Some strange sort of inferiority complex seems to inhibit us - the representatives of European culture - from talking about primitive cultures in just and unprejudiced terms. If we attempt to describe the logical coherence of an archaic culture and discuss its nobility or humanity without stressing the less favorable aspects of its sociological, economic or hygienic practices, we run the risk of being suspected of evasion or even obscurantism. For close on two centuries the European scientific spirit has made prodigious efforts to explain the world so as to conquer and transform it. Ideologically, this triumph of science has manifested itself in a faith in unlimited progress and in the idea that the more “modern” we become the more likely we are to approach absolute truth and the full plenitude of human dignity. However, for some time now the investigations of ethnologists and orientalists have revealed the existence of highly estimable societies in the past (and in the present too, for that matter) which, although quite devoid of scientific prowess (in the modern sense) or any aptitude for industrial achievement, had nevertheless worked out their own systems of metaphysics, morality and even economics, and these systems have been shown to be perfectly valid in their own right. But our own culture has become so excessively jealous of its values that it tends to regard with suspicion any attempt to boost the achievements of other, primitive or exotic cultures. Having for so long (and so heroically!) followed the path which we believed to be the best and only one worthy of the intelligent, self-respecting individual, and having in the process sacrificed the best part of our soul in order to satisfy the colossal intellectual demands of scientific and industrial progress, we have grown suspicious of the greatness of primitive cultures. The stalwarts of European culture have now reached the point where they wonder whether their own work (since it may no longer be regarded as the peak of man’s spiritual achievement or the only culture possible to the twentieth century) has been worth all the effort and sacrifice expended upon it.
This sense of inferiority, however, is being rapidly rendered out of date by the course of history itself. Non-European civilizations are now being studied and investigated in their own right. And likewise it is to be hoped that those periods in the history of the European spirit which are closer to traditional cultures and are clearly marked off from everything that was achieved in the West after the triumph of the scientific method will no longer be judged in that polemically partisan spirit characteristic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Alchemy is one of those creations of the pre-scientific era and the historiographer who would attempt to present it as a rudimentary phase of chemistry or, indeed, as a secular science, would be treading on very shaky ground. The historian’s perspective has been vitiated by his eagerness to demonstrate the beginnings of experiment and observation found in certain alchemical works and consequently he has assigned an exaggerated importance to those texts which revealed the first rough gropings towards the scientific method while ignoring others in which the alchemical perspective proper was patently more valuable. In other words, these interpretations of alchemical writings paid less attention to the theoretical world of which they were part than to those values which properly belong to the historian of chemistry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the values, that is, of experimental science.