What classifications of the chemical elements can teach us on epistemic values


Karoliina Pulkkinen


Epistemic values are characteristics of scientific representations that are regarded as desirable or valuable (Kuhn 1977, McMullin 1982). It does not take long to notice that the focus of the literature on values has remained in the context of justification. This is evident from the fact that values have been mostly discussed within the framework of theory choice, justification and other normative projects. Some have went as far as condemning some groups of values as ‘dangerous’ while simultaneously remaining agnostic on what values belong to that group (Nolan 2014).

These normative projects would benefit from a closer understanding on how values are part of the process of constructing scientific representations. For this reason, I will have a closer look at values in the context of discovery and examine how they have been part of forming classifications of chemical elements in the 1860s. I will demonstrate that the differences of the classifications of J.A.R. Newlands, Lothar Meyer, and Dmitri Mendeleev can at least in part be explained by the differences valuing. Mendeleev wanted his table as complete as possible, whereas Newlands was interested in the simplicity expressed by the quantitative aspect of the elements, while Meyer valued accuracy.

After comparing the classifications, I will focus on two epistemic values present in the classifications – simplicity and completeness – and suggest ways to revise our analyses of them. I will argue that understanding simplicity as parsimony does not do justice to the kind of simplicity that the chemists were after.  More effort should be directed to developing Dorothy Walsh’s account of simplicity as intellectual elegance (Walsh 1979). I will also suggest ways to deepen Chang’s 2012 definition of completeness.

Chang, H. 2012. Is Water H2O? New York: Springer.
Kuhn, T. 1977. Objectivity, Value Judgement, and Theory Choice. In The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and theory change, 320-339. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nolan, D. (2014). The Dangers of Pragmatic Virtue. Inquiry, 57(5-6), 623–644. http://doi.org/10.1080/0020174X.2014.967806

Walsh, S. (1979). Occam’s Razor: A Principle of Intellectual Elegance. Americal Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 241- 244.