Élments de physiologie
Diderot's Éléments de physiologie is part textbook, part methodological statement and part reflection on the nature of living matter. As a comprehensive work written very late in the philosophe's career, it is also something of a swansong, drawing together ideas and information that had been a lifetime in the accumulation. Given this, it is rather surprising that Éléments de physiologie has attracted relatively little attention over the years, the only real explorations being those of Jean Mayer in 1964 and 1987. Now, however, Paolo Quintili presents us with a thorough and very scholarly edition of this important and under-appreciated work. At the core of Quintili's interpretation is Diderot's attempt to lay the groundwork for a materialist anthropology stressing the importance of medicine, not only to the maintenance of life, but to the very manner in which humanity regards itself. For Diderot, a view of humankind based upon the idealized constructs of metaphysics is to be supplanted by an altogether more practical assessment of human beings as they are; one concerned with issues of health, of organization and of balance. By way of achieving this goal, Éléments de physiologie provides a complete survey not only of all parts of the human body, but also the most up-to-date theories about how these parts work and interact. Diderot's preoccupation here is not so much with the details of anatomy, but with the 'big issues' of life in general, and of human life in particular. The most crucial aspects of the work are therefore those concerning the nature of living matter, the transformation of organic forms over time, generation and the brain. Quintili is alert to the essence of Éléments de physiologie in that the bulk of his extensive footnotes are devoted to the sections of the book that deal with these pivotal matters. His annotation adds a great deal to the text, and does a good [End Page 397] job of placing it within the context of both Diderot's own œuvre as well as broader, contemporary debates within the 'life sciences'. The editor's introduction is also immensely useful in that it paints a detailed picture of the philosophical landscape within which Diderot was operating, and offers a comprehensive overview of those thinkers that most deeply influenced his 'biological' thought, most notably Haller, Bordeu, Buffon and Maupertuis. The methodological and attentive nature of Quintili's approach may be best demonstrated, however, by the inclusion of a diagram that neatly highlights the seminal intellectual underpinnings of Éléments de physiologie, presenting them as a series of interconnected 'problem points'. Also of interest are the Appendices, which present fragmentary manuscript notes that allow the Diderot scholar to carefully trace the evolution of the thinker's ideas from Le Rêve de d'Alembert right through to the latter stages of his life. Quintili's edition is a well laid out and information-rich examination of Diderot's definitive statement on vitalism, materialism and the best means of understanding the nature of man. It will be invaluable to diderotistes and to students of eighteenth-century natural philosophy alike.