Thursday, June 02, 2011

William Harvey's Aristotelianism

Benny Goldberg has a very nice post on William Harvey's Medical Aristotelianism, which is well worth reading.

Charles Wolfe has a comment on it, but I confess I don't understand it; he seems to imply that there was a strand of scholarship in post-WWII that argued that Harvey wasn't an Aristotelian. Now, it's not my primary field by any means, but I can't find any such thing: you do find articles that argue that Harvey is reinterpreting certain Aristotelian ideas, but it's very difficult to argue that Harvey is not Aristotelian because he is very explicit about it himself and uses Aristotelian terminology all over the place. (To find claims that Harvey is not an Aristotelian, you have to go back quite far.) Wolfe asks three questions:

if he was such an Aristotelian, why did Descartes give him pride of place in the Discourse on Method? If he was such an Aristotelian, why does he sometimes say that final causes may have no explanatory power whatsoever? Of course he speaks of 'office', of ends, which doesn't quite make him an Aristotelian, and (just sayin'), might the design language just be English bourgeois cultural standards?

All three of these questions I find somewhat perplexing.

(1) For one thing, Harvey really isn't given 'pride of place' in the Discourse; he's given one paragraph, devoted entirely to the issue of the circulation of blood. Everything else in Harvey falls away. Descartes explicitly gives us the arguments he finds convincing; they are arguments closely linked to particular experiments and both of them admit of more mechanistic interpretations. One of Descartes's lifelong ambitions was a rigorous mechanistic medicine on Cartesian principles, and explanation of the heart was key to that ambition. It is, in other words, the heart, not Harvey, that is given pride of place; Harvey just happens to have good arguments (on Descartes's own standards) for circulation of blood and the most important rival account of the heart's motion (which Descartes has to top -- he famously fails, of course).

(2) I'd have to look at the original context of the claim, since I don't recognize and can't find it offhand, but one reason that an Aristotelian might say that sometimes a final cause has no explanatory power is that, depending on what you are trying to explain, it wouldn't. Some forms of explanation on Aristotelian principles presuppose the final cause by holding it constant relative to other things; in yet others, the final cause, while objectively the reason for the other causes, is the least known cause; some things are better explained by matter and material resistance to the final cause; and so forth. Again, I'd have to look at the context, but there are lots of circumstances where it would be an unsurprising thing for an Aristotelian to say.

(3) Harvey doesn't use "design language" very much; he does use Aristotelian causal terminology a lot, and the two vocabularies are not the same. What's more, Harvey often explicitly attributes his vocabulary to Aristotle (and sometimes more substantive content) and appeals to Aristotle for methodological principles (the preface to the book on the generation of animals is solidly, even if, some might argue, selectively, Aristotelian in its account of scientific method), so it's not as if we're talking a few vague references here. Moreover, Harvey uses lots of other Aristotelian terminology as well, things that have little or nothing to do with final causes as such. Harvey was very unusual in the seventeenth century for his Aristotelianism; setting aside Fabricius and a few others, extensive use of Aristotle for methodology in medical matters was not all that common by this point, so Harvey's use can hardly be attributed to common usage, and the detail of it is so extensive that it can't just be educated man's parlance. He sticks out, and it's his Aristotelian features that most stick out.

One can argue how close Harvey is to Aristotle himself -- he certainly does at times seem to interpret Aristotelian claims fairly freely in the light of the evidence -- so you could argue that he's in some ways loosely Aristotelian. He's also very insistent that Aristotle hasn't discovered everything of importance about the natural world, an idea he thinks is obviously contrary to evidence. But I don't see that there's any evidential promise in the argument, which Wolfe seems to be suggesting, that Harvey wasn't at least broadly Aristotelian, particularly since Harvey regularly and deliberately locates himself in a broadly Aristotelian tradition.

Conceivably, of course, because Wolfe's comment is so short, I'm just misreading and missing his point.

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