The concept of nature in the medico-philosophical thought at the transition from the 17th to the 18th Century (PTDC/FIL-FCI/116843/2010)




Code . PTDC/FIL-FCI/116843/2010

Start . 2012

Duration . 42 months

Principal Investigator Adelino Cardoso (CHAM)


Funding Entity

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia

Main Research Unit

CHAM — Centro de Humanidades


This project follows up on a specific aspect of the larger project «Philosophy, Medicine and Society». The research team comes from that project, namely Adelino Cardoso, Guido Giglioni and Manuel Marques, to whom is added Anne-Lise Rey, with whom collaboration has already been started in what respects to one of the investigations included in the project presented here. Also from the previous project are Palmira Costa, Maria Ferreira, Paulo Jesus e Bruno Barreiros. The team is reinforced by doctoral and post-doctoral researchers (Hervé Baudry, Francisco Silva, Alessandra Pinto) and by other researchers related to this subject area (Marta Mendonça, Luís Bernardo and Nunzio Alloca).

The main goal of this project is to deepen the connection between philosophy and medicine in what can be described as a nuclear concept, which is at the core of modern rationality and which encompasses in equal degree the general order of the cosmos and the different phenomenal planes. In fact, in this context, nature means order, regularity, intelligibility. 

The period chosen is that which spans from the publication of Descartes' Tractatus de homine in 1664 by the physician and philosopher La Forge, and the death of the most influential professor of medicine in the first half of the 18th century, Hermann Boerhaave, in 1739. These two signposts are selected, with the Cartesian Treaty on the one hand representative of the intent to apply a mechanistic system to the anatomic-physiological approach to the human body and, on the other hand, the death of Boerhaave representing the passage to a new cycle, which, put into overtly simple terms, we can call «enlightenment medicine». Here the mechanistic representation becomes integrated into a vision of nature as sensibility and perfectibility.

The guiding hypothesis of this project is that during the period selected, there is a specific contribution from medical-philosophical thought to the criystalization of the notion of nature, its efficacy and the explanation of its phenomena. Such contribution comes from the specificity of the living human body, which reveals the insufficiency of the mechanistic model. In fact, medicine is a privileged field in which the mechanistic programme is developed, but also where this problem reveals the greater difficulties and creates a more intense debate. In this aspect, the emblematic iatromechanic work, De motu animalium (1680) by G. B. Borelli, is very significant: the intent to include medicine in the physical-mathematical field, in the same way as astronomy (Op. Cit. Proemium) is accompanied, therein, by the affirmation of the causality of the soul over bodily movement, an affirmation which will be reinforced by J. Bernoulli in an appendix to the second edition of this work. 

The medical-philosophical literature subsequent to the publication of the Cartesian Treatise is faced with the subject of causality, insofar as mechanicism tends to eliminate the spontaneity and dynamism of nature. The confrontation occurs particularly between Occasionalists such as Cordemoy and Malebranche, on one side, and naturalists such as F. Glisson and R. Cudworth on the other. The former divest nature from all potency and causality, while the latter conceive of nature as an immanent principle of action. ?The mechanic view of nature requires a new way of seeing, which recognizes the active side and the aesthetical-moral dimension of nature and the human body. The work of R. Boyle, namely De ipsa natura (1688), written from the perspective of the «physiologist», makes a coherent synthesis between mechanism and vitality in nature. ?The medical work of Boerhaave is representative of the predominant orientation in the first decade of the 18th century in the sense that it articulates the mechanistic explanation with the Vessalian legacy, which reveals the aesthetical dimension of nature, and even with the Hippocratic tradition, which grants nature the status of the founding principle of medicine. The assumption of history as an integral part of medical knowledge is one of the innovations of Boerhaave and the medicine of his time.?When it comes to the representation of the body, the fibrilist current gives an image of the body which opens a deep hole in the humouralist system which will influence the enlightenment physiology, namely that of A. von Haller. The work of Baglivi deserves special attention due to its redefinition of the life as a balance between sensus and motus, acknowledging the primacy of the function and introducing the irritability (irritatio) as an intrinsic property of the living body.

At a conceptual level, the most relevant innovation was the introduction of the neologism “organism” by Leibniz and Stahl at the beginning of the 18th century. The controversy between both of them derives in great measure from a different articulation between organism and mechanism and a different conception of potency and causality in nature. ?To focus on Portuguese medicine of this period, which is largely unstudied, two related questions appear: what is its specificity and to what level did it accompany the intellectual movement of European medicine on nature and its properties (namely in authors such as Isac Cardoso, Curvo Semedo, Brás Luis de Abreu, Jacob de Castro Sarmento and Bernardo Pereira).

In the methodological field, we will aim to insert the medical literature into the dynamic of modern science, examining the specificity of medical thought, the tension and articulation between the mechanic and the vital; lastly we will concentrate on the conceptual affinities (nature, order, organization) and the polarities which feed the discourse on nature: nature/art, natural/supernatural, order/anomaly. 




The reciprocal intelligibility between nature and body is the main organizing line of the work which will be developed. From its beginning, the research will focus on the significance of Descartes Treatise on Man, which corresponds to the intent of placing medicine in the general framework of mechanicism as a general philosophy of nature and technical tool for an approach. This Cartesian work will be placed against the medical writing of Willis and Sténon, which have a common orientation, but which diverge in significant points.

In what concerns the impact of Descartes' work, the iatromathematic current will come to light, which aims to make medicine a science as exact as mechanics or astronomy, as is expressly stated by G. B. Borelli (De motu animalium, 1680, proemium) and which simultaneously confronts the problem of causality, particularly in what respects the efficacy of the soul over the body. The dissonance between Borelli and J. Bernoulli will the subject of particular attention. The theme of causality will also be approached in respect to the work of the Cartesian La Forge, who, in an occasionalist setting, questions the causal efficacy of the body. The study of this topic will be accompanied by a confrontation with the philosophical debate on the status of mechanicism and on natural causality in Spinoza, Malebranche and Cudworth. 

Special attention will be paid to the representation of the body. Despite the important differences and nuances, the most salient characteristic of medical-philosophical literature in the turn of the century (1685-1715) consists in the search for the specificity of the animated body's own mechanism, which is seen as a special mechanism, or as an integral part of the more complex reality, such as the organism. In this theme, the work of R. Boyle will come to light, as it constitutes the most complex synthesis of mechanism and function, calling on an integrating unity in the specifically physiological level. De Ipsa Natura (1688) by this author, is a masterpiece on this subject. In the field of medicine, the fibrilist system, particularly the work of Baglivi, will come up, as a synthesis of iatromathematics - which explains all mechanically - and the spontaneity of nature. 

We will proceed to articulate the fundamental lines of two great systems, the medical system of Boerhaave and the philosophical system of Leibniz, which constitute intersection points between differing currents of natural philosophy in the turn of the century: the adherence to mechanicism of both authors is tempered by the presence of medical or philosophical tradition, and by the search, more marked in the latter than in the former, for the originality of the living body. In what respects Leibniz's system, a first-hand study will be made of part of the manuscripts on medicine and biology, focusing specifically on the notion of body.

This will be accompanied by the emergence of modern vitalism, particularly in the work of F. Glission, whose natural philosophy is centred in the notion of natural perception, which defines the living being's own specificity. Without seeking a direct line of descendance, the affinity between between the Glissonian conception of life as "feeling of itself" (sensus sui) and the consideration of nature as sensibility, which is affirmed in the first decades of the 18th century, particularly in the field of physiology and of what Duchesneau calls the «subtle medicine».

The insertion of sensibility in the core of nature points in the direction of unity and continuity of living forms, creating the inversion of that which seemed to be the fundamental inspiration for the Cartesian Treaty. In this context we will analyze the meaning of the continuist conception proposal, which becomes progressively stronger and which will become a fundamental element in the «science of lights».

When it comes to Portuguese authors, the most significant works will be studied, with the aim of understanding the specificities of Portuguese medicine in comparison with European medicine, namely in Philosophia Libera (1673) of Isaac Cardoso, which inserts the modern duration in the bosom of nature, in Polyanthea Medicinal (1697) of João Curvo Semedo, which makes a synthesis between the galenic and paracelsian conceptions of nature, in Portugal Médico (1726) by Braz Luís de Abreu, who adopts the stahlian perspective, and in Materia Medica, Physico-Historico-Mecanica (1735) by Jacob de Castro Sarmento, who assumes the Newtonian natural philosophy, in the Discurso Apologético em Defesa dos Prodígios da Natureza (1719) by Bernardo Pereira, which aims to widen the concept of nature, so as to include prodigious and rare phenomena. Given the existence of a significative number of manuscripts which have not yet been studied, an inventory will be made of manuscripts which focus on the body and nature, revealing the Tractatus Animasticus, by an anonymous author, dating from 1728-1729(?)







Adelino Cardoso   .   Coordenator
Alessandra Pinto
Anne-Lise Rey
Bruno Barreiros (CHAM)
Claire Crignon (Sorbonne Nouvelle)
Enrico Pasini (Unito)
Francisco Santos Silva
Guido Giglioni (Warburg / UL)
Hervé Baudry (CHAM)
Luís Manuel A. V. Bernardo (CHAM)
Manuel Silvério Marques (CFUL / UL)
Manuel Valente Alves (FMUL / ULisboa)
Maria Luísa Ribeiro Ferreira (CFUL / UL)
Marta Mendonça (CHAM)
Nunzio Alloca (Sapienza)
Palmira Fontes da Costa (FCT / NOVA)
Paulo de Jesus (CFUL / UL)
Pedro Panarra