Alchemy and the demarcation problem

Rafał T. Prinke

Abstract


The paper deals with some key methodological issues related to research on the history of alchemy. The scholarly literature that has accumulated since mid20th century, and especially during the last three decades, shows that the field and object of that research is variously defined (usually implicitly), in spite of a number of attempts to formulate a common definition. Likewise, scholars radically differ on the methodological approaches and assumptions concerning the interpretation of texts and imagery. They are briefly discussed in the context of the history of historiography of alchemy and the research practices of some leading contemporary authorities, looking for patterns and possibilities of reaching some agreement. While it may be methodologically useful to agree on some general issues, it is argued that it would be not only difficult, but quite obstructing to reach consensus on everything. The most important thing is for scholars to be aware of the multifariousness of what is called “alchemy” in popular discourse. It is hoped that some of the issues discussed and solutions proposed may also be relevant for the wider fields of esotericism or history of science, especially in the context of the “demarcation problem”.


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