Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Life in Renaissance Philosophy

Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_262-2


The concept of life has always served as an idea integrating thoughts on this world and the afterlife, on the physical and the spiritual existence. Thus, it has been a subject in the humanities as well as in the natural sciences. As a consequence, the term has always been ambiguous. For the natural sciences, Aristotle laid the foundation by identifying functions such as nutrition, growth, reproduction, and perception as criteria for the definition of life, while recognizing that this plurality of criteria resulted in “being alive” meaning different things to different beings (thus turning the term into a “homonym”). In the Middle Ages, the concept was integrated into Christian theological thought and took on a strongly dualistic meaning: the “real” or “true life” was now the eternal life, while the “mortal life” of animals and nonbelievers became a second, lesser category. Consequently, Christian thinkers showed little interest in the efforts to explain the phenomena of life by the natural sciences. This situation changed in the twelfth century with translations of Aristotle’s works into Latin which brought attention back to the organic aspects of life. Scholars opened their minds to the knowledge of craftsmen and artisans such that the concept of life developed within a complex network of communication between individuals from theoretical and more practical backgrounds. By this movement, physiology was gradually taken out of theological and medical contexts and considered in its own right. With the emergence of the natural sciences in the early seventeenth century, mechanistic and quantitative analyses were introduced into the study of living beings. While trying to explain the processes of life mechanically, most authors of the time retained the Aristotelian idea of living beings as substantial forms.

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Primary Literature

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Secondary Literature

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zentrum für Literatur- und KulturforschungBerlinGermany