Vangelis Koutalis

Allington Fellow, Fall 2010

Vangelis Koutalis is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Ioannina, Greece. His research centers on the question of how chemical experimentation in different historical periods has been developed in conjunction with philosophical conceptualization. 

Subjects under study include the emergence of Renaissance alchemy or chymistry under the horizon provided by occultism—in the philosophical form the latter was propounded by Marsiglio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola; the dissemination of chymistry in Greek-speaking communities of the Ottoman Empire from the 17th to the 18th century; and, turning to a later period, the persistence of some eminent experimenters, such as Joseph Priestley and Humphry Davy, in the philosophical dimension of chemistry.

Current Research

The main topic that has stimulated me to pursue historical research is the conjunction of chemical experimentation and philosophical conceptualizing, that is, the conjunction of asking how things work and how things are possible in the first place. I have already studied this subject in a general way, emphasizing in cases like those of Johannes Pantheus, Oswald Croll, Heinrich Khunrath, and John Dee how chymistry (a term coined by Lawrence Principe and William Newman), as a field of knowledge pertaining to the analysis and synthesis of physical bodies, actually emerged under the cognitive horizon provided by Renaissance occultism, which was explicitly formulated as a renovative occult philosophy, with a new conceptualization of the soul (anima) at its center, by Marsiglio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. 

In fact, this was the subject of my dissertation,  prepared under the guidance of Euthymios Bokaris and successfully presented in November 2009 at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Ioannina.

In parallel with my research in 16th-century chymistry, I am also interested in the theoretical confrontation between Joseph Priestley and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier in regard to the notion of phlogiston, taking into account the epistemological assumptions that each of these eminent experimenters took as guidelines for articulating a set of legitimate problems for chemistry. 

Examining in particular Priestley’s position, I attempt to incorporate in my analysis an account of his theoretical approach to the problem of truth, as far as such an approach can be retraced in his numerous theological, philosophical, and political—mostly, though, polemical and critical—tracts.

Having up to the present done some research on the philosophical dimensions of chemistry before Lavoisier’s advent, I have concluded that it is possible to find a point of convergence between the early chymists and the experimenters of the late 18th century who still defined themselves as philosophers, just as Priestley did. More interestingly, there are some indications that such a proclivity to what Lavoisier had castigated as metaphysics, impertinent if not detrimental to chemistry, continued to characterize some leading chemists even after the Chemical Revolution. 

One such example is the last printed work of Humphry Davy entitled Consolations in Travel or the Last Days of a Philosopher (London: John Murray, 1830). In the book the famous British chemist sets a series of dialogues, where the questions asked deal with the history of civilization, the history of creation, the possibility of science itself, the very possibility of things. It is evidently a philosophical discourse, not of an arbitrarily speculative kind, though, since it is based on then-current theories covering a broad range of disciplines.

One of my objectives is to examine more closely the last public dialogue between Priestley and the Antiphlogisticians, represented in this circumstance by Pierre August Adet, who published in 1797 the Réponse aux Réflexions sur la doctrine du phlogistique et la décomposition de l’eau. This particular research is not original as such, since there is no lack of scholarly articles about Priestley’s last defense of phlogiston. Nevertheless, scholarship will be advanced by the proposed work, as far as its aim is to interpret Priestley’s position not just in strictly chemical terms, but also taking into account his philosophical, theological, and political views. 

The second objective is to ascertain how chemistry after Lavoisier retains a philosophical character, a relatively unexplored area for the history of chemistry. The last work of Davy will be examined, as an example of philosophical discourse from a chemist, in relation to some works addressed to a broader audience, as in the case of Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry (first published in 1805). Marcet, influenced by the public lectures of Davy, wrote a book for young ladies, in which chemistry is defined as a science that cultivates the mind and its ability to ask fundamental questions.

Both these lines of research will be supplementary to the work I do in collaboration with my professors and colleagues in Greece, concerning the history of science in southeastern Europe, under the European research program HePHaESTUS (Hellenic Philosophy, History and Environmental Science Teaching Under Scrutiny), run by the Institute of Neohellenic Research of the National Hellenic Research Foundation in collaboration with the Laboratory of Science Education, Epistemology and Educational Technology of the University of Athens.