"Mechanical and Iatrochemical Theories in 17th-Century Physiology"
University of Sydney
Sydney, Australia, 20 February, 2009
In this subtle and well-argued paper, which takes up and develops some of the aspects of his 2000 book, Elements, Principles, and Corpuscles, Antonio Clericuzio seeks to challenge the traditional scholarly distinction between iatromechanism, representedmost prominently by Descartes, and iatrochemistry of the sort practiced by Paracelsus and J.-B. van Helmont. Between the book and the numerous articles and papers that have followed, on the one hand, and on the other hand the equally forceful revisionist work of scholars such as John Henry, it seems to me however that it may be time now for scholars who do not draw a firm boundary between quantitative corpuscalarianism and qualitative chemical philosophy, but instead recognize an enormous middle ground of qualitative corpuscularianism, to stop thinking of themselves as the eternal opposition and to pronounce their historically more rigorous and adequate interpretation of the lay of the land in the 17th century instead as ‘the new tradition’.
If we could make the two traditions distinct, if we could separate them conceptually even as we acknowledge that nowhere can they be found in their pure forms, we might say that, for an iatromechanist, living beings are ontologically of a pair with nonliving things, since their operations are peformed by particles of inert matter following the owhat Descartes calls the "minor laws" that govern the rest of nature. Of iatrochemistry, we would say in contrast that the body is, as Clericuzio puts it, a chemical ‘laboratory’, whose most basic processes are chemical, and ultmatiely qualitative, changes.
Clericuzio surveys important moments of the chemical tradition from early Paracelsianism through Robert Boyle, (who is the terminus ad quem of Clericuzio’s story) showing how, particularly in the context of English physiological work of the second half of the 17th century, where Descartes had only very limited impact, the line between the two traditions is not nearly so distinct as we have ordinarily believed.