The sceptical chymist; or chymico-physical doubts & paradoxes, touching the experiments whereby vulgar spagirists are wont to endeavour to evince their salt, sulphur and mercury, to be the true principles of things. To which in this edition are subjoyn'd divers experiments and notes about the producibleness of chymical principles.

Oxford: H. Hall for R. Davis & B. Took, 1680.

Second edition in English (first, 1661), complete with the very rare advertisement leaf which is lacking from most copies, of this landmark in the history of science, “his most important work [where he] set down his corpuscular theory of the constitution of matter, which finally freed chemistry from the restrictions of the Greek concept of the four elements, and was the forerunner of Dalton’s atomic theory” (Sparrow). “Boyle’s most celebrated book is his Sceptical Chymist … It contains the germs of many ideas elaborated by Boyle in his later publications” (Partington II, p. 496). The physicists, Boyle called them ‘hermetick philosophers’, upheld the Peripatetical or Aristotelian doctrine of the four elements – fire, air, earth, and water. The chemists, ‘vulgar spagyrists’, were disciples of Paracelsus who believed in the tria prima – salt, sulphur, and mercury. Boyle showed that both of these theories were totally inadequate to explain chemistry and was the first to give a satisfactory definition of an element. This second edition of the Sceptical Chymist contains the first printing of the second part, Experiments and Notes about theProducibleness of Chymical Principles. The first edition of the Sceptical Chymist hardly ever appears on the market and now commands a very high price – the last complete copy sold at auction realized £362,500 in 2015. Fulton located five copies of this second edition complete with the advertisement leaf; four are recorded on ABPC/RBH in the last 40 years (only one since the Norman sale, and that in a modern binding).

“The ‘Sceptical Chymist’ is one of the great books in the history of scientific thought, for it not only marks the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry but is a plea, couched in most modern terms, for the adoption of the experimental method. Boyle inveighed against the inaccurate terminology of the ‘vulgar spagyrists’ and the ‘hermetick philosophers,’ as he termed the alchemists who refused to define their terms … He predicted that many more [elements] existed than had been described, but insisted that many substances, then thought to be elemental, were, in fact, chemical compounds. He set forth the modern distinction between a compound and a mixture, pointing out that a true chemical compound possessed properties entirely different from either of its constituents” (Fulton).

“The importance of Boyle’s book must be sought in his combination of chemistry with physics. His corpuscular theory, and Newton’s modification of it, gradually led chemists towards an atomic view of matter ... Boyle distinguished between mixtures and compounds and tried to understand the latter in terms of the simpler chemical entities from which they could be constructed. His argument was designed to lead chemists away from the pure empiricism of his predecessors and to stress the theoretical, experimental and mechanistic elements of chemical science. The Sceptical Chymist is concerned with the relations between chemical substances rather than with transmuting one metal into another or the manufacture of drugs. In this sense the book must be considered as one of the most significant milestones on the way to the chemical revolution of Lavoisier in the late eighteenth century” (PMM).

“Boyle (1627-91) has ben called the founder of modern chemistry, for three reasons: (1) he realized that chemistry is worthy of study for its own sake and not merely as an aid to medicine or alchemy – although he believed in the possibility of the latter; (2) he introduced a rigorous experimental method into chemistry; (3) he gave a clear definition of an element and showed by experiment that the four elements of Aristotle and the three principles of the alchemists (mercury, sulphur and salt) did not deserve to be called elements or principles at all, since none of them could be extracted from bodies” (Partington II, p. 495).

The Sceptical Chymist takes the form of a dialogue, clearly modeled on Galileo’s Dialogo, involving four participants. The Aristotelian Themistius and the Paracelsian Philoponus state their positions briefly, but soon fall silent. A wide-ranging discussion ensues between the sceptical Carneades (Boyle himself) and Eleutherius, the open-minded enquirer. Carneades argues – citing many experimental examples – that the Aristotelian four-element system and the Paracelsian three-principle model give equally inadequate explanations of what happens when complex substances are attacked by fire, or by powerful solvents. He shows that these processes often generate new compounds, rather than the promised ‘primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies’, which remain stubbornly elusive. His second proposal is more speculative – and theologically more dangerous. Boyle believed, and hoped to prove in time, that the ultimate constituents of bodies were minute atoms, differing only in ‘bulk, figure, texture and motion’. This idea was first suggested by the ancient Greek natural philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. Their successor, Epicurus, incorporated it into a godless materialistic world-view that was universally condemned by Christian theologians. Consequently, atomistic theories were suppressed for centuries. By the mid-17th century the works of the classical Greek atomists had been printed, translated and commented upon by scholars such as Pierre Gassendi, though there was still considerable hostility to them from clergy of all persuasions. But Boyle – a devout (though somewhat unorthodox) Christian who funded translations of the Gospels into many languages, including Gaelic and Turkish – saw no reason why a benign deity could not have chosen to create an atomic universe.

“This work has often been acclaimed as a turning point in the evolution of modern chemistry, a crushing blow to traditional alchemy, but in fact Boyle’s message is a more complex one. In his text he made a clear distinction between ‘the true Adepti’ and ‘those Chymists that are either Cheats, or but Laborants.’ While dismissive of the latter, his view of the former was that, ‘could I enjoy their Conversation, I would both willingly and thankfully be instructed’ by them. In other words, Boyle had no quarrel with those who aspired to the higher mysteries of alchemy. Rather, his book was targeted at distillers, refiners and others, who were so preoccupied with hands-on processes that they lacked an interest in theory, and also at the authors of chemical textbooks who combined a similar preoccupation with practical preparations with a reliance on Paracelsian principles. Hence The Sceptical Chymist is primarily an attack on the Paracelsian tradition, and particularly on its theory that the world was made up of the three principles of salt, sulphur and mercury … But he also made a broader appeal for chemical investigation to be informed by a clear explanatory structure, criticising the practical chemists whom he attached in the book on the grounds that ‘there is a great Difference between being able to make Experiments, and being able to give a Philosophical Account of them’” (Hunter, pp. 119-120).

Experiments and Notes about the Producibleness of Chymical Principles, here in its first edition, has separate title and pagination (and was issued separately – Wing B3972). It “echoes the earlier work in containing a vindication of alchemical adepts able to carry out transmutation, in contrast to those who wrote ‘courses of Chymistry’ and the like. Boyle also reiterated his criticism of the Paracelsian concept of the three principles of salt, sulphur and mercury, supplementing The Sceptical Chymist by illustrating the extent to which these and the ‘spirits’ which chemists also commonly – and rather vaguely – invoked could be more precisely defined. In the case of salts, he argued that there were three distinct families: acid salts, volatile salts, and alkalies or lixiviate salts – all of which could be produced or destroyed by chemical processes (in this connection he also criticized the acid/alkali theory). He also dealt with sulphur, but it was his treatment of mercury which was most complicated, reflecting the interest in this substance that underlay his alchemical concerns, and particularly the conviction that common mercury could be converted into a more potent ‘philosophical mercury’ … This part of Producibleness echoes earlier alchemical writers both in its language and in its conceptual apparatus, the work as a whole being potentially ‘useful to fellow aspiring adepts.’ Boyle’s commitment to alchemy is not to be underestimated” (ibid., p. 186).

Fulton initially believed that the advertisement leaf, which states that the book was actually printed in 1679 rather than 1680, existed in only one copy, but he later found a few other examples. The leaf exists in two states, one in which the date of publication is given as January 1679/80 (as here), and another, with a different setting of type, giving 1679/78. Fulton suggests that Boyle insisted on having the date corrected “lest continental readers might suspect him of plagiarizing writers who had been guilty of plagiarizing him.” The imprimatur is dated 30 May 1677. Boyle’s name does not appear on the title.

Dibner, Heralds 39; Grolier/Horblit 14; Norman 299; PMM 141; Sparrow, Milestones 27 (all for the first edition). ESTC R16310; Fulton 34; Madan 3261, 3260. Partington II, pp. 495 et seq. Hunter, Boyle. Between God and Science, 2009.

Two parts in one vol., 8vo (174 x 104 mm), pp. [22], 440; [28], 268. Contemporary English calf, re-backed, and with some wear and loss of material to boards.

Item #5684

Price: $35,000.00