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Elements and (first) principles in chemistry.

Hendry, Robin Findlay (2021) 'Elements and (first) principles in chemistry.', Synthese., 198 . pp. 3391-3411.


The first principle of chemical composition is that elements are actually present in their compounds. It is a golden thread running through the history of compositional thinking in chemistry since before the chemical revolution. Opposed to this principle, which I call Actually Present Elements (APE), is the idea that elements are merely potentially present in their compounds: although not actually present, it is possible to recover them. In this paper I follow that golden thread, and then discuss the status of APE itself: is it true? What arguments were there for it, and when? I argue that APE is a metaphysical principle, albeit at a lower level of generality and abstraction than the term ‘metaphysical’ usually suggests. I critically examine a range of different views on how metaphysical principles might be involved in research programmes in empirical science, and conclude by endorsing Elie Zahar’s view that metaphysical principles such as APE are to be found at the very heart of science. Moreover, they can be recipients of empirical support just like other parts of scientific theory.

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Publisher statement:© The Author(s) 2019. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Date accepted:01 July 2019
Date deposited:26 July 2019
Date of first online publication:24 July 2019
Date first made open access:15 July 2021

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