Collecting airs and ideas: Priestley's style of experimental reasoning

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It has often been claimed that Priestley was a skilful experimenter who lacked the capacities to analyze his own experiments and bring them to a theoretical closure. In attempts to revise this view some scholars have alluded to Priestley's 'synoptic' powers while others stressed the contextual role of British Enlightenment in understanding his chemical research. A careful analysis of his pneumatic reports, privileging the dynamics of his experimental practice, uncovers significant yet neglected aspects of Priestley's science. By focusing on his early experimental conduct and writing on nitrous air, I demonstrate how his methodological and rhetorical devices, far from being consequences of compulsive writing or theoretical naïveté, were deeply entwined with his chemical research. I employ the notion of 'style of experimental reasoning' (SER)-derived from A. C. Crombie and I. Hacking-to shed light on the intersection at which Priestley's unique method, literary style, and epistemology converged to generate scientific knowledge. Establishing Priestley's SER advances a finer understanding of the interactive character of his pneumatic experimentalism, peculiar dimensions of which have evaded both traditional as well as revisionist scholarship, thus infusing the longstanding historiographic debate over his scientific merits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)506-522
Number of pages17
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Eighteenth-century chemistry
  • Epistemology
  • Joseph Priestley
  • Pneumatic research
  • Style of reasoning


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