Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2047th Meeting

Speaker: Jack Fruchtman, Jr., Political Science Department, Towson State University
Topic: “Joseph Priestley: Radical, Natural Philosopher, and Theologian”

The President Mr. Ohlmacher called the 2047th meeting to order at 8:21 p.m. on September 29, 1995. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2046th meeting and they were approved. The President then read a portion of the minutes of the 440th meeting October 26, 1895.

The President introduced Jack Fruchtman, Jr., professor, Political Science Department, Towson State University, Towson, Maryland, to discuss “Joseph Priestley: Radical, Natural Philosopher, and Theologian”.

Mr. Fruchtman introduced the subject of his discussion by briefly recalling the history of natural philosophy societies. The first was the Royal Society of London founded in 1660; Joseph Priestley became a member in 1767. In Derby, Manchester and Sheffield the Lunar Society of Birmingham (the “Lunatics”) was organized by Josiah Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and James Keir and included Joseph Priestley. The American Philosophical Society was founded in 1744 by Benjamin Franklin; Joseph Priestley was a personal friend of Franklin's and became a foreign member of the American Philosophical Society in 1785. These societies intended to promote the application of scientific discoveries to industry and secular progress generally. In their time they were anti-aristocratic and somewhat subversive of the status quo in society, politics, religion and science. These societies were, of course, predecessors of the Philosophical Society of Washington.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), credited by historians of science as a founder of modern chemistry and the first discoverer of the chemical element oxygen, was also a political radical and idealist. A supporter of both the American and French Revolutions, he argued on behalf of the universal liberty of human beings. He saw political conservatism, represented by such men as Edmund Burke, as an abiding hindrance to progress. Agitating for political reform and promoting science, he believed, would inevitably produce social and political progress. He was by training and profession a theologian, and only by avocation a scientist and political writer, but he advocated using the method of science, experimentation, in politics and religion. And he used the language of science to charge his political rhetoric.

“We are, as it were, laying gupowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion; in consequence of which that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment and so effectually as that same foundation can never be built again.” [1]

And thus he became “Gunpowder Joe” to some of his enemies.

Priestley believed in the phlogiston theory, and in August 1774 he discovered what he called “dephlogisticated air”. He met Antoine Lavoisier in Paris later that year and demonstrated to him how to prepare this gas from mercuric oxide. Lavoisier, who did not believe in the phlogiston theory, realized that what had been discovered was a new substance, which he named oxygen, and not the absence of a substance with negative mass. Although he supported the phlogiston theory against his own discovery, toward the end of his life he realized that it was probably wrong.

Priestley's understanding of human activity was not merely grounded in his observations of everyday life and politics; it was always informed by the penetrating insights he derived from his study of natural philosophy. Science, he believed, was the mean by which human beings may best understand the universe. The more people learned of the fundamental nature of matter, the better informed they would be about the direction human life must ultimately take. With this understanding, Priestley joined science and politics in a wholly unique manner. His work stands, therefore, as a major contribution to the unity of science, religion, and politics in eighteenth-century thought, and a model for our own time.

[1] J. Priestley, Reflections on the State of Free Inquiry in this Country, 1785.

Mr. Fruchtman kindly answered questions from the audience. The President thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society, announced the date for the next meeting, restated the parking policy, and adjourned the 2047th meeting at 9:42 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary

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