Extracts from Lavoisier's Preface to

Traité Elémentaire de Chimie

translation by Robert Kerr (Edinburgh, 1790)

(click here for the original French - sometimes I have to tinker with fonts in my browser preferences to get the accents right)

This "Discours Préliminaire" is a masterpiece of clear thinking, and it is responsible for setting Chemistry on the path to success. The portions in bold face are particularly germane to Chem 125. Lines across the text indicate portions that are skipped here. The whole work is an absolute gem, and one could preach a chemical sermon on almost any individual sentence.

Note particularly the high premium Lavoisier assigns to clarity of expression and the importance of structuring his work to make it easily accessible to beginners. One may contrast this with the alchemist's emphasis on the occult and on writing in code inaccessible to the uninitiated.

In all periods, and cultures, and endeavors there are "alchemists" who attempt to hide their ignorance, from others and perhaps from themselves, by appeal to the occult, to complexity, to codes, and to secrecy. Consider the following comment which 16th Century Aztec informants conveyed in their Nahuatl language to the Spanish priest, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún:

"The false wise man like an ignorant physician, a man without understanding, claims to know about God… He is a boaster, vanity is his. He makes things complicated; he brags and exaggerates… He hides things, he makes them difficult. He entangles them with difficulties; he destroys them."

Beware of these individuals. If they can't explain something clearly to you, there is a distinct chance that they don't understand it themselves.

When I began the following Work, my only object was to extend and explain more fully the Memoir which I read at the public meeting of the Academy of Science in the month of April 1787, on the necessity of reforming and completing the Nomenclature of Chemistry. While engaged in this employment, I perceived, better than I had ever done before, the justice of the following maxims of the Abbé de Condillac, in his System of Logic, and some other of his works.

"We think only through the medium of words. --Languages are true analytical methods. --Algebra, which is adapted to its purpose in every species of expression, in the most simple, most exact, and best manner possible, is at the same time a language and an analytical method. --The art of reasoning is nothing more than a language well arranged."

Thus, while I thought myself employed only in forming a Nomenclature, and while I proposed to myself nothing more than to improve the chemical language, my work transformed itself by degrees, without my being able to prevent it, into a treatise upon the Elements of Chemistry.

The impossibility of separating the nomenclature of a science from the science itself, is owing to this, that every branch of physical science must consist of three things; the series of facts which are the objects of the science, the ideas which represent these facts, and the words by which these ideas are expressed. Like three impressions of the same seal, the word ought to produce the idea, and the idea to be a picture of the fact. And, as ideas are preserved and communicated by means of words, it necessarily follows that we cannot improve the language of any science without at the same time improving the science itself; neither can we, on the other hand, improve a science, without improving the language or nomenclature which belongs to it. However certain the facts of any science may be, and, however just the ideas we may have formed of these facts, we can only communicate false impressions to others, while we want words by which these may be properly expressed.

I have been obliged to depart from the usual order of courses of lectures and of treatises upon chemistry, which always assume the first principles of the science, as known, when the pupil or the reader should never be supposed to know them till they have been explained in subsequent lessons. In almost every instance, these begin by treating of the elements of matter, and by explaining the table of affinities, without considering, that, in so doing, they must bring the principal phenomena of chemistry into view at the very outset: They make use of terms which have not been defined, and suppose the science to be understood by the very persons they are only beginning to teach. It ought likewise to be considered, that very little of chemistry can be learned in a first course, which is hardly sufficient to make the language of the science familiar to the ears, or the apparatus familiar to the eyes. It is almost impossible to become a chemist in less than three or four years of constant application.

These inconveniencies are occasioned not so much by the nature of the subject, as by the method of teaching it; and, to avoid them, I was chiefly induced to adopt a new arrangement of chemistry, which appeared to me more consonant to the order of Nature. I acknowledge, however, that in thus endeavouring to avoid difficulties of one kind, I have found myself involved in others of a different species, some of which I have not been able to remove; but I am persuaded, that such as remain do not arise from the nature of the order I have adopted, but are rather consequences of the imperfection under which chemistry still labours. This science still has many chasms, which interrupt the series of facts, and often render it extremely difficult to reconcile them with each other: It has not, like the elements of geometry, the advantage of being a complete science, the parts of which are all closely connected together: Its present progress, however, is so rapid, and the facts, under the modern doctrine, have assumed so happy an arrangement, that we have ground to hope, even in our own times, to see it approach near to the highest state of perfection of which it is susceptible.

It will, no doubt, be a matter of surprise, that in a treatise upon the elements of chemistry, there should be no chapter on the constituent and elementary parts of matter; but I shall take occasion, in this place, to remark, that the fondness for reducing all the bodies in nature to three or four elements, proceeds from a prejudice which has descended to us from the Greek Philosophers. The notion of four elements, which, by the variety of their proportions, compose all the known substances in nature, is a mere hypothesis, assumed long before the first principles of experimental philosophy or of chemistry had any existence. In those days, without possessing facts, they framed systems; while we, who have collected facts, seem determined to reject them, when they do not agree with our prejudices. The authority of these fathers of human philosophy still carry great weight, and there is reason to fear that it will even bear hard upon generations yet to come.

All that can be said upon the number and nature of elements is, in my opinion, confined to discussions entirely of a metaphysical nature. The subject only furnishes us with indefinite problems, which may be solved in a thousand different ways, not one of which, in all probability, is consistent with nature. I shall therefore only add upon this subject, that if, by the term elements, we mean to express those simple and indivisible atoms of which matter is composed, it is extremely probable we know nothing at all about them; but, if we apply the term elements, or principles of bodies, to express our idea of the last point which analysis is capable or reaching, we must admit, as elements, all the substances into which we are capable, by any means, to reduce bodies by decomposition. Not that we are entitled to affirm, that these substances we consider as simple may not be compounded of two, or even of a greater number of principles; but, since these principles cannot be separated, or rather since we have not hitherto discovered the means of separating them, they act with regard to us as simple substances, and we ought never to suppose them compounded until experiment and observation has proved them to be so

The acids, for example, are compounded of two substances, of the order of those which we consider as simple; the one constitutes acidity, and is common to all acids, and, from this substance, the name of the class or the genus ought to be taken; the other is peculiar to each acid, and distinguishes it from the rest, and from this substance is to be taken the name of the species. But, in the greatest number of acids, the two constituent elements, the acidifying principle, and that which it acidifies, may exist in different proportions, constituting all the possible points of equilibrium or of saturation. This is the case in the sulphuric and the sulphurous acids; and these two states of the same acid we have marked by varying the termination of the specific name.

In short, we have advanced so far, that from the name alone may be instantly found what the combustible substance is which enters into any combination; whether that combustible substance be combined with the acidifying principle, and in what proportion; what is the state of the acid; with what basis it is united; whether the saturation be exact, or whether the acid or the basis be in excess. [Click to see the table of names]

There is an objection to the work which I am going to present to the public, which is perhaps better founded, that I have given no account of the opinion of those who have gone before me; that I have stated only my own opinion, without examining that of others. By this I have been prevented from doing that justice to my associates, and more especially to foreign chemists, which I wished to render them. But I beseech the reader to consider, that, if I had filled an elementary work with a multitude of quotations; if I had allowed myself to enter into long dissertations on the history of the science, and the works of those who have studied it, I must have lost sight of the true object I had in view, and produced a work, the reading of which must have been extremely tiresome to beginners. It is not to the history of the science, or of the human mind, that we are to attend in an elementary treatise: Our only aim ought to be ease and perspicuity, and with the utmost care to keep every thing out of view which might draw aside the attention of the student; it is a road which we should be continually rendering more smooth, and from which we should endeavour to remove every obstacle which can occasion delay.

The remarks I have made on the order which I thought myself obliged to follow in the arrangement of proofs and ideas, are to be applied only to the first part of this work. It is the only one which contains the general sum of the doctrine I have adopted, and to which I wished to give a form completely elementary.

The second part is composed chiefly of tables of the nomenclature of the neutral salts. To these I have only added general explanations, the object of which was to point out the most simple processes for obtaining the different kinds of known acids. This part contains nothing which I can call my own, and presents only a very short abridgment of the results of these processes, extracted from the works of different authors.

In the third part, I have given a description, in detail, of all the operations connected with modern chemistry. I have long thought that a work of this kind was much wanted, and I am convinced it will not be without use. The method of performing experiments, and particularly those of modern chemistry, is not so generally known as it ought to be; and had I, in the different memoirs which I have presented to the Academy, been more particular in the detail of the manipulations of my experiments, it is probable I should have made myself better understood, and the science might have made a more rapid progress. The order of the different matters contained in this third part appeared to me to be almost arbitrary; and the only one I have observed was to class together, in each of the chapters of which it is composed, those operations which are most connected with one another. I need hardly mention that this part could not be borrowed from any other work, and that, in the principal articles it contains, I could not derive assistance from any thing but the experiments which I have made myself. [You may enjoy the clarity of his description of his gas density and combustion experiments.]