Empiricist Heresies in Early Modern Medical Thought

  • Charles T. Wolfe
Part of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 25)


Vitalism, from its early modern to its Enlightenment forms (from Glisson and Willis to La Caze and Barthez), is notoriously opposed to intervention into the living sphere. Experiment, quantification, measurement are all ‘vivisectionist’, morally suspect and worse, they alter and warp the ‘life’ of the subject. They are good for studying corpses, not living individuals. This much is well known, and it has disqualified vitalist medicine from having a place in standard histories of medicine, until recent, post-Foucauldian maneuvers have sought to change the situation (but for unrelated, contextualist reasons). What is perhaps more suprising is that if we consider the emergence of medical ‘theory’ as a whole, from Harvey through to Locke and Sydenham, is the presence of a sustained anti-experimentalist line of argument, and this from the ‘empiricist’ (not Cartesian or Boerhaavian rationalist) side. It would seem then that ‘empiricks’, medical empiricists and other protagonists of an ‘embodied empiricism’ are not Boylean experimentalists who seek to map out Nature in its transparency, but deliberately archaic, Hippocratic observers of living bodies.


Eighteenth Century Scientific Revolution Vitalist Argumentation Early Modern Period Vital Force 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles T. Wolfe
    • 1
  1. 1.Unit for History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

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