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Of Minds and MoleculesNew Philosophical Perspectives on Chemistry$
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Nalini Bhushan and Stuart Rosenfeld

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780195128345

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195128345.001.0001

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Butlerov’s Vision: The Timeless, the Transient, and the Representation of Chemical Structure

Butlerov’s Vision: The Timeless, the Transient, and the Representation of Chemical Structure

Chapter:
(p.143) 9 Butlerov’s Vision: The Timeless, the Transient, and the Representation of Chemical Structure
Source:
Of Minds and Molecules
Author(s):

Stephen J. Weininger

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780195128345.003.0017

In a now famous article, Alexander Mikhailovich Butlerov declared that . . .there will be possible only ONE such rational formula for each substance. If then the general laws will have been derived which govern the dependence of the chemical characteristics of the substances on their structure, such a formula will express all these characteristics. . . . Time and experience will teach us best how the new formulas will have to appear if they are to express chemical structure. (Butlerov, [1861], 1971, p. 291). . . Butlerov’s statement contains a multiplicity of claims, implicit and explicit, with respect to ontology, epistemology, and representation. He clearly believes that each substance has a single structure that makes it possible to represent it by means of “one . . . rational formula.” Butlerov further implies that all chemical characteristics of a substance are knowable, as well as being representable, by means of a single structural formula. The boldness of Butlerov’s assertion is perhaps related to its having been advanced at a particular historical moment. In the decade or so preceding Butlerov’s article, chemists’ ability to deduce chemical structure had been greatly aided by the reformation of atomic weights and the rise of the valency concept (Brock, 1993, chaps. 6 and 7). At the same time, chemical synthesis was still in its infancy, and the number and type of compounds whose chemical characteristics had to be accounted for had not yet reached astronomical proportions. Butlerov’s prophecy has been taken as heralding the first step toward the creation of molecular representations with which all chemical properties of a substance could be rationalized. Some imagine these to be iconic formulas of a “photographic” fidelity. Others assert that the ultimate representation of a chemical substance is a mathematical equation—the molecular wavefunction—that would permit not only the rationalization but even the prediction of the material’s chemical behavior (Mosini, 1994). One of my theses is that no such single “rational formula” exists or could exist. However, exploring why Butlerov’s vision is unrealizable can shed light on what entities chemists see as “ fundamental” and the role of time within chemistry.

Keywords:   analogy, chemical structure, entropy, holism, isomerism, naive realism, ontology, plurality, reaction rates, structural theory

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