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


I am reaching the end of my presentation and time has came to sum it up. In order to emphasize the resemblance between the two sciences of chemistry and linguistics and they have in common the assembly of discrete entities into meaningful sets or strings, together with rules of assembly and also with control devices to adjudge if a well-formed product is apt to belong to the common stock. I have used a pragmatic, what might be termed a constructivist approach, to infer from the observable daily behavior of present-day chemists some of the aspects of the underlying deeper structure.
I did not address explicitly the question central to this conference, that is to say if language as it is wired into our brains provides the as it were template what a German might term the Ur Modellfor all the theories and the models of science. It is a difficult and complex issue, and I fully plan to address it some day, I have been aware of this prime question to philosophers of science for quite a while. Thus, I plead guilty for not yet having tackled this problem because I find its difficulty awesome.
However, there are other types of criticisms that can be leveled at my approach which I'd like to deal with before closing. The first such critique is that the history of chemistry shows no trace of any influence from philosophy or, later on, from linguistics. The answer is that, during the crucial period between 1840 and 1860, when chemistry invents the structural theory that was so strongly needed then linguistics had a single overwhelming concern, that of diachrony, of evolution and history of language (which incidentally explains the extent of their influence upon Charles Darwin). Nevertheless, one can find a few points of convergence, then, between chemistry and philology. The theory of radicals is one such contact area. The benzoyl radical, for example, is conceived by analogy with the root in a word, with the observation that a series of words such as in English a glance, a glow, a gleam, glamour, to glisten, and a few other share the same root gl* (stemming ultimately from Indo-European, but that is another story).
A second critique would be methodological: how come I did not devote my attention to the language of chemistry, to its nomenclature for instance, since a priori this is where the language analogy ought to thrive and to be at its strongest? The answer to this statement is that the language of chemistry is indeed a mere nomenclature and that it is too impoverished a language to qualify as a correspondent of natural language. The true language of chemistry is to be found instead in chemical praxis, in what chemists actually do and in their everyday communication.

A third critique, and the last I shall consider before the discussion, is that I offered too sweeping an assertion when, I termed chemistry a conbinatorial art. One might declare likewise that physics deal with combinations that are all formed from elementary particles, that biology is also a combinatorial game based on genes and on cells, in short that any science of matter, living or inanimate, is at the same time a science of the combination of a small number of elements that make up the alphabet of that science. This objection was eloquently dealt with by Berthelot, when he wrote La chimie crée son objet. Chemical science is volontaristic, it is an exercise in will power submitted to the strong constraint of having to decide a priori which, out of an astronomical number of potential structures, one should try and bring to existence.