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  • Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernityby Nicolás Fernández-Medina
  • Andrew Keitt
Nicolás Fernández-Medina. Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity. McGill-Queens Studies in the History of Ideas Series, no. 77. Chicago: McGill-Queens University Press, 2018. 416 pp. Ill. $37.95 (978-0-77355-337-8).

Nicolás Fernández-Medina has written a thorough and much-needed treatment of vitalism in the history of Spanish culture. Most of the scholarship to date, as Fernández-Medina points out, has focused on the neovitalist movement that arose toward the end of the nineteenth century, and as a result there has been no attempt to analyze the multiple strands of vitalist thought that emerged and developed over the course of the modern period in Spain. Fernández-Medina's book does an admirable job of filling this gap. By means of a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach, Life Embodiedtraces the various manifestations of Spanish vitalism from the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century and thereby complements existing scholarship on vitalism elsewhere in Europe, such as Catherine Packham's work on vitalism in England and Elizabeth William's writings on the Montpellier school in France.

The book is divided chronologically into three sections, the first of which encompasses the period from the late seventeenth century through the middle of the eighteenth century. In this section, Fernández-Medina undertakes a close reading of Juan de Cabriada's Philosophical Medico-Chemical Letter. The publication of Cabriada's letter in 1687 unleashed a series of polemics that roiled the conservative Spanish medical establishment, which in its steadfast Galenism refused to countenance the possibility that the body was vitalized by the blood rather than by an immortal soul. This first section also includes a chapter on the reception of Cartesianism in Spain, an intellectual current that similarly challenged the established consensus concerning the relationship between body and soul. In this case, however, vitalism was fighting an offensive on two fronts, combatting not only Galenist orthodoxy but also the mechanistic physiology of the "New Science," as Cartesianism came to be known. According to Fernández-Medina, these ideological conflicts gave rise to a "renewed interest in neo-Hippocratic empiricism and the direct observation of the body and its vital milieu" (p. 121).

The second section of the book covers from the Enlightenment to the dawn of the Romantic era, tracing the revolutionary medical advances that characterized the period. These advances were catalyzed by the opening of Spanish universities to current European medical science, most notably the doctrines of Herman Boerhaave and Albrecht von Haller. The work of Boerhaave and Haller complemented the neo-Hippocratic vitalism that had become increasingly influential among Spanish physicians, and it contributed to a general ferment of novel medical theory and practice as Spanish medicine began to take part in the wider European [End Page 613]conversation on vital force. One direction this conversation took was the Romantic identification of the individual vital force with an animated natural world. In concluding this section, Fernández-Medina presents an innovative interpretation of the work of ilustradoGaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, demonstrating the degree to which Jovellanos was inspired by this strain of vitalist thought and suggesting that while he has typically been considered a quintessential Enlightenment figure, Jovellanos can equally well be seen as a harbinger of Spanish Romanticism.

The third and final section, "From Neo-Hippocratism to the Avant Guard," charts the vicissitudes of vitalist thought during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Spain emerged from the War of Independence and sought, with limited success, to establish a new liberal order that could underwrite lasting scientific and political reform. Pedro Mata y Fontanet plays a key role in this part of the book with his denunciations of neo-Hippocratic vitalism as a retrograde, obscurantist scientific doctrine that in league with political conservatism conspired to marginalize Spain. This identification of vitalism with bad science and conservative politics has been echoed by modern-day historians, but Fernández-Medina provocatively argues that vitalism made an end run around critiques such as Mata's and was successfully...


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