Joseph Priestley: a philosopher who did some real work

Philosophers have a reputation for sitting around in ivory towers rather doing anything practical. Not so with Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). As a fully paid up member of the Enlightenment ratpack, his contributions are equal to Voltaire, Smith and all the others. Think of this-if Priestley hadn’t discovered oxygen, what would we all have to breathe? But he was more than just a groundbreaking scientist, also making contributions to Philosophy, education, linguistics and theology. The last is interesting, for he was in at the birth of Unitarianism, that thoughtful non-dogmatic faith which sees no challenge between learning and religion.

So as part of our Heroes of Learning series, we include a little vignette from Wikipedia on his life. However, we would invite you to read much more, especially on the famous Lunar Society, to which we shall return in future blogs. In the end Priestly was chased from England after a Tory mob burned down his laboratory (there’s a joke in there somewhere about tory and oxygen but we can’t think of one right now) He fled to the more tolerant environment of the USA. It gave him a home in the way it would one way do to Einstein, another scientist fleeing from reactionaries. Even the most blameless can fall foul of wild emotions; but Priestly will be remembered while the names of the barbarians who destroyed him have long since passed into oblivion.

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