You are here: Home / Synopses / [unsigned]: ‘Chimie de la Raison: Préambule’

This project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research grant and is supported by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) and Kingston University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

AHRC logo

CRMEP logo

Synopsis of [unsigned], ‘Chimie de la Raison: Préambule’

[‘Chemistry of Reason: Preamble’]

CpA 9.11:168–169

This two-page preamble introduces the dossier that follows, which is comprised of texts from and on the history of chemistry. A reproduction of Antoine Lavoisier’s ‘Discourse préliminaire au Traité élémentaire de chimie’ (CpA 9.12) is followed by a contemporary commentary from François Dagognet produced for the Cahiers (CpA 9.13). Similarly, an excerpt taken from Dmitri Mendeleev’s Principles of Chemistry (CpA 9.14) is followed by a previously published commentary by Gaston Bachelard (CpA 9.15). The dossier concludes with a text from D’Alembert, extracted from the Encyclopédie (CpA 9.16) and another by Georges Cuvier (CpA 9.17).

Written in the oracular style typical of the other editorial notices in the Cahiers, this preamble opens with the question of the relation between discourse and science. The relation will depend on whether a discourse focuses on a discrete element or aspect of science, or on science as a whole. In the former instance, the discourse will be metaphorical or analogical in its relation to the science, depending on whether the focus is on the terms (metaphor) or on the relations (analogy). In the latter instance, ‘from the place where the whole of science is engaged’ (CpA 9.11:168), a focus on terms leads to an effort at regulating the ‘formation of images’, establishing a ‘unique source for diverse and always topical references’. If the grasp [reprise] of the whole occurs on the level of relations, however, ‘science obtains by contrast the function of a form for which the given discourse will be an interpretation’ (CpA 9.11:168).

It is this problematic – science as a whole; focus on the relations; function of a form – that is the primary concern of the dossier that follows, in which the semantic richness of the term ‘element’ will be maximized (‘element’ being at once a keyword within chemistry, of course, but also a more abstract term suggesting a part or segment of a whole). The preamble suggests that any particular science should be able to provide a general form of science ‘since phenomena can always be represented in their indifference as physical or geometrical or measurable’ (CpA 9.11:168). In such cases, referred back to ‘its correlate of unicity under the name of Reason’, science can go by the different names of ‘physics or geometry or calculus’.

For this reason, the preamble states, ‘a chemistry of Reason is a priori possible and would at least describe this crossing wherein what is most singular in a regional science appears to give the key to the whole [ensemble] that places it’ (CpA 9.11:168). In this regard, the preamble recalls Louis Althusser’s concern in his ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’ (1966), a text circulated to, among others, Yves Duroux and Alain Badiou (Badiou was a late addition to the Cahiers editorial board, but was involved in the preparation of this issue). The main theme of Althusser’s text was the relation between ‘regional theories’ and ‘general theory’. Of particular concern was how to establish the ‘general theory’ in which a ‘regional theory’ is grounded when operating within the ‘regional theory’ itself. The ‘regional theory’ in question in Althusser’s circular was psychoanalysis. The Cercle d’Épistémologie’s program, as articulated in this preamble, of uncovering ‘Reason’ itself (with a capital R) from within the ‘regional’ science of chemistry is another instance of this same problematic.

The preamble names three conditions that will make a ‘chemistry of Reason’ possible (conditions which apply to the texts that constitute the terrain of investigation): 1) that the whole of the science is implicated, not merely a segment of it; 2) that the relations are more important than the terms; 3) ‘that the whole of the sciences be considered and re-read as an interpretation of the form previously marked out as chemistry’ (CpA 9.11:168).

If one follows Lavoisier and Mendeleev, reading chemistry as a science of the simple and the compound [composé] and the relation of its objects to their combination, the ‘chemistry of Reason’ one could extrapolate would not simply be a science of the whole, but more specifically a science of the relation of the part to the whole. D’Alembert is important in that he provides a similar frame, but in language more explicitly evocative of the Lacanian logic of the signifier in play throughout the Cahiers. D’Alembert thinks of chemistry in terms of ‘composition’, ‘chain [enchaînement]’, and ‘element’. What is at issue is the ‘plurivocity’ one can draw from such principles, in their equivocal relation to both substances and their representation in discourse: ‘As a directed relation, combination supposes an absolutely primary [element]; the element is as much the body without parts as the independent proposition, which is another name for divine knowledge [savoir] as the impossible knowledge [connaissance] of the simple’ (CpA 9.11:169). Ultimately, any ordering mechanism will have to pose at some point a first or primary term that makes the whole itself possible:

To construct a chemistry of reason is thus to refer the sciences to the jurisdiction of the whole [tout], but this is also by the same stroke to submit them to another necessity. For this whole is also substantial since, being the science of the simple and the compound [composée], chemistry must direct its effort toward generating, through the sole operation of combination, all the materials that make all the things of the world; saving phenomena thus requires that chemistry constitute them as such, as a plenitude and liaison of substances. We see here that the crucial relation [relation] to the whole is but the reverse of a relation [rapport] to the representation to which chemistry is so intimately tied, namely that, given that anything representable is an object of analysis, all analysis is thus deduction from a representable body (CpA 9.11:169).

The logic of chemistry finds its basis in ‘the radical ground of perfect representative coincidence’ (CpA 9.11:169). This representation takes the form of a table or tableau [tableau] – of the kind you can find in Cuvier or Mendeleev – ‘wherein the empty place is at once the place of the object because the table represents, the place of the missing or lacking object because nature can fail science [or: because science can miss nature], and the place of the real object because nature never fails or misses [place d’objet manquant parce que la nature peut manquer à la science, place d’objet réel parce que la nature ne manque jamais]’ (CpA 9.11:169).

To be sure, there is a concern that such an elaboration of ‘chemistry of reason’ will collapse under the weight of a classical configuration. But the main task here is simply to name the path of its resolution: ‘to construct a logic of the simple for which chemistry will in turn be an interpretation and a substitute’ (CpA 9.11:169).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English Translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Althusser, Louis, ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’. In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Bachelard, Gaston, ‘La Classification des éléments d’après Mendéléef’. CpA 9.15:200-6.
  • Cuvier, George, ‘Progrès des sciences’. CpA 9.17:219-24.
  • Dagognet, François, ‘Sur Lavoisier: Présentation du Discours Préliminaire’. CpA 9.13:178-94.
  • D’Alembert, Jean le Rond, ‘Éléments des sciences’. CpA 9.16:207-18.
  • Lavoisier, Antoine, ‘Discours préliminaire au Traité élémentaire de chimie’. CpA 9.12:170-77.
  • Mendeleev, Dmitri, ‘Similitude des éléments et loi périodique’.CpA 9.14:195-9.

Selected secondary works: