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Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Theory and Criticism


Calcagno, Antonio


The King's University College at The University of Western Ontario

2nd Supervisor

Rajan, Tilottama

Joint Supervisor


This dissertation applies the methods of Bachelard and Foucault to key moments in the development of science. By analyzing the attitudes of four figures from four different centuries, it shows how epistemic attitudes have shifted from a participation in non-human, natural realities to a construction of human-centred technologies. The idea of an epistemic attitude is situated in reference to Foucault’s concept of the episteme and his method of archaeology; an attitude is the institutionally-situated and personally-enacted comportment of an epistemic agent toward an object of knowledge. This line of thought is pursued under the theme of elemental fire, which begins as a substance for early alchemical knowledge and ends up as a quantifiable branch of functions in technics. We call the attitude of Paracelsus, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, “participation,” which sheds light on the intimate goal of his alchemical practice. In the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle inaugurates the evolution of technics with the attitude of instrumentalization. Building off this, Lavoisier participates in the development of technics through his effort to construct the countable, using measuring instruments and chemical techniques. This attitude of accounting, and neither his theory of oxygen nor his basic observations in the laboratory, determines his decisive role in the development of chemistry. Finally, we discuss the attitude of employment as we find it in Sadi Carnot and the engineers of the steam engine, watching as fire for these epistemic agents becomes nothing but an employed instant of combustion.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation explores how the European system of knowledge in the sixteenth century transformed into the system of knowledge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that we now call science. Via a series of case studies focusing on the theme of fire, it shows that the former system of knowledge was based on immediate experience and participation in natural realities, while the latter, that of science, explicitly turns away from human experience and natural realities and towards its own technologies and instruments. Our line of approach to this problem is to analyze the scientists’ attitudes toward their own tools and toward natural beings. The first case study looks at the attitudes and practices of the sixteenth century alchemist Paracelsus. Alchemists like Paracelsus are often thought of as “bad chemists,” which is an interpretation still rampant in contemporary literature. Such a perspective results from our comparisons of his theories of medicine and matter to modern scientific ones. But we can begin to appreciate Paracelsus’ position and alchemy more generally when we seek to understand his attitude, which we claim to be one of participation: Paracelsus works in the laboratory in order to participate in the activities of the Sun and the Moon, the Earth and the Sky. The attitudes of chemists after Paracelsus, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, are no longer participatory; they are instrumental and quantifying. The dissertation carefully explores these attitudes in the latter figures of Robert Boyle, who constructed the vacuum pump, Antoine de Lavoisier, famous for his revolutions in chemistry, and Sadi Carnot, who wrote on the steam engine. Boyle’s attitude of instrumentalization begins the first stage of what is commonly called “the scientific revolution.” We will discover that it is not a particular theory or set of observations that makes Boyle or later scientists like Lavoisier and Carnot “scientific.” Rather, it is their tendency to only consider worthy of knowledge those objects that have been couched within the frame of an instrument. In this process, the lived reality of fire is ignored and transformed into the technical apparatuses of the thermometer and the steam engine.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License