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Machina Ex Deo : William Harvey and the Meaning of Instrument

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 61, Number 4, October 2000
pp. 577-593 | 10.1353/jhi.2000.0035

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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.4 (2000) 577-593


Since our clocks do consistently disclose each hour of the day and night -- do they not seem to partake of another body (beyond the elements), and that more divine? But if, under the dominion and management of [our human] Art, such splendid things are daily achieved beyond the powers of the objects themselves,... And if, in serving men they carry out such things as are to be marvelled at, what I ask, may we expect from them when they be instruments in the hand of God?

These words come near the end of William Harvey's De generatione animalium. As he does often in this work, he is arguing that it is possible for a material object to behave supra vires elementorum, i.e., in a manner that exceeds what can be explained merely from the qualities of the elements from which it is made. In fact, just before this, he argues that human craftsmanship enables the elements of air and water to make ships sail in opposite directions, fire to do one sort of thing in the kitchen, another in the shops of metal-workers, including the production of iron, which in its turn peacefully tills the soil or besieges the town in war. So if even human Art is capable of making something as wonderful as a clock out of the elements, how much more might God be able to do with them?

Not only is it entirely conceivable that the (divinely) artful manipulation of these same elements can account for the wonders of God's nature -- such as the generation of a chick out of an egg -- there is also no need to infer the existence of additional entities such as faculties, qualities, agents, and the like. All that is needed is the concept of "instrument." Today such things as his appeal to a clock, his reference to "art," and the word "instrument" itself, are liable to arouse in our minds a fairly mechanical sort of image. Therefore, we need to put this idea in its intellectual context, by looking at where Harvey's notion of instrument is coming from.

First, our much more mechanical world view was just coming into being as Harvey (1578-1657) wrote these words. Although the philosophy of his younger contemporary, René Descartes (1596-1650) was not yet in full bloom (he died a year before Harvey's book appeared), Cartesianism was certainly on the explanatory horizon, as was the work of another contemporary and contributor to the "new philosophy," Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). And, of course, Harvey had certainly known Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Nevertheless, Harvey was a devout Aristotelian who was adamantly opposed to the efforts of these contemporaries to replace Aristotle. Moreover, it was from the Aristotelian tradition, not from the new mechanics, that Harvey had derived the concept of instrument.

If, broadly speaking, the "new philosophy" was about a universe that was built like a clock, then the "old" natural philosophies, whether dominated by Platonism, Aristotelianism, Christian theology, or some combination, were about a universe that was socially constructed. Not only was man at the center, to a large extent the workings of the universe were envisioned in terms of social experience. The regularity, predictability, harmony, and wonder of natural phenomena seemed best explained in the language of reason, moral values, motives, responsibilities, hierarchies, laws (in the social sense), and the like, explanatory resources that, in the late ancient and medieval intellectual cultures of Europe, far outweighed either those that appealed to the passively material and the mechanical, or to the random and the chance.

But very central to that social model of nature was the concept of instrument, which gave to it something of a mechanical twist. To see how this was so, we need to go back temporarily to the works of Aristotle, the influence of which launched the notion of instrument into the western intellectual tradition in the first place.

Aristotle's Instrumentalism

From predecessors like Empedocles but more particularly from his own teacher Plato, Aristotle inherited an explanatory model for understanding how nature works which had a profound influence on his natural...

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