoisier's discovery of the role of oxygen. However, this article makes a case that this point of view is naive and that phlogiston anticipated by more than a century Gibbs' discovery of why chemical reactions happen, a question to which Lavoisier's theory had no answer, and thus in a sense was a step backwards.

I'm not at all qualified to judge these claims. Hence my questions:

  • How mainstream are the claims in this paper with respect to chemistry and history of chemistry? Are they known facts well-restated? Reasonable, but unorthodox opinions? Extremely controversial and not at all convincing?
  • Assuming the history of the phlogiston theory and Lavoisier's "Chemical Revolution" is more than the naive version one reads in something like a science encyclopedia, can you recommend a history of chemistry that recounts the subtleties and the contemporary spirit of these events? If it all possible, I'd really like to try and understand how chemistry looked like before the atomic theory etc., what did people think, how they worked, what was known and possible.
  • $\begingroup$ I think it was a pretty astute observation for how little we knew about combustion processes at the time $\endgroup$
    – galois
    Dec 14, 2014 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ A good historical/philosophical (of science) review of the issue is Alan Musgrave, Why did oxygen supplant phlogiston? Research programmes in the Chemical Revolution, in Colin Howson (editor), Method and appraisal in the physical sciences (1976), page 181-on. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2014 at 9:56

1 Answer 1


Hasok Chang is pretty mainstream: former President and Vice President of the British Society for the History of Science. His article We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston) begins:

From a modern perspective, Lavoisier’s theory is just as wrong as advanced versions of the phlogiston theory. Three of the central pillars of Lavoisier’s system are clearly at odds with modern chemistry: the oxygen theory of acidity, the caloric theory of heat (which also explained the three states of matter), and the theory of combustion (especially with regard to the production of heat and light). On the other hand, if we examine Lavoisier’s lasting contributions, we find that various phlogistonists anticipated or outdid Lavoisier .... The real problem with the much-reviled traditional historiography of the Chemical Revolution (and of much else) is not whiggism, but a crude triumphalism, which unreflectively continues to celebrate what was once victorious in the past.

Section 2 of this paper is a detailed critique of Lavoisier's theories vs. the phlogiston theory.

Another good read is this post by Thony Christie, who blogs about the history of science. A sample:

It is very easy from our standpoint in the twenty-first century to pour scorn on the theory of phlogiston, which viewed whiggishly, that is in comparison to our current knowledge of chemistry, can in some of its aspect appear more than somewhat ridiculous. However viewed within the context of the situation in which it was born the phlogiston theory made a great deal of sense.

Similar arguments can be made about many discarded theories, prime among them the Ptolemaic theory. Most of these negative evaluations arise from what Michael Bycroft calls the fixed-evidence fallacy:

This fallacy is committed by many works of history that assess the reasonableness of past beliefs according to how closely those beliefs resemble our own.

My problem with this history is not that it assesses past scientists, nor that it assesses past scientists by present-day standards. It is that it is a bad way of assessing past scientists by our standards. It is bad because the evidence for most theories has changed through the past, and the reasonableness of those theories has changed accordingly.

This is a mundane point that does not require any Kuhn-like shifts in norms or standards or research-programs. After reading the weather forecast last night it was reasonable for me to believe that it would not rain today. Now, watching the looming storm clouds, that belief is no longer reasonable. What has changed is not my norms or standards but the state of the evidence.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.