- Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity by Nicolás Fernández-Medina
Spanish History, Modernity, Materialism, History and Philosophy of the Body
What animates the infinite, living universe of multitude and change? Nicolás Fernández-Medina acknowledges that "[v]ital force, or the immanent energy that promotes the processes of life and growth in the body and in nature, has always proved a source of endless fascination and controversy" (p.xiii). Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity charts the ebb and flow of thought, the philosophical controversies and scientific understandings of what drives beings and what makes human life different from inanimate matter. The different understandings and denominations of vital force, also known as the vital principle, life force, entelechy and vis vitalis (p.3) reflect debates not just locked in the past but also the historical roots of current issues, as Fernández-Medina states, including "machine-regulated life, abortion, cloning, dietetics, homeopathy, assisted suicide, reproductive technologies, alternative medicine, biogenetic therapy, and gene manipulation […]" (p.xiii). The central claim of the book is that narratives of vital force configured "modernity" in Spain in different ways and with different scientific and socio-political consequences (p.xiv). Four core issues drive the book's central claims: "the unstable category of the body, the anxiety over the nature of the soul, the complex epistemologies of resistance, and the necessity of reform" (p.xiv). This volume constitutes a deep meditation on the interconnectedness among understandings of vital force as a mechanical phenomenon, the primacy or otherwise of the soul in human life, and the relation of these ideas with the Europeanization of thought, the structures, both mental and institutional, of political expression (democracy, absolutism, theocratic regimes), and the role of scientists in maintaining the status quo or providing new visions in a modern world. The vital spark, despite much attention through the period covered by this book - from the late sixteen hundreds to the early twentieth century - has proved difficult to pinpoint and has generated controversy (p.xv). [End Page 344]
The book is divided into three parts. The first, dedicated to analysing blood, circulation, and the soul, focuses on Juan de Cabriada's Philosophical Medico-Chemical Letter (1687) and early revisions of the relationship between body and soul. The second part, on political reform and the order of nature, analyses the late 1700s, while part three takes the reader to the modernity of the nineteenth century and the politics of regenerationism. Key to the book, however, is the extraordinarily detailed and extensive Introduction (p.3-40), which could almost stand alone for its scholarly impact. We learn that the seventeenth century marked an upswing in interest and publications on the existence of the vital force and why the concept engendered such a degree of controversy. What could be "so menacing, even sinister" (p.5) about claiming that within the body there existed a vital or constitutive force? Fernández-Medina explains that within Scholastic doctrine, the body was believed to be "a corruptible, earthly husk given form by the soul" (p.5). It was this incorruptible soul that inhabited the body, giving meaning to the whole of existence. The perfect soul was imbued with an imperfect body that contained its vital force. The body was nothing without the soul and it was the body that needed to be disciplined to maintain health, vitality, and moral direction. Despite this, many men of learning suggested that the body possessed its own energy not under the purview of the operations of the soul - this was the transgressive aspect of these thinkers' work (p.6) and we can see how conflicts among this thought, science, and religion would be acute. As other researchers, such as Pardo Tomás, have argued however, the power of the Church was not all encompassing and the role of the Inquisition in controlling thought was, by the 1700s, on the wane. This new thought opened the door to a reconfiguration of the relationship...