In 1892, the young but already eminent physical chemist Pierre Duhem published a 64-page monograph on chemical theory. The essay comprised his first extended statement on atomic-molecular ideas in chemistry, and contained a frontal attack on the chemical atomic theory of his day. Little attention to date has been devoted to Duhem’s attitude toward the kind of chemical-atomist/structuralist “wet” chemistry that characterized most of the work of most European academic chemists during the second half of the nineteenth century. An analysis of the 1892 essay thus provides opportunity for a fresh perspective on an understanding of Duhem’s philosophy of science. We show, inter alia, that he closely followed the work and ideas of the principal champion of atomist-structural chemistry in France, Adolphe Wurtz, while also strongly condemning the work of the leader of the anti-atomist camp in France, Marcellin Berthelot; both circumstances carry powerful ironies considering Duhem’s standpoint. We seek an understanding of these ironies and dilemmas not just in scientific and philosophical but also in biographical considerations—particularly the role of religion in Duhem’s thought.
This essay is part of a special issue entitled THE BONDS OF HISTORY edited by Anita Guerrini.