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Perspectives on Science 11.4 (2003) 373-377

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Early Modern Philosophy and Biological Thought*

Saul Fisher
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The essays collected here address a variety of topics in biological thought as they appear in the writings of Descartes, Gassendi, Régis, Malebranche, and Leibniz.1 Why consider the views of early modern Continental philosophers on biology-related topics? Historical analyses of such topics in this period have tended to focus instead on medical writers and practicing scientists—for example, Paracelsus, van Helmont, Spallanzini, Harvey, and Malpighi. Given the historiographical record, it is reasonable to ask about the added value of specifically philosophical thought in this domain.

These essays suggest at least two possible answers. First, the methodological and metaphysical discussions among philosophers of that era yield insights on the running biological questions and competing responses. Second, we may better grasp emerging early modern notions of science—something these philosophers all consider quite explicitly—by including their writings on biology along with more familiar texts. It is [End Page 373] most common to address early modern thinking on foundational issues about science through philosophical writings on physics, astronomy, and chemistry. If contemporary philosophy of science can provide a lesson for understanding the history of the field, it might be this: the fundamental issues of the life sciences constitute a critical piece of the broader metaphysical and epistemic landscapes of science writ large.

One place we see aspects of biology play a central role in general philosophical considerations of the nature of science is in the writings of Leibniz. We might find that surprising given Leibniz's consuming passion for physics, though nothing by way of intellectual diversity can be truly surprising in Leibniz. As Duchesneau shows, though, Leibniz's views go beyond a mere intellectual diversity; rather they mark the place of biology in the sciences and indicate how the sciences must be shaped generally to accommodate the particular features of biology. Duchesneau's particular focus is the Leibnizian accounts of relations between phenomenal macro- level and underlying micro-level organic structures. In this account, the foundations for an autonomous biology incorporate hypothetical, probabilistic, and analogical reasoning. They also take as the unit of first-order, phenomenal analysis in biology a vital organic body, an entity for which standard mechanism cannot completely account. Leibniz's non-standard biological mechanism considers organisms as natural machines, the structures of which are composed of parts in functional arrangements—with parts containing further parts, ad infinitum. The more basic parts have functions that persist through structural transformation, owing to their inherent vitalist dynamical force. Whereas Leibniz attributes the phenomenal behavior and qualities of macro-level organic structures to micro-level mechanisms in a first, direct sense, it is ultimately the vital forces that drive those micro-level mechanisms. To adequately explain the structural organization of organic bodies, then, requires both mechanistic accounts of the fundamental geometries of those bodies and teleological accounts of the underlying goal-directed entelechies. All the same, Duchesneau notes, Leibniz's mechanist biology has a strong empirical strain: the analysis of composition and organization of organic structures entails close observation of the phenomenal features, and hypothetical models of the sub-perceivable, always subject to empirical test.

Even without a formal methodology, though, a number of early modern philosophers developed guidelines and criteria for the pursuit of biological science. Thus, as Des Chene notes, Pierre Sylvain Régis articulates views on explanation in a textbook Cartesian account of living phenomena. For Régis, such explanations must be rooted in hypotheses belonging to a broader set of coherent and correlated hypotheses which follow from first truths, and which must be adjudicated by experience. Mechanism can provide [End Page 374] viable explanatory accounts for all that happens in nature; however, mechanism only yields one particular sort of explanation of biological phenomena, as some such phenomena cannot be subsumed under naturalist accounts. In such instances, recourse must bemade to the theological. Thus, human beings in particular cannot be wholly natural because they are not wholly machines, which we know from their reasoning souls. Yet other phenomena, of...


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