Idols of the Marketplace and Lavoisier

Idols of the Marketplace and Lavoisier

Heralded as “the only true universal language”, Mathematics is a medium that has no ambiguity.  But why is it the “only” one of its kind.  It begins which preconceptions, preconceptions that alter ones understating of their language. These adaptations, as Bacon explains, are known as the Idols of the Marketplace.  “Formed by the reciprocal conversation and [the] society of man with man” (B, 81) the Idols of the Marketplace, in Bacons opinion, lead to generalities in language, which in turn propagate confusion.  The concept of these idols is further elaborated by Antoine Lavoisier in the Preface to his text, Elements of Chemistry.

Whilst trying to decipher the code that was seventeenth century Chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier encountered the effects of the Idols that Bacon had brought forth centuries past. Similar to mathematics, science is a field in which theories, ideas, and concepts are validated by nature and logic. Having its “universal” conventions and notations Mathematics is unaffected by the Idols of the Marketplace.  Science on the other hand, is consumed by the Idols, which lead to false notions of absolute truths, generalities, and improper associations.  Chemistry in particular is highly affected by these Idols. Lavoisier puts forth the idea of Chemistry being caught in somewhat of a catch-22, to where “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”. So Lavoisier set forth in reconciling this problem.

In a Baconian fashion Lavoisier states, in reference to difficulties within the field of chemistry, “inconveniencies are occasioned not so much by the nature of the subject, as by the method of teaching it” (L, 87). Subsequently, he puts forth the means in which to address these problems.  By working from known to unknown, and only drawing conclusions from “flowing observation and experiment” (L, 74), Lavoisier presents this method as a process to ease Chemistry for prospective students.  Lavoisier further simplifies Chemistry by installing his nomenclature.  In a systematic fashion validated by experimentation, Lavoisier devises the scheme to name and organize the known components of the chemical world. In his effort to eliminate the butters of arsenic and flowers of zinc, Lavoisier is attempting to “frame the human understanding [of Chemistry] anew” (L, 305).

In his valiant efforts, Lavoisier did indeed confront one of the source problems in his generations Chemistry.  By creating a universal language for Chemistry, the associations and generalities caused by the idols are effectively eliminated.  Which is an incredible feat, because as I have noticed the Idols of the Marketplace are still present in many aspects of our world.

I noticed in particular when reading the excerpt of Hooke’s Micrographia.  In his comparison of the craters on the moon to the landscape in England, Hooke refers to the crater like surfaces on hills as a result of “earthquakes”, which caused me a fair bit of confusion when reading it in context.  But on further examination I came to the realization that he was not talking about earthquakes, in the modern sense of an earthquake, but rather antiquities sense, which is what we consider a volcanic eruption. This analogy is only further evidence to the perils Science has avoided with Lavoisier’s nomenclature and scientific approach.

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