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Elements and (first) principles in chemistry

Hendry, Robin Findlay

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The first principle of chemical composition is that elements are actually present in their compounds. It is a golden thread running through the history of compositional thinking in chemistry since before the chemical revolution. Opposed to this principle, which I call Actually Present Elements (APE), is the idea that elements are merely potentially present in their compounds: although not actually present, it is possible to recover them. In this paper I follow that golden thread, and then discuss the status of APE itself: is it true? What arguments were there for it, and when? I argue that APE is a metaphysical principle, albeit at a lower level of generality and abstraction than the term ‘metaphysical’ usually suggests. I critically examine a range of different views on how metaphysical principles might be involved in research programmes in empirical science, and conclude by endorsing Elie Zahar’s view that metaphysical principles such as APE are to be found at the very heart of science. Moreover, they can be recipients of empirical support just like other parts of scientific theory.


Hendry, R. F. (2021). Elements and (first) principles in chemistry. Synthese, 198, 3391-3411.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 1, 2019
Online Publication Date Jul 24, 2019
Publication Date 2021-06
Deposit Date Jul 26, 2019
Publicly Available Date Jul 26, 2019
Journal Synthese
Print ISSN 0039-7857
Electronic ISSN 1573-0964
Publisher Springer
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 198
Pages 3391-3411


Published Journal Article (Advance online version) (330 Kb)

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Advance online version © The Author(s) 2019. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

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