Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life
Justin E. H. Smith
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Though it did not yet exist as a discrete field of scientific inquiry, biology was at the heart of many of the most important debates in seventeenth-century philosophy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of G. W. Leibniz. In Divine Machines, Justin Smith offers the first in-depth examination of Leibniz's deep and complex engagement with the empirical life sciences of his day, in areas as diverse as medicine, physiology, taxonomy, generation theory, and paleontology. He shows how these wide-ranging pursuits were not only central to Leibniz's philosophical interests, but often provided the insights that led to some of his best-known philosophical doctrines.
Presenting the clearest picture yet of the scope of Leibniz's theoretical interest in the life sciences, Divine Machines takes seriously the philosopher's own repeated claims that the world must be understood in fundamentally biological terms. Here Smith reveals a thinker who was immersed in the sciences of life, and looked to the living world for answers to vexing metaphysical problems. He casts Leibniz's philosophy in an entirely new light, demonstrating how it radically departed from the prevailing models of mechanical philosophy and had an enduring influence on the history and development of the life sciences. Along the way, Smith provides a fascinating glimpse into early modern debates about the nature and origins of organic life, and into how philosophers such as Leibniz engaged with the scientific dilemmas of their era.
Philosophorum lapidem [the fabulous philosophers’ stone]”29 as a general denunciation of the chrysopoietic quest and other of the more mystical practices of the alchemists, we should not take this as a denunciation of the chemical tradition tout court, since this tradition was about many other things besides, including many experimentally predictive, theoretically sophisticated accounts of the nature of mixtures. Leibniz’s prudence notwithstanding, since MacDonald Ross wrote his important studies
disjointed character of this work should not occlude from our view the careful and deep thought that went into its composition. Leibniz shows in this text a particular interest in discovering new methods of probing into the inner workings of living bodies. “We need to find ways to penetrate ever further into the innermost part of a living being.”37 One way of doing this, he proposes, is by developing the science of anesthesia: “We must find a way to put a person into a deep sleep, in order 34
its manifestations, fermentation may be defined as calorification from corruption, and Descartes holds it responsible for digestion, respiration, conception, and certain components of fetal development, among other phenomena. Fermentation had been a central concept of chemical medicine since Paracelsus, and more noticeably with the transportation of Paracelsianism into the Anglo-Dutch sphere by Jean-Baptiste van Helmont and Franciscus Sylvius in the early seventeenth century.52 For these
that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal something natural and something beautiful. —Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals I 5, 17–23 Let us free ourselves from the deception of the senses, from becoming, from history, from lies… And above all, away with the body, this wretched idée fixe of the senses, disfigured by all the fallacies of logic, refuted, even impossible, although it is impudent
of organisms are excluded from the ranks of the complete individuals.6 Both of the extreme cases, of genes and groups—which have been 140 CHAPTER 4 proposed not only as biological individuals but also, within the context of evolutionary biology, as units of selection—illustrate our intuitive response. It is hard to accept a group, say, a beehive, as a single individual, because it already consists in multiple organisms, to wit, bees, notwithstanding the fact that they can only multiply as a