Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mechanism takes command

Bertolini Meli notes that "Whereas Malpighi relied repeatedly on the notion of fermentation to bridge the gap between his anatomical findings and interpretive program, Borelli tried --or pretended-- to dispense with chymical notions and preferred purely mechanical ones, Fermentation and other chymical notions were at least in principle acceptable to Borelli and his colleagues because they were ultimately reducible to the motions, separations, and combinations of particles. In many cases,however, they retained a dubious status not entirely dissimilar from that of the Aristotelian notions the mechanists wished to displace." ... After van Helmont, it was relatively common to refer to fermentation, especially in the mechanical sense favored by Descartes and willis. Borelli's concern was with the uncontrolled proliferation of cymical explanations introduced as ad hoc remedies to the problems of mechanical interpretations. ...The dispute over fermentation was not simply a private affair between Borelli and Malpighi, but had a broader European import. ... Walter Charleton, William Cole, Archibald Pitcairn, and William Cockburn across the channel attacked the notion of fermentation in different contexts. " [Bertolini Meli, loc 5310ff] Here Bertolini Meli refers to Ted Brown's article on the College of Physicians [1970]. Brown insists that Willis was an iatromechanist, but divides the development of iatromechanism into two phases. The first phase was Willisian and gave importance to fermentation. In the second, that Brown calls the eclectic phase, starting in the 1680s, was critical of Willis's notion of fermentation and adhered to the more pruely mechanistic physiology of Borel.   Brown notes that: in 1679 Walter Charleton inclueded as one of his lectures a disquisition of "Fevers." Charleton's discourse aimed to describe the behavior of the animal 'engine." It began with a definition of fever as a corpuscular fermentation of the blood produced by impurities and partly by the subtle, vital spirits in mechanical conflict with these impurities; it continued with an explanation of febrile phenomena by means of which this hypothesis ... [brown, 1970, 23-4]  In 1683 Walter Charleton delivered three new lectures. In these he made Borelli, not Willis, the main spokesman on the 'animal oeconomy,' and very promnently in his first lecture he stopped specifically to ridicule the notion of fermentatiove agitations in smoothly (and mathematically") circulating blood. Two years later Charleton elaborated his critique of Willis' iatromechanical ideas in a treatise on physiology of menstrual flux.[brown, 1970, 24-5]" Notwithstanding Brown's  good reasons for calling Willis an iatromechanist, what seems to matter is that it was in 1683 under the influence of Borelli that the notion of fermentation was read out of the neuteric explanations of physiological phenomena. Was this reading out of the last vestiges of Aristotelian animism that had still been Willisian physiology. Is this the moment when mechanism truely took command?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Harvey and Aristotle

      Jacques Roger in his Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought states the well documented fact that Harvey was a committed Aristotelian. Others have noted how remarkable it was that someone devoted to an  approach to science that used 'souls' and 'faculties' as explanatory devices should be the one to espouse the paradigm changing idea of circulation, which rendered those modes of explanation obsolete. With Aristotle overthrown much of what followed Harvey's work for the next century and a half were various unsuccessful attempts to replace it with various chemical and mechanical systems. What I found most interesting was Roger's observation that "Harvey did not dismiss the idea of souls or faculties at work ... : they were something whose operations he observed. Unlike his colleagues, he did not believe it sufficient to reason about them in order to know them. But he did not judge them to be either absurd or ridiculous. He recognized the complexity of the facts and was not tempted to simplify them abusively, even in order to force some clarity into them. He did not, of course, see living matter as we do; but he knew well that it was only through observations that we would get to know the mechanism of the faculties. He knew that an “occult quality” was merely a property whose causes we did not know, yet he did not for all that believe we must despair of ever knowing them or that we should give up studying at least their effects. Attraction was also to be considered an occult quality, and Newton’s mentality would be exactly the same as Harvey’s."
     Having spent some time studying the late eighteenth century French Vitalists, who seemed to be reviving Aristotle in order to address the shortcomings of mechanist systems in biology and medicine, I was very excited to think that they were rediscovering Harvey's wisdom as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Foucault's Episteme Reassessed

Ian Maclean, whose book  The Renaissance Notion of Woman, I admired wrote a paper in 1998 called Foucault's Renaissance Episteme Reassessed: An Aristotelian counterblast, Journal of the History of ideas 59.1, 1998, 149-166. I have always found the notion of episteme hard to understand. It seems to have constraining qualities like a Kuhnian paradigm, but to be much broader, constraining a culture, society or civilization. While Kuhn's paradigm concept offers a way to think about breaking free, Foucault's episteme has not seemed to offer any way out. An yet epistemes change. This seemed not only a very pessimistic view of history but also a view that doesn't offer any way to think about history. Maclean looks specifically at Foucault's use of the notion of Episteme in discussing the Renaissance. He criticizes Foucault for using a limited number of sources and for choosing mostly neo-platonic sources. He discusses differences between Plato and Aristotle's ideas about discovery and shows that using Platonic thinkers as the basis for the idea of episteme makes it easy for that idea to allow no escape. He goes on to show how the Aristotelian ideas in circulation had ways to reflect on ideas and allow for critique. This, if I understood him, offered Aristotelians the resources to change. Given this I feel encouraged to continue looking into how Aristotelian scholasticism evolved into the new science.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

After Harvey

The crumbling of the credibility of Galen's system after Harvey arguments for the circulation of blood in 1628 marks a paradigm shift in the true meaning of the term. What I find exciting is the struggle to create a new paradigm, which, as I see it, wasn't established until the early nineteenth century. The work of Lower, Hooke and Malpighi on the structure and function of the lungs could not have been imagined before Harvey. After Harvey new ideas about the nature of disease had to be found to replace Galen's humoralism. Rationalist modes of thought in the form of iatro-chemical and iatromechanical  systems competed for over a century. They probably worked as well as Galen's system in providing doctors with a way to talk to each other and explain sickness to patients. Perhaps the iatromechanical system offered researchers fruitful hypotheses.

Friday, April 8, 2016

An International scientific community

I have been impressed in reading Bertoloni-Meli's book by the communication between England and Italy. While this communication was indirect and slow it suggest the presence of an international scientific community in the 1660s. It is very exciting to see teams of investigators asking such fundamental questions about the lungs. How were they constructed? What did they do?

Malpighi's Lung

Reading Domenico Bertoloni-Meli Mechanism, Experiment, Disease:Marcello Malpighi and Seventeenth-century anatomy I came across this image, one of the first printed images of the microstructure of an organ. It shows  I. a network covering external vesicles, II. a few internal vesicles and III. different modes of insertion of the pulmonary lobules. These are from his Malpighi's tow Epistolae of 1661.


'Truth' is a wonderfully engaging film. Cate Blanchet's performance as Mary Mapes is utterly convincing and moving. I had all but forgotten the events chronicaled and I was curious to learn what had been written about the film and the relationship between it and other versions of events. The film, I learned, is based on a book by Mapes. In the film a storm created by the right wing blogosphere focused attention on the questionable provenance of documents presented in Mapes documentary on George W. Bush's service in the national guard. The film seems to assert that this diverted attention from the substance of the story, that is, the special privileges Bush received. While someone suggested that Mapes apparently believes that some conspiracy involving Carl Rove was involved, Steven Holden suggests that this was one of the first assaults of the blogosphere and that Mapes was simply blindsided by its power. That suggested to me that this film documents our move into a multi-focal, more democratic, if you will, form of discourse. Now that we live more completely in the internet world, this film provided a window on the way discourse was structured not so long ago.