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Synopsis of Antoine Lavoisier, ‘Discours préliminaire au Traité élémentaire de chimie’

[‘Preliminary discourse to The Elements of Chemistry’]

CpA 9.12:170–177

A disciple of Condillac, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) is widely considered to be the founder of modern chemistry as a scientific discipline. Although he discovered no new elements and made few technical innovations, he helped to clarify and codify the experimental discoveries made by his contemporaries and predecessors, and to establish a single theoretical framework for the domain as a whole. He was the first to formulate the general law which recognises that the mass of a given amount of a substance does not vary with changes to its form or state. He helped to discredit phlogiston theory, and rather than accept water and air as elementary substances, he recognised that they were compounds formed of more basic components. In collaboration with his contemporaries Claude-Louis Berthollet, Antoine Fourcroy and Guyton de Morveau, Lavoisier developed a new, simplified method of chemical nomenclature, first published in 1787.

Lavoisier’s major work was the 1789 Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (translated into English in 1790 by Robert Kerr as The Elements of Chemistry). It provides a systematic account of chemical elements conceived as simple, unanalysable elements, which serve as the basic units of compound substances. The short text included in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is the opening discourse that Lavoisier prepared for his Traité. It begins with a quotation from Condillac, which immediately helps to explain some of the interest the Cahiers authors had in this text: ‘We think only through the medium of words. Languages are true analytical methods. Algebra, which is adapted to its purpose in every species of expression, in the most simple, most exact, and best manner possible, is at the same time a language and an analytical method. The art of reasoning is nothing more than a language well arranged’ (CpA 9.12:170/trans. xvii).

The focus of Lavoisier’s opening discourse is the need for a reform in the nomenclature of chemistry. According to Lavoisier,science and its nomenclature are in fact inseparable. This is the case because of the necessary chain that links the three essential elements of all physical sciences: facts, ideas, and words. We first develop ideas from facts, and then use words to express them. Later, the expression of the word gives us the idea, which takes us back to the fact.

Lavoisier compares this sequence to that experienced by a child: ‘In a child, the idea is merely an effect produced by a sensation; and in the same manner, in commencing the study of a physical science, one ought to form no idea but what is a necessary consequence, and immediate effect, of an experiment or observation’ (CpA 9.12:171/xx). The scientist has the advantage of decoupling this sequence from the pain or pleasure of the world experienced by the child. As a result, he is enabled to adhere to another of Lavoisier’s injunctions, namely, that all reasoning should be reduced to an absolute minimum, restricted by its field of evidence (he cites mathematics as a model on this score, wherein the ‘solution’ is always the result of an analytic arrangement of facts).

In the next section, Lavoisier explores the implications of this epistemological minimalism for the inherited concept of ‘elements’. The reduction of matter to four constituent elements, inherited from the Greeks, is untenable since it is born from an imaginary prejudice. What is more, Lavoisier says that the question of the number and nature of elements is itself a metaphysical one. (With this, Lavoisier distinguishes his approach from any concern for noumenal or substantive essences of things ‘in themselves’). But he does not intend to jettison the concept of ‘element’ altogether:

[I]f by the term elements, we mean to express those simple and indivisible atoms of which matter is composed, it is extremely probable we know nothing at all about them; but if we apply the term elements or principle of bodies, to express our idea of the last point analysis is capable of reaching, we must admit, as elements, all the substances into which we are able to reduce bodies by decomposition (CpA 9.12:173/xxvii-xxviii).

From this emphasis on ‘the last point of analysis’, a concept evocative of a moment of impasse in analysis itself, Lavoisier goes on to discuss how the movement through this point or impasse is something that (a) occurs in language and (b) moves from the specific to the general. ‘In the natural order of ideas, the name of the class or genus is that which expresses a quality common to a great number of individuals; the name of the species, on the contrary, expresses a quality peculiar to certain individuals only’ (CpA 9.12:174/xxx). Lavoisier again cites Condillac on the example of a child and the tree; the child at first assigns the name ‘tree’ to a specific thing, when he is told that this thing is a tree. When he sees its likeness again, he will again name this new thing ‘tree’. In this way, the child learns the generic category from an originally unique experience. (Cf. Alain Grosrichard’s and Jean Mosconi’s assessments of Condillac’s concept of learning in CpA 2.3 and CpA 4.2, respectively).

Lavoisier then shows how this sequence works with reference to combustible substances known as ‘acids’. Acids receive their generic name from a shared function, i.e. that of acidity (which is not a substantial attribute). It is what is peculiar to a given acid that will provide it is specific name. Likewise, metallic substances that lose their lustre when exposed to air and fire evince a common trait or element, and the name for this generic element serves as the name for a shared principle or quality: oxide. ‘Combustible substances, which in acids and metallic oxides are specific and particular principles, are capable of becoming in their turn common principles of a great number of compounds’ (CpA 9.12:174/xxxii).

In the concluding passages of his opening discourse, Lavoisier returns to the theme of nomenclature and emphasises the paramount importance of names. His insistence that names have their origins not in ‘substances’ but in a function or property that later takes on a substantial form is consistent with a more general inquiry in the Cahiers into the function of the subject in scientific discourse. This emphasis on the name’s vacillation between a function and an element resonates, in particular, with Jean-Claude Milner’s inquiry into the nature of the ‘proper name’ in his ‘Le Point du signifiant’ (CpA 3.5).

In the most general sense, Lavoisier’s text develops a point adumbrated in the preamble (CpA 9.11) to the dossier of which it is a part: the inextricability of language from the substance it describes and ultimately produces via its concepts or ‘elements’. It ends with a valediction cited from Condillac: ‘By improving their language, they have learned to reason better’ (CpA 9.12:177/xl).

English Translation

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

  • ‘Chime de la Raison: Préambule’, CpA 9.11.
  • Dagognet, François. ‘Sur Lavoisier: Présentation du Discours préliminaire’, CpA 9.13.

Primary bibliography

  • Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de., Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines[1746], in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Georges Le Roy, vol. 1. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1947. Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, trans. Hans Aarsleff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • ---. Traité des Sensations [1754]. In Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Georges Le Roy, vol. 1. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1947. Condillac’s Treatise on the Sensations, trans. Geraldine Carr. London: Favil Press, 1930.
  • Lavoisier, Antoine. Traité élémentaire de chimie, présenté dans un ordre nouveau et d’après les découvertes modernes. Paris: Chez Cuchet, 1789 (reprinted in 1965, by Cultures et Civilisations). The text is available online as part of Les Oeuvres de Lavoisier: Une édition électronique des Œuvres d’Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, published by the CNRS,

Selected secondary works:

  • Holmes, Frederic Lawrence. Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
  • Poirier, Jean-Pierre. Lavoisier: Chemist, Economist, Biologist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
  • Smartt Bell, Madison. Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. NY: Atlas Books/Norton, 2005.