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Charles T. Wolfe
conference paper description
Well prior to the invention of the term ‘biology’ in the early 1800s by Lamarck and Treviranus, and also prior to the appearance of terms such as ‘organism’ under the pen of Leibniz in the early 1700s, the question of ‘Life’, that is, the status of living organisms within the broader physico-mechanical universe, agitated different corners of the European intellectual scene. From modern Epicureanism to medical Newtonianism, from Stahlian animism to the discourse on the ‘animal economy’ in vitalist medicine, models of living being were constructed in opposition to ‘merely anatomical’, structural, mechanical models. It is therefore curious to turn to the ‘passion play’ of the Scientific Revolution – whether in its early, canonical definitions or its more recent, hybridized, reconstructed and expanded versions: from Koyré to Biagioli, from Merton to Shapin – and find there a conspicuous absence of worry over what status to grant living beings in a newly physicalized universe. Neither Harvey, nor Boyle, nor Locke (to name some likely candidates, the latter having studied with Willis and collaborated with Sydenham) ever ask what makes organisms unique, or conversely, what does not. In this paper I seek to establish how ‘Life’ became a source of contention in early modern thought, and how the Scientific Revolution missed the controversy.

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