HPS Colloquia Series for 1998-99


The Program in History and Philosophy of Science presents:


"The Alchemical Wedding of Science and Industry: Organic Chemistry and Synthetic Dyes, 1856-1890"

By Andrew Pickering

October 29, 1998, 4:30 pm - 6 pm

History Bldg. Room 307
Stanford University


The long-announced practical utility of science began to become a reality only in the late 19th century, in the development of the science-based industries-the electrical industry and the synthetic dye industry. This talk focusses on the history of the latter and its relation to the science of organic chemistry. Historians often refer to a 'marriage' of science and industry in this period, but I want to emphasise the alchemical aspects of this wedding. I want, that is, to suggest that it should be understood non-dualistically, as a process of the mutual becoming of the human and the nonhuman, of people and things: of technological artefacts and their powers; of social roles and relations, and of scientific knowledges. All of these heterogeneous elements evolved open-endedly and in relation to one another, eventually entering into a quasi-biological symbiosis that lies at the origins of the modern scientific-industrial complex.

The topic is important for several reasons. Politically, this wedding of science and industry has been constitutive of the world we live in (for better and for worse), and the present analysis might help us to see more clearly what that entails. Theoretically, the analysis gains significance from the fact that the academic disciplines are so bad at thinking alchemically. With their taken for granted dualism of people and things, they obscure important features of being in the world. My aim in this respect is to exemplify a new way of thinking about science, technology and society more generally. Aesthetics might also enter here: I personally find the alchemical image beautiful, difficult and fascinating.


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