More than twenty years ago, the late Carleton Perrin likened the current state of our scholarly understanding of the Chemical Revolution to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. While historians of this complex event have a shared sense of being in the presence of a great beast, they mistake the part each of them has touched for the whole thing and hence cannot agree on its nature or identity.1 As a historical event, the Chemical Revolution is readily identi ed. It occurred towards the end of the eighteenth century and involved some of the nest scienti c minds of Europe in an upheaval of considerable scope and consequence. What is not so easy to determine is the meaning or signi cance of this event, both for its participants and for subsequent commentators. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians of chemistry identi ed the Chemical Revolution with the con ict between the English natural philosopher Joseph Priestley and the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier over the nature of combustion, with Priestley defending the traditional view that burning substances emit ‘phlogiston’ (the principle of in ammability) against Lavoisier’s innovative suggestion that they absorb oxygen. But the issues joined in this debate went well beyond the question of the empirical adequacy of competing scienti c explanations, encompassing methodological, epistemological, ontological, linguistic and institutional issues that related to the very identity of chemistry as a scienti c discipline. While generations of historians of chemistry have been united in the belief that the birth of modern chemistry involved a fundamental break with previous chemical theory and practice, they have failed to arrive at any consensus on the identity of the o spring and the nature of its gestation. Did this act of parturition, which brought forth modern chemistry, hinge upon an experimental discovery, a theoretical insight, a methodological reform, an epistemological reorientation, or an ontological puri cation? Or did it involve the coming of reason to an arcane corner of experimental knowledge, or merely the machination of local sociological forces? e aim of this study is to explore these di erent interpretations of the Chemical Revolution, elucidate their underlying historiographical principles and philosophical presuppositions, and propose
a new interpretation that recognizes the complexity and temporality of this perplexing and elusive historical event. As an exercise in the historiography of science, it is concerned not so much with the Chemical Revolution as an object of historical inquiry as with the di erent ways in which it has been described and interpreted by its participants and subsequent historians.