On the role of Newtonian analogies in eighteenth-century life science:Vitalism and provisionally inexplicable explicative devices

In Zvi Biener & Eric Schliesser (eds.), Newton and Empiricism. Oxford University Press. pp. 223-261 (2014)

Authors
Charles T. Wolfe
University of Ghent
Abstract
Newton’s impact on Enlightenment natural philosophy has been studied at great length, in its experimental, methodological and ideological ramifications. One aspect that has received fairly little attention is the role Newtonian “analogies” played in the formulation of new conceptual schemes in physiology, medicine, and life science as a whole. So-called ‘medical Newtonians’ like Pitcairne and Keill have been studied; but they were engaged in a more literal project of directly transposing, or seeking to transpose, Newtonian laws into quantitative models of the body. I am interested here in something different: neither the metaphysical reading of Newton, nor direct empirical transpositions, but rather, a more heuristic, empiricist construction of Newtonian analogies. Figures such as Haller, Barthez, and Blumenbach constructed analogies between the method of celestial mechanics and the method of physiology. In celestial mechanics, they held, an unknown entity such as gravity is posited and used to mathematically link sets of determinate physical phenomena (e.g., the phases of the moon and tides). This process allows one to remain agnostic about the ontological status of the unknown entity, as long as the two linked sets of phenomena are represented adequately. Haller et. al. held that the Newtonian physician and physiologist can similarly posit an unknown called ‘life’ and use it to link various other phenomena, from digestion to sensation and the functioning of the glands. These phenomena consequently appear as interconnected, goal-oriented processes which do not exist either in an inanimate mechanism or in a corpse. In keeping with the empiricist roots of the analogy, however, no ontological claims are made about the nature of this vital principle, and no attempts are made to directly causally connect such a principle and observable phenomena. The role of the “Newtonian analogy” thus brings together diverse schools of thought, and cuts across a surprising variety of programs, models and practices in natural philosophy.
Keywords Newtonianism  vitalism  biology
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