Journal Article

How do Structural Formulas Embody the Theory of Organic Chemistry?

William Goodwin

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 61, issue 3, pages 621-633
Published in print September 2010 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online June 2010 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/bjps/axp052
How do Structural Formulas Embody the Theory of Organic Chemistry?

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Organic chemistry provides fertile ground for scholars interested in understanding the role of non-linguistic representations in scientific thinking. In this discipline, it is not plausible to regard diagrams as simply heuristic aids for expressing or applying what is essentially a linguistic theory. Instead, it is more plausible to think of linguistic representation as supplementing theories whose principal expression is diagrammatic. Among the many sorts of diagrams employed by organic chemists, structural formulas are the most important. In this paper, by examining two central episodes in the development of structural formulas—Kekulé’s proposal of a structure for benzene and Ingold’s explanation of dipole moments in terms of ‘mesomerism’—I investigate how the norms for the production and interpretation of structural formulas evolve in response to experimental results and theoretical developments. I conclude that one principal way in which structural formulas embody the theory of organic chemistry is through these evolving norms.

Example 1: Kekulé’s Structure for Benzene

Example 2: Ingold and the Theory of Mesomerism or Resonance

Philosophical Implications of these Examples

Journal Article.  5179 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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