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  • James Ladyman & Vanessa Seifert

The contributions of Geoffrey Blumenthal: From Copernicus’s astronomy to Lavoisier’s chemistry

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Excelling in any single field is a hard thing to do. Geoffrey Blumenthal was one of those rare people who excelled in several; he was an accomplished artist and had a distinguished career as an architect for which he was awarded an O.B.E. On retirement from professional practice he pursued a masters degree in philosophy and history of science and then completed a doctorate in the history and philosophy of chemistry (both at the University of Bristol). His publication record is very impressive, especially if we consider that in the scope of six years he published ten papers and completed his masters and doctorate (which was awarded ‘Best Doctoral Research Thesis’ of the year by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol).

This essay pays tribute to Geoffrey Blumenthal’s academic work by reviewing the main areas of research he pursued, his results, and his exemplary methodology. We hope this will inspire people to explore his work.

Areas of Research

Geoffrey’s overall goal was to develop an account of the history of science that avoided the relativism associated with Kuhn’s account of scientific revolutions, while fully accounting for the complexities of the development of science and its historical and social context. His publications focus on specific controversies that arise in the largely distinct scholarly literature on two of Kuhn’s central examples, namely the Copernican Revolution and the Chemical Revolution.

Initially, Geoffrey Blumenthal worked on the early life of Copernicus which had previously been neglected by historians of science. His work significantly improves our understanding of the context of Copernicus’s work. Geoffrey uncovered how socio-political factors in Copernicus’s early life influenced the way he developed his astronomy. In particular, Geoff examined how 15th century politics influenced Copernicus’s formulation of the heliocentric system and determined his publication strategy. He also rebutted influential work claiming that astrology was a significant factor in the development of Copernicus’s mathematical astronomy. Reading Geoffrey’s works, one gets a fascinating image of the history of 15th century Europe; one which intertwines the political agenda of Teutonic Knights with the power struggles among princes, the political consequences of astrological predictions as well as the effects of papal diplomacy onto scientific practice. Overall, Geoffrey’s research enriches one’s understanding of the socio-political context in which Copernicus formed his ideas and which influenced how he worked and presented his ideas.

The second field in which Geoffrey Blumenthal worked was the history and philosophy of chemistry. His doctoral thesis and many papers were on the Chemical Revolution. The Chemical Revolution is one of the most important events in the history of chemistry; one which has impacted our understanding of not only chemistry’s development as a scientific discipline, but also of theory change more generally. Thomas Kuhn is perhaps the most recognisable figure in the study of these issues, as he repeatedly cites the Chemical Revolution in arguing for a discontinuous image of scientific change which involves paradigm shifts and radical revisions in scientists’s world-views.

In this context, Geoffrey investigated in detail the development of phlogiston theory, as well as the oxygen theory of Lavoisier, and debates about them in the primary and secondary literature. He argued that Kuhn’s idea of theory change and scientific revolutions is not well-supported by the case of the Chemical Revolution as historical records show that chemists working within different Kuhnian paradigms, managed to not only communicate their ideas, but also to evaluate them in the context of opposing world-views. Geoffrey uncovered previously unknown or neglected primary sources of the 17th and 18th centuries, including correspondence between chemists, state records from France, the UK, Germany and Poland, and rare publications of working chemists of the time. Based on this, Geoffrey presented previously unknown facts regarding the shift from phlogiston theories to Lavoisier’s oxygen theory. He argued that phlogiston theory proliferated into different forms as the experimental evidence increased to the point that the phlogistionists abandoned some of their core beliefs and could not agree among themselves. He produced a detailed study of Priestley’s changing ideas about the composition of water and related gases as increasing experimental evidence meant no one version of the phlogiston theory could be made to work. He showed that there was a greater continuity during the shift from phlogistic theories to Lavoisier’s oxygen theory than Kuhn and others claim, and that the chemists were able to secure reference to different gases that could be made experimentally despite their theoretical disagreements. He also argued that there were crucial experiments in eighteenth century chemistry and that the underdetermination problem was solved in practice in favour of the oxygen theory.

Research methodology

The main features that characterise Geoffrey Blumenthal’s work is that it is interdisciplinary, based on meticulous attention to detail, and scientifically and historically exceptionally thorough. Geoffrey’s work is valuable not only because it contributed to the above issues but also because it represents an exemplary way of studying the history and philosophy of science. In particular, his methodology included a very detailed study of primary sources, including not only the writings of the scientific actors, but also of any other sources that were relevant to understanding the context in which the science was developed. Geoffrey learned multiple languages and produced his own translations of primary sources. Moreover, he studied carefully the relevant mathematical astronomy and chemical theory and practice. Overall, his publications uncover intricate historical details and connect them to central philosophical questions around the nature of scientific discovery, the process of theory change, realism and reference.

All in all, Geoffrey Blumenthal was a great scholar who integrated into his studies multiple fields. With the guidance and support of his supervisor and later colleague James Ladyman, he illuminated previously neglected historical details and integrated them into the analysis of philosophical questions about the history of science. He was a truly exemplary researcher who succeeded in incorporating complex scientific and historical details into his philosophical work.

Geoffrey Blumenthal’s publications on Copernicus

Blumenthal, G. (2013). Diplomacy, patronage, and the preface to De Revolutionibus. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 44(1), 75-92.

Geoffrey Blumenthal’s publications on the Chemical Revolution

Blumenthal, G. (2013). On Lavoisier's Achievement in Chemistry. Centaurus, 55(1), 20-47.

Blumenthal, G., Ladyman, J. The development of problems within the phlogiston theories, 1766–1791. Found Chem19, 241–280 (2017).

Blumenthal, G. Priestley’s views on the composition of water and related airs. Found Chem 21, 147–178 (2019).

Blumenthal, G., Ladyman, J., & Seifert, V. Referring to Chemical Elements and Compounds: Colorless Airs in Late-Eighteenth-Century Chemical Practice. In What Is A Chemical Element?: A Collection of Essays by Chemists, Philosophers, Historians, and Educators (Oxford University Press)

Blumenthal, G. and Ladyman, J. On crucial experiments and theory choice in chemistry under review by Philosophy of Science

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