William Harvey, Soul Searcher


A review of William Harvey, Soul Searcher: Teleology and Philosophical Anatomy, by Benjamin I. Goldberg.

In the preface to his 1655 De Corpore, arch-mechanist Thomas Hobbes identifies William Harvey (1578-1657) as the first to discover and demonstrate the science of the human body and sets him alongside Copernicus and Galileo as a founder of true science. Hobbes was not alone among the neoterics and critics of school philosophy in his high opinion of the English physician. Harvey’s discovery of and observationally driven argument for the forceful systole of the heart and the systemic circulation of the blood impressed many of his contemporaries. Although he disagrees with Harvey on the motion of the heart, René Descartes, somewhat uncharacteristically, acknowledges and credits Harvey for his discovery of the circulation of the blood in his 1637 Discourse on Method and again in his 1649 Passions of the Soul. Robert Boyle, too, was clearly impressed by Harvey’s work. Historians of science and medicine have long joined so many of Harvey’s near contemporaries and portrayed William Harvey as an important, revolutionary figure, and his De motu cordis (1628) as a prominent example of the new science of the seventeenth century.

It is in this context that Benjamin Goldberg’s dissertation provides a novel and provocative reinterpretation of the work and thought of William Harvey. Goldberg’s study centers not on Harvey’s most influential work, De motu cordis, nor on the discovery of the circulation of the blood announced and defended in that work. Instead, he emphasizes Harvey’s Prelectiones anitomiae universalis (a set of lecture notes Harvey first started in 1616 and reworked over at least a decade) and his late published work on animal generation (Exercitationes de generatione animalium, 1651). The De motu cordis appears in Goldberg account, of course, but only as an example of Harvey’s larger “philosophical system” (p. 14). Furthermore, he means it when he refers to Harvey’s philosophical system. Goldberg treats William Harvey as a philosopher whose anatomical preoccupations are primarily natural philosophical and whose explicit and implicit methods and preoccupations are framed as much by late Renaissance natural philosophy as by post-Vesalian medical humanism. Finally, Goldberg focuses entirely and explicitly on what he calls Harvey’s “self-image” (p. 1) — as opposed to his reception in and impact on seventeenth century science. Without denying that impact or its significance, Goldberg focuses on Harvey’s self-understanding, and not the ways he was perceived, received, and (as Goldberg suggests) co-opted by his contemporaries.

To this end, Goldberg suggests two complementary ideas together provide the key to understanding Harvey’s philosophical anatomy: First, the idea that the goal of anatomy for Harvey is “knowledge of soul and its union with body” (p. 16); Second, the idea that William Harvey was a deeply “teleologically minded searcher into soul and body” (p.17, emphasis added). The Harvey that Goldberg’s Harvey sees in the mirror undertook painstaking, systematic dissection and vivisection as an “investigation into the teleological union of soul and body” (p. 37) and “creatively reinterpreted the many epistemological and methodological doctrines of Aristotle and Galen to suit his needs, and his primary interest was the production of [final] causal knowledge” (p. 262). Goldberg’s Harvey is an eclectic Aristotelian (in Charles Schmitt’s sense of the term) who understands his observationally-driven anatomical researches to be of a piece with the main goals and aspirations of the Ancients.

In his Introduction (Chapter 1), Goldberg lays out much of this framework and locates his own project in relation to various strands of scholarship on Harvey and on Renaissance philosophy, medicine, and science from the last 60 years. In various and varying ways, Goldberg’s work benefits from, responds to, and challenges work by e.g. Geoffrey Keynes, Walter Pagel, Gweneth Whitteridge, Vivian Nutton, Andrew Cunningham, Andrew Wear, and Roger French, as well as, Charles Schmitt, Jerome Bylebyl, Gianna Pomata, Emily Michael, Katherine Park, and Nancy Siraisi. Besides an Introduction and Conclusion (in which he revisits some historiographical questions and highlights important ways his conclusions diverge from recent Harvey scholarship), Goldberg’s dissertation breaks into two main parts. In the first part, he analyzes Harvey’s conception of the subject matter of anatomy, focusing especially on his conception of the teleologically structured body-soul union (Chapters 2 and 3) and of the teleological process of animal generation terminating in that union (Chapter 4). In the second part, Goldberg provides an account of Harvey’s epistemology and methodology (Chapters 5 and 6).

In Chapter 2, Goldberg introduces the body-soul union (or “what is common to body and soul”) as the subject matter of Harvey’s anatomy. Here he explores views on body and soul in Aristotle, Galen, and Renaissance philosophy and medicine and places Harvey within this context. He highlights Aristotle’s account of soul as formal, efficient, and final cause and of the explanatory primacy of soul over body and function over structure. Goldberg stresses commonalities between this account and Galen’s understanding of soul, while acknowledging important differences, and emphasizes ways Galen more or less explicitly treats dissection and anatomical research as revelatory of truths about the soul. Goldberg provides a provisional reading of the first, methodological and philosophical folios of Harvey’s Prelectiones in this context. He argues that Harvey is deeply influenced by Galen and Aristotle’s texts in a late Renaissance context — a context in which recovery of Aristotle’s animal books and Galen’s De placitis and De usu partium, along with mortalist controversies regarding the human soul, had reshaped the conception and study of the soul in ways favorable to empirical anatomical approaches. Goldberg concludes that Harvey understood anatomy to be the study of the soul as explanatory of and expressed by the organized body.

Goldberg’s treatment of the Prelectiones continues in earnest in Chapter 3, where he discusses Harvey’s notes on the concepts of pars, actio, usus, and utilitas, interpreting them in light of the conclusions of Chapter 2. He traces ways these concepts shape Harvey’s treatment of particular organs elsewhere in the Prelectiones and, importantly, his De motu cordis. Goldberg argues that this famous text exhibits the understanding of anatomy he has extracted from the Prelectiones here and in the previous chapter.

In Chapter 4, Goldberg examines Harvey’s De generatione animalium. After stressing continuities with De motu cordis, he turns to an analysis of the structure, key claims, important concepts, and explanatory aspirations of Harvey’s work on generation. Here, again, Goldberg highlights the centrality of soul as efficient, formal and final cause, tracing the place of soul in Harvey’s account of geniture, the egg, and epigenesis, as well as the teleological explanatory structures Harvey develops. Goldberg also explores the significance and limits of the analogies Harvey draws between fertilization and contagion and between the womb and the brain, as well as the place of God in his theory of generation. Goldberg stresses the connections between these aspects of Harvey’s publication and his empirical work (what Harvey calls historia).

Goldberg turns to just this historia and Harvey’s conception of it in Chapter 5 (the first of two chapters on Harvey’s epistemology and methodology). Returning to Harvey’s Prelectiones, he provides an interpretation of Harvey’s definition of anatomy as a facultas for discovering the usus and actiones of the part by means of expert, personal observation in dissection. Goldberg argues that by explicitly ordering personal experience in dissection to the achievement of causal knowledge of the parts, Harvey collapses a traditional distinction between anatomy as ars (exhibited by and learned through dissection), and anatomy as scientia (exhibited by and learned through authoritative texts or the voice of the teacher) that had developed in late medieval and Renaissance anatomy. Although the distinction was already under attack in the work of Vesalius — who insisted that anatomists be learned experts in dissection — Goldberg shows that it persisted into the early seventeenth century. Goldberg connects Harvey’s insistence on arriving at causal knowledge through expert experience in dissection to the approach of Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente, whose teaching and publications influenced Harvey’s own approach.

In Chapter 6, Goldberg provides an account of Harvey’s understanding of anatomical experientia (expert familiarity with the parts gained through repeated personal observation in dissection), experimenta (particular observational tests of specific scientific claims, often — but by no means always — involving procedures of some complexity), and historia (structured systematic sets of observations serving to establish general anatomical facts and — more importantly — providing the inductive base for grasping the final causes of the parts). Goldberg connects Harvey’s experiential search for the causes of the parts with proper concept formation and the discovery of scientific definitions of the parts. He provides an explanation of the way comparative considerations play a special role for Harvey in moving from historia to true and scientific (i.e. final causal) definitions of a parts. To this end, he provides a rich interpretation of Harvey’s fascinating reference in the Prelectiones to a “Rule of Socrates” (regula socratis). Goldberg connects this “rule” to Plato’s Republic and Phaedrus, Galen’s De placitis, and Aristotle’s discussions of epagoge, as well as to Harvey’s own epistemological discussions in the preface to his De generatione animalium.

Goldberg closes his sweeping and ambitious interpretation of Harvey with a reflection on recent (and not so recent) trends in the history and philosophy of science and on the meaning of “context” in the study and interpretation of past figures. Goldberg argues for a rich, intellectual-contextualist, and textualist history of science. He compares his own approach to narrow internalist approaches exhibited by some pre-Kuhnian history and philosophy of science and to philosophically shallow, cultural and social historical approaches that, he suggests, fail to grapple properly with the precise content and structure of past thinkers’ views.

In his dissertation, Benjamin Goldberg has provided an example of his preferred historiographical approach: an ambitious, novel, and provocative interpretation of William Harvey as an “Eclectic Renaissance Aristotelian-Galenic Philosopher-Physician” (p. 266) and Soul Searcher (title). His study, in its conclusions and its methodology, should provoke some soul searching on the part of scholars working on Harvey — and Renaissance medicine, more generally.

Peter M. Distelzweig
Department of Philosophy
Western Michigan University

Primary Sources

Printed works authored by William Harvey
William Harvey, Prelectiones anatomiae universalis (Sloane MS 230, British Library)
William Harvey, De motu locali animalium (Sloane MS 486, British Library
Works of Galen (Latin translation, Basel 1549)
Works of Aristotle (Latin translation, Junta Edition, Venice 1550-52)

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh. 2012. 280 pp. Advisors: James G. Lennox, Peter K. Machamer.


Image: The frontispiece from William Harvey’s De generatione animalium (1651). Copyright-free image.

Leave a Reply