The Difference Between a Human and a Table: Romantic Attempts at Defining Life

by: Agy Gaertig, Claire Lee, Jim Thwaits, Jin Yim, Philippe Dessaigne, Tommy Loalbo

Keywords: Vitalism, Mechanism, Soul

Introduction


Life and it’s meaning have been studied and many attempts throughout history have been made to explain the mystery and wonder of living. The Romantic Era was a time of the discovery of imagination, feelings, and deep thought, expressed through writing, art, and even the investigation of science and the scientific processes that allow for life. According to Peter Hanns Reill, eighteenth century writers believed that life could not be defined; that there was no theory or explanation for life, but, in fact, romantic scientists attempted to explain these processes by both vitalist and mechanist theories, sparking debate and controversy. It is true that there was no true definition that was agreed upon, 18th century writers and scientists each formulated their own opinions and theories on the matter. The difference between organic and inorganic matter was at the basis of these debates. What was the substance or process that made the table different from the human? How could this substance or process be proven or observed? The works and observations of Hartley, Berkeley, Lawrence, and Shelley all analyzed the processes of life and defined specific scientific theories that to them best explained the wonders of life. The theories of Lawrence and Hartley took a mechanist approach, believing that life was a system of biological processes; vibrations and evolutionary biology explained human life, where Berkeley believed that the body contained a soul that could not be proven by an experiment or test. Many romantic era writers defined life, although each approached it in a very unique way.

AN00862204_001_l.jpg
"The soul hovering over the body reluctantly parting with life" by Luigi Schiavonett(1808)i: This photo represents how the soul was seen as necessary for life during the Romantic Era.



The Lawrence-Abernethy Vitalism Debate


Sir William Lawrence contested Reill’s statement in both his public life, as well as in his written publications. Lawrence believed that there was an explanation for life through mechanistic ideas. Although he acknowledged that medical science had not progressed far enough to give exact details of how the human mind worked, he did make clear his rejection of the idea that thought process came from some unknown vital force, as his once mentor, Abernethy would suggest (Lawrence, An Introduction).
In Lawrence’s “Lectures on physiology, zoology, and the natural history of man,” he asserts, “The phenomena of mind are to be regarded physiologically merely as the functions of organic apparatus contained in the head.”(Lawrence, Lectures) While L.S. Jacyna suggests that Lawrence did not deject the idea of vitalism (Jacyna, Immanence), rather just aimed to describe the body physiologically, this does not align with other parts of his lectures wherein he attacks the idea that a metaphysical soul is the only explanation for human thoughts. Rather, what may be extracted from Lectures, is that Lawrence thought that a belief in mechanism did not have to mean a belief in atheism. Lawrence did not have the interest of being seen publicly as an atheist, as indicated by his
Frankenstein.png
Frankenstein’s monster is portrayed fully lifelike and with emotions, however, the source of this life is left ambiguous.

strong action of temporarily withdrawing his second book of lectures when it was accused of being blasphemous (Mudford, William Lawrence).
Abernethy in contrast to Lawrence, held beliefs that vitality was a principle independent of matter (Abernethy, Introductory Lectures). This too does not perfectly align with Reill’s idea that romanticists felt life could not be defined. While Abernethy was unable to prove with certainty his ideas on vitalism, in his lectures he clearly defines what he believes is the source of life (Abernethy, Physiological Lectures).
Perhaps one example seemingly in support of Reill’s statement would be Mary Shelley’s work Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. In the birthing of the monster, it is unclear what the causation of his life is (Shelley, Frankenstein). While it exemplifies mechanistic ideas, with the monster being built from individual parts, what instills life to the monster remains unclear, possibly suggesting that Romantic writers did lack certainty on the source of life (Baker, Natural Science). However, Baker assumes Shelley’s intent is to indicate this uncertainty, when it is possible she avoided siding her work in one direction of the vitalism debate only to open the novel to a wider audience.
In a clarification of Reill’s idea in context of Lawrence and Abernethy, it may be asserted that eighteenth century romantics did not all agree on the source of human cognitive abilities; many held clear beliefs on what the source was, only lacking medical technology to gather proof.


David Hartley's Observations On Man


In his work, Observations On Man, His Frame, His Duty, And His Expectations, David Hartley argues that the functions of the human being could be explained through a scientific view point. In a recent article, Garland E. Allen states that mechanists attempt to determine the individual parts of a “complex system” in order to gain an understanding of how they interact together as a whole, an accurate description of what Hartley attempts to do throughout Observations On Man (Mechanism, vitalism and organism). Through the concepts of vibrations and motions, Hartley begins to talk about his discovery by mechanically analyzing the parts and functions of the body.

Before completely delving into his mechanistic philosophy, David Hartley begins with the foundation of his studies by explaining different aspects of human physiology. Hartley states that “man consists of two parts, body and mind” and that sensations are the “internal feelings of the mind” which are aroused by the influence of outside sources (Observations 1). With this, Hartley brings in the concept of vibrations - the backwards and forwards motions of small particles (Observations 8). In order for the vibrations to occur, “external objects” come and instigate small vibrations upon the “medullary substance of the nerves and brain” which is the key activator of sensation. It is these sensations which cause us to feel and react the way we do. However if any of the nerves that innervate a particular part are “damaged, or impaired,” the “sensation, voluntary motions, memory and intellect” are also effected and impaired (Hartley, Observations 5).

Hartley then continues by claiming that the body is controlled by two motions: the automatic motions, which “arise from the mechanism of the body,” and the voluntary motions, which are “referred to the mind” (Observations 3). However these so called “voluntary motions” are explained through the concept of secondarily automatic actions, in which Richard C Allen creates a similar analysis by providing an example using the study of language. Allen stated that if he were to learn a language, he would need to gain “voluntary control” over certain things, such as recognizing different tones. Eventually these voluntary actions are turned into “secondarily automatic actions that depend upon the most diminutive sensations and motions, such as the mind scarce regards, or is conscious of” (David Hartley's New Words).

As the debate between Vitalism and Mechanism continued, there were various claims made by both schools of thought that attempted to discredit each other. For example, according to Charles Wolfe, Friedrich Wöhler argues against vitalism by proving that organic substances could be created from inorganic compounds while Goldstein’s idea that organism are a whole, can not be a cluster of functions or organs argues in favor of vitalism (The Return of Vitalism). However, despite all this, a key reason for the avid debate between the two seems to stem from the same desire - to gain further understanding of the workings of life. In the middle of his work, David Hartley states that “all the evidences for the mechanical nature of the body or mind are so many encouragements to study them faithfully and diligently, since what is mechanical may be understood” (Observations 168). Like Aristotle once said “All men by nature desire to know,”(Metaphysics) thus showing that the cause for the fierce debate between Vitalists and Mechanists existed as a way for scholars of the time to satisfy their desires to define the unknown.

George Berkeley

Among the prominent 18th century writers who took a part in the effort to distinguish and define life was George Berkeley. An advocate of idealism and immaterialism, Berkeley at first claimed that life consists of only one part: the mind. In A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, he presented the theory of immaterialism, in which Berkeley suggested that “’to be’ is ‘to be perceived.’” According to his theory, the matters that we perceive are not actually matters, but collections of ideas (Berkeley, Treatise). For instance, a book on the table is a book only because we perceive it to be a book. Likewise, the book is on the table because we believe it to be on top of the table (Berman, George Berkeley). In essence, Berkeley believed that matters are collections of ideas, and these perceived collections of ideas are the result of the human mind (Berkeley, Treatise). Also, in Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes, Bennett asserts that such explanation of life can only work under the assumptions that there exists an omnipresent “Almighty Spirit” that overlooks the exchange of ideas (Bennett, Locke, Berkeley).

Moreover, in the later years, Berkeley wrote that an organic being instead consisted of “a soul and a body as two several and integrating parts”. Though, in “Essay of Consciousness” he acknowledged the existence of both the soul and the body, he claimed that the body does not “subsist in its vegetative state” without the soul (Berkeley, “Essay”). In other words, he considered the body to be no more than a dummy of which the soul makes use. The soul employs the body, its “instrument”, for two purposes: The body, as an “instrument” of the soul, serves the soul solely for the purpose of putting into act the soul’s vital powers, namely reasoning and sensation (Berkeley, “Essay”).

In sum, it is suffice to say that, even though the body may appear to play an important role in the relation of the soul and the world, Berkeley’s stance on the debate in the interpretation of life was clear: He was an advocate of vitalism, and thus believed the body and all of its accomplishments are the products of the soul.


Conclusion

We may conclude by disagreeing with Reill’s statement that 18th century writers had no theory or explanation for life. When observing the publishing’s of different writers such as Laurence, Abernathey, Hartley or Berkeley, we can distinctly observe a controversial debate taking place during the 18th century in between mechanistic and vitalist ideas. Some writer’s such as Abernathy or Berkeley believed that what differentiated organic from inorganic materials was the presence of a soul. Life consisted of two integral parts: a body and a soul, where the soul was the essence of life and a body was considered lifeless in the absence of a soul (i.e. a vegetative state). On the other hand, Laurence and Hartley published mechanistic theories about life. Their argument was that the human body functioned the way it did due to vibrations and a series of organic processes. Any dysfunctional process occurring in a form of life could be explained by a defect in the biological process. The mechanism versus vitalism debate that took place during the 18th century shows us a compilation of theories emitted by different writers explaining the origin and definition of life as we know it, and as a result disproves Reill’s statement.

GodasanArchitect.jpg
"God as an Architect" by William Blake. 1794.



Key Words and Sources


Vitalism
Immanence or Transcendence: Theories of Life and Organization in Britain, 1790-1835
L.S. Jacyna Isis Vol. 74, No. 3 (Sep.,1983), pp. 310-329

This article discusses different opinions about life that were formulated in the early nineteenth century. It specifically contrasts the views that organisms and life are dependant on each other to exists, and that organisms are solely dependant upon life. This article discusses the search for the “vital principle” that many believed allowed for life. Also, the debate and controversy between Lawrence and Abernathy is discussed in detail.

Reill, Peter Hanns. Death, Dying, and Resurrection. Gottingen: Vandenhoek und Ruprecht, 1999. 255-264. eBook.

This discusses the attempts at defining life during the Romantic period. The author discusses how writers during this time period believed that life couldn’t be defined. The complexity of the subject of life is discussed, and vitalist and mechanist theories are analyzed. Also, interest in death during the romatic period is discussed, and what the seperation between organic and inorganic matter was or wasn’t.

Abernethy, John, Part of the Introductory Lecture for the Year 1815 , exhibiting some of Mr. Hunter’s Opinions respecting Diseases (London, 1815)

Abernethy recounts in these lectures what he believes to be the primary source of life. He discusses how a person consists of two parts, both a body and a soul, suggesting there is a greater vital force within a person than that caused solely by physiological means. In his lectures he references the ideas he learned from his once mentor, John Hunter.

Abernethy, John. Physiological Lectures, exhibiting a General View of Mr. Hunter’s Physiology, and of his Researches on Comparative Anatomy (London, 1817), pp 27-30

Abernethy believed that life was a principle. Meaning, life could cause certain substances to resist the "operation of external chemical agency" like a seed in the ground can wait to vegetate. He also thought life could control the temperatures of the substances it resides in. Also, life has the ability to change a variety of things into nutrients and vice versa. Life also constructed the structures for which it needed to function. He proves these things by comparing it to light and linked the function of both of these to invisible principles.

Berkeley, George. Treatise Concerning Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I. Dublin: Printed by Aaron Rhames for Jeremy Pepycat, 1710.

Berkeley discussed the various types of human knowledge such as those coming from senses, passion, memory, and imagination. Berkeley suggest that the "soul" or "self" networks and analyzes all of these things. Also, he says its unintelligible to try to think about objects separate from being perceived. he said it's possible to divide up our preexisting ideas, but never separate them from perception. He goes on to say all things perceived exist as part of the mind and all things perceived and unperceived exist as part of the mind of an Eternal Spirit.

Corrie, James. An Essay on the Vitality of the Blood. London: Printed for Elliot and Kay. 1791.

Corrie discusses the purpose of blood in the human body as one of the key fluids that it relies on. He references Dr. John Hunter’s work and suggests that there must be some greater vital force beyond just the anatomical structure of the human. He seems to indicate that this life force is carried in the blood and describes several experiments which he performed that he believes provide evidence to this assertion.


Soul
Berman, David. George Berkeley : Idealism and the Man. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1994.

This discusses Berkely’s life and works, and how his works related to his life at the time. The author goes deeply into Berkeley’s religious beliefs, and his belief that the body is an appendage of the soul. It discusses how Berkeley believed that a human could not exist without a soul.

Bennett, Jonathan Francis. Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.

This article discusses human souls and how they were viewed during the romantic era. The origin of the soul in creation and the soul’s union with the body are discussed. It discusses that it was believed that humans had a soul or “spirit” that was a substance contained in the body.

Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.” London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones. 1818.

Dr. Frankenstein created a creature out of body parts by adding electricity to it. The creature tried to interact with humans but was harshly rejected so he sought revenge on Frankenstein. So he killed some people. All the creature wanted was a companion, but Frankenstein didn't want to create more horror for the world so he denied the creature. Who got further revenge on Frankenstein and killed his loved once. Frankenstein tried to get him back and kill him but died before he could. The creature felt bad that his creator died so he committed suicide.

Berkeley, George. “Essay on Consciousness.” The Analyst; or a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician. London Printed for J. Tonson. 1734.

Berkeley argues that all of the senses are just instruments of the soul and that these instruments were designed in a specific way so that man could interact with nature. He suggests the soul and body are separate yet integrated because one cannot live without the other. He explains that a soul without a body has no power and that a body without a soul is not fully alive. He compares it to dead animals (a dog isn't "properly a dog" unless it's alive).


Mechanism

Allen, G. "Mechanism, Vitalism and Organicism in Late Nineteenth and Twentieth-century Biology: the Importance of Historical Context." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36.2 (2005): 261-83. Print.

Mechanism and vitalism are discussed in the context of biology. Mechanism is discussed as theory that analyzes animals as machines, with biological processes governing everything. Vitalism is defined as a theory that states that human life cannot solely be described as a biological process. This article pays special attention to the theories and thoughts of many famous philosophers.

Allen, Richard C. "David Hartley's New Words of Action: 'Automatic' and 'Decomplex" in Enlightenment and Dissent, vol. 20 (2001)

This article discusses how David Hartley used theories of physics, chemistry, and medicine to discuss human physiology and how the mind works. It is discusses how Hartley tries to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary motions, and what substance or force in the mind allows these motions to happen. The three key words for this article are automatic, decomplex, and theopathy.

Lawrence, William “Lectures on physiology, zoology, and the natural history of man”

William Lawrence believed organisms were a spectrum from least perfect (bacteria) to most perfect (humans). He thought this was proved by the comparisons of the various parts of different organisms. Lawrence explains that it simplifies as you move down the list. For example, he would say the skeletal structure of many vertebrates eventually simplifies into cartilage. Also, things begin to disappear as you move down the list like warm bloodedness and the diaphragm. He lists many examples.

Hartley, David. Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations in Two Parts. London: Printed by S. Richardson for James Leake and Wm. Frederick, ellers in Bath and Sold by Charles Hitch and Stephen Austen, ellers in London, 1749. Print.

Hartley says senses are just the vibrations of the interactions of objects, nerves, and ether. Accordingly, varieties in these interactions create different senses. He believes there is some type of uniformity exists across the vibrations from nerves to medullary substances and that the medullary substances are a prerequisite for the senses. Also he believed the medullary substances had to be soft for the vibration to have an effect. He believed that senses traveled along the nerves to the brain. He believed these vibrations traveled like sound across the brain.

Lawrence, William 1816. An introduction to the comparative anatomy and physiology, being the two introductory lectures delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons on the 21st and 25th of March 1916. J. Callow, London

In his first lecture Lawrence compares the anatomy and physiology between animals and humans. He compares the sizes of organs, which organs exist in animals and which don't, how the anatomies are organized. In his second lecture, he talks about what causes vital forces, and he suggests that answer lies in physiological structures.


Frequency in Romantic Era British Literature
Screen_shot_2011-04-29_at_7.16.37_PM.png
Ngram representing the frequency of the words "person, soul, sense, and god" used in all British literature during the Romantic Era.


Bibliography


Secondary Sources:
1. Reill, Peter Hanns. Death, Dying, and Resurrection. Gottingen: Vandenhoek und Ruprecht, 1999. 255-264. eBook.
2. Immanence or Transcendence: Theories of Life and Organization in Britain, 1790-1835
L.S. Jacyna IsisVol. 74, No. 3 (Sep.,1983), pp. 310-329
3. Mudford P.G. 1968. William Lawrence and The Natural History of Man. Journal of the History of Ideas 29, 430-436.
4. Jennifer J. Baker. "Natural Science and the Romanticisms." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 53.4 (2007): 387-412. Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.
5. Allen, G. "Mechanism, Vitalism and Organicism in Late Nineteenth and Twentieth-century Biology: the Importance of Historical Context." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36.2 (2005): 261-83. Print.
6. Allen, Richard C. "David Hartley's New Words of Action: 'Automatic' and 'Decomplex" in Enlightenment and Dissent, vol. 20 (2001)
7. Wolfe, Charles."The Return of Vitalism: Canguilhem and French Biophilosophy in the 1960s - Academia.edu." Ghent University - Academia.edu. Web. 22 Apr. 2011. <http://ugent.academia.edu/CharlesWolfe/Papers/162618/The_Return_of_Vitalism_Canguilhem_and_French_Biophilosophy_in_the_1960s>.
8. Aristotle, and W. D. Ross. Metaphysics. Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications, 2009. Print.
9. Berman, David. George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1994. Print.
10. Bennett, Jonathan Francis. Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004. Print.


Primary Sources:
1. Lawrence, William 1816. oAn introduction to the comparative anatomy and physiology, being the two introductory lectures delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons on the 21st and 25th f March 1916. J. Callow, London
2. Lawrence, William “Lectures on physiology, zoology, and the natural history of man”
3. Abernethy, John, Part of the Introductory Lecture for the Year 1815 , exhibiting some of Mr. Hunter’s Opinions respecting Diseases (London, 1815)
4. Abernethy, John. Physiological Lectures, exhibiting a General View of Mr. Hunter’s Physiology, and of his Researches on Comparative Anatomy (London, 1817), pp 27-30
5. Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.” London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones. 1818.
6. Hartley, David. Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations in Two Parts. London: Printed by S. Richardson for James Leake and Wm. Frederick, ellers in Bath and Sold by Charles Hitch and Stephen Austen, ellers in London, 1749. Print.
7. Berkeley, George. Treatise Concerning Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I. Dublin: Printed by Aaron Rhames for Jeremy Pepycat, 1710.
8. Berkeley, George. “:Essay on Consciousness.” The Analyst; or a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician. London Printed for J. Tonson. 1734.