pierre laszlo

language as an analogy in the natural sciences
Article Index
language as an analogy in the natural sciences
The elucidation of molecular structure
Building a molecule
Mixing and combining
The lesson from science history
Combinatorial chemistry
Parallels with linguistics
All Pages

A conference held in Munich, November 20-23, 1997.

Belaboring the obvious: Chemistry as sister science to linguistics

Pierre Laszlo
Ecole polytechnique, Palaiseau, France
and University of Liège, Belgium


I see the purpose of this conference as two-fold: to impress upon us participants, whether we are active scientists, historians of science or philosophers of science, the centrality of the language metaphor; and to make us, at the same time, question this metaphor as to its limits, its usefulness, its risks and its pathologies.
I have chosen in my presentation to deal with the science of chemistry in its resemblance to the science of linguistics. As we shall see, in like manner as linguistics projects on an empirical continuum, that of sound (or rather phonological) production, a small number of discrete units or phonemes, chemistry interprets the material world with a small number of discrete units or modules, that identify with radicals such as methyl, phenyl or benzyl and with other units such as a molecule in a molecular solid, a triad in a stereoregular polymer or an aminoacid residue in a protein.

Thus, my concern today is very little with the language of chemistry. I am not talking about nomenclature and terminology, I'm talking about what I've termed la parole des choses.
I'm talking to the issue of the parallel between chemistry and a natural language. In doing so, I'll try to steer clear of two rival temptations, two pitfalls which we might call the anthropomorphic fallacy, and the anthropocentric fallacy. The former would assert too much and claim linguistic status for the substances and the operations of chemistry. The latter would allow no such claim whatsoever, because only the human animal, it would assert, is graced with language. In the last resort, the anthropocentric fallacy, with its emphasis on Logos, goes back to the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine utterances.
At this juncture, the distinction introduced by Saussure between langue et parole is most helpful. Some of the points I shall be making will refer to language as langue, others, including some of the examples, will refer to language as parole.

My approach to the question of locating chemistry on a map of knowledge is to look at the everyday activity of chemists. Since I am myself a practicing chemist, this is a natural thing to do. Some sociologists of science would however rule out such testimony as tainted and irrelevant. In their view, only an outsider is in a position to locate the lines of force in a scientific field. What sociologists may gain in objectivity, they lack in competence, being unable for instance to distinguish between a passing scientific fad (such as use of NMR shift reagents in the 1970s) and a genuine breakthrough (such as the discovery of fullerenes in 1987). In any case, I hope that this mini-essay will convince you that the attempt at self-scrutiny was worth trying, and that the somewhat original position I shall be building up to is worth a hearing at the least, and that it further offers such a profusion of avenues for further exploration as to make it valuable.