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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


History of Technology

Transitions and Borders Between Animals, Humans and Machines 1600-1800 by Tobias Cheung (Brill Academic) The search for a new foundation of the order of things, that characterizes the period between Descartes and Kant, is closely related to three questions: What is an animal? What is a human? What is a machine? The various answers that have been given to the questions occur in a field of dynamic interactions between theories of knowledge and of matter, experiments, observations, moral, theological and scientific claims, analogies, metaphors, imitations, and specific objects or artifacts. The main objective of this book is to retrace these interactions within different disciplinary, methodological and conceptual perspectives that reach from soul-body debates to models of organic molecules, fibre bodies and self-regulating clocks.

Contributors are Tobias Cheung, Charles T. Wolfe, Ann Thomson, Hanns-Peter Neumann and Yvonne Wübben.

TOBIAS CHEUNG--Ph.D. (1999, Technische Universität München), is Heisenberg-scholar and Privatdozent at the Institute for Cultural Sciences of Humboldt-University and at the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science (Berlin). He has published extensively in the history of the life sciences, including Res vivens. Agentenmodelle organischer Ordnung 1600-1800 (2008).

The search for a new foundation of the order of things, that characterizes the period between Descartes and Kant, is closely related to three questions: What is an animal? What is a human? What is a machine? The various answers that have been given to the questions occur in a field of dynamic interactions between theories of knowledge and of matter, experiments, observations, moral, theological and scientific claims, analogies, metaphors, imitations, and specific objects or artifacts.'

The main objective of this volume is to shed new light on different disciplinary, methodological and conceptual perspectives of this field as well as on contrasting strategies from 1600 to 1800. These perspectives and strategies are not just interpretations of a kind of ahistorically conceived typology of `the animal', 'the human', and 'the machine'. Rather, they define the mode of existence of animals, humans and machines within specific historical constellations and within manifold worlds of things. These worlds include monsters, angels, spirits, plants, polyps, fibres, germs, and the seemingly nonliving. The historical constellations, the concrete experimental investigations and the manifold worlds of things thus stabilize and destabilize the triangular field of transitions and borders between animals, humans, and machines.

The five essays of this volume reconstruct the shifting ground of this triangular field. Ann Thomson's essay relates the problem of the human-animal-distinction in England at the turn of the eighteenth century to debates on different types of souls and matter theories that have been used to explain self-movement, sensation, instinct-like behavior and reflexivity. Comparing various theological positions, she discusses the dilemma that a materialistic conception of an animal soul, that can sense and move itself, but which is not immortal like the human soul, could also appear to imply the possibility of thinking matter. Charles Wolfe's essay on living minima and endowed molecules in the matter theories of Maupertuis and Diderot transforms this dilemma into the framework of French Materialism in the second half of the eighteenth century. When the strategy of the endowed molecule comes into play, as Wolfe puts it, then the attribution of a self-organizing activity to the molecule, in which "the materials are the workers themselves," has to be discussed. My own contribution focuses on a different and yet closely related strategy in the French context: the fibre economies of organized bodies of Charles Bonnet and Diderot. In these economies, stimuli-reaction-schemes and vibrations connect inside-outside-events and transform sensations into thinking or "physical ideas." The agents of these activities, or the material workers, are the fibres themselves. In her essay, Yvonne Wübben switches the perspective from stimuli-reaction-schemes of fibre economies to the historical context of the notion of reflex and its experimentalization, especially in the work of Thomas Willis. While fibre °economies are related to technical metaphors of looms, Hanns-Peter Neumann shows in a longue-durée study that models of regulation and self-adjustment, which already Cusanus and Ficino used to characterize both mental and organic processes, are often based on the order of a different machine: the clock.

Animals, Humans, Machines and Thinking Matter, 1690-1707 by Ann Thomson, Université Paris 8*

Abstract: This article looks at the debate on the soul in England at the turn of the eighteenth century and at the role played within it by the question of animal soul, which had both theological and scientific ramifications. It discusses the difficulty of accounting for animal behaviour without either adopting the animal-machine hypothesis or according animals an immaterial and hence immortal soul. While those who denied the existence of an immaterial human soul and refused any fundamental distinction between humans and other animals were accused of reducing humans to machines, this article shows that the issues were in fact more complex. The fundamental question was that of the nature of matter; the main danger for many theologians seemed to lie in the attribution of innate life and sensibility to matter, which opened the door to materialism and undermined Christian doctrine.


animal, soul, matter, machine, reason, instinct, Henry Layton, William Coward, Anthony Collins

Endowed Molecules and Emergent Organization: The Maupertuis-Diderot Debate by Charles T. Wolfe, University of Sydney

Abstract: In his Système de la nature ou Essai sur its corps organises (originally published in Latin in 1751 as Dissertatio inauguralis metaphysica de universals naturae systemate, under the pseudonym Dr Baumann), Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and a natural philosopher with a strong interest in the modes of transmission of 'genetic' information, described living minima which he termed molecules, "endowed with desire, memory and intelligence." Now, Maupertuis was a Leibnizian of sorts; his molecules possessed higher-level, 'mental' properties, recalling La Mettrie's statement in L'Homme-Machine, that Leibnizians have "rather spiritualized matter than materialized the soul." But Maupertuis also debated this issue with Diderot, who critiqued this theory in the additions to his 1753 Pensées sur !'interprétation de la nature. Where Maupertuis attributes higher-level properties to his living minima, Diderot argues that these can only be 'organizational', i.e., properties of the whole. At issue here is the degree of commitment to a form of materialism.

Keywords: emergence, materialism, molecule, monad, organisation, Diderot, Maupertuis

Omnis Fibra Ex Fibra: Fibre economies in Bonnet's and Diderot's Models of Organic Order by Tobias Cheung, Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science

Abstract: In a long-term transformation, that begins in Antiquity but takes a crucial turn in the Renaissance anatomies, the "fibre" becomes from around 1750 the operative building block and at the same time the first unifying principle of function-structure-complexes of organic bodies. It occupies the role that the cell takes up in the cell oeconomies of the second third of the nineteenth century. In this paper, I will first discuss some key notions, technical analogies, and images that are related to "fibre"-concepts from Andreas Vesalius to Albrecht von Haller and then focus on Charles Bonnet's and Denis Diderot's fibre oeconomies. In Bonnet's and Diderot's fibre oeconomies, the self-active, regulating properties of fibre-agents and their material structures, that reach from fibre bundles, tissues and membranes to apparati of organs, are united within the concrete whole of individual organized "systems" or "networks."

Keywords: fibre, system, network, sensation, sensibility, organic, body, organization, oeconomy

Transhumane Physiologie. Bilder and Praktiken des Reflexes (Thomas Willis, Robert Whytt, Marshall Hall) by Yvonne Wübben, Freie Universität Berlin

Abstract: The essay examines the function of visualizations and practices in the formation of the reflex concept from Thomas Willis to Marshall Hall. It focuses on the specific form of reflex knowledge that images and practices can contain. In addition, the essay argues that it is through visual representations and experimental practices that technical knowledge is transferred to the field of human reflex physiology. When using technical metaphors in human physiology authors often seem to feel obliged to draw distinctions between humans, machines and animals. On closer scrutiny, these distinctions sometimes fail to establish firm borders between the human and the technical.

Keywords: reflex physiology, experimental practices, technical knowledge, scientific images

Machina Machinarum. Die Uhr als Begriff und Metapher zwischen
1450 und 1750 by Hanns-Peter Neumann, Martin-Luther- Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Abstract: The changing use of the clock metaphor serves as a helpful contrast medium to highlight the different concepts of the body-soul-system between 1450 and 1750. This article first relates to the social, political and philosophical functions of the horologium. Then it outlines the different fields of discourse, in which the clock metaphor was mainly invoked. Finally, it examines the writings of a number of significant authors (Cusanus, Ficino, Descartes, Leibniz, Wolff, La Mettrie) with an eye to the evolution of the clock metaphor in various theological, metaphysical and physiological contexts. Surprisingly enough, the clock (or watch) initially represented the life-giving soul and human consciousness, before turning into the well-known symbol for the body-machine, and in particular for its neurophysiological operations.

Keywords: clock metaphor, automaton, temperance, self-regulation, body-soul-system, consciousness, cosmology, (neuro)physiology








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