Meeting 19

If you’ve never attended in the fall, email us at for the new Zoom link

DATE: Tuesday, November 17

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL : Anatomy, Physiology, and Pharmacy: From Early Modern Philosophy to Science

SPEAKERS: Filip A. A. Buyse (Centre for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR), Pisa) & Benjamin Goldberg (University of South Florida)


Spinoza and Johannes Müller: How the Dutch Philosopher Inspired the German Father of Contemporary Physiology

Filip A. A. Buyse (Centre for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR), Pisa)

Spinoza was right. In the end it is all biology. (Stuart Hampshire, 2005) 

It is hard to believe that, in recent publications, nobody has systematically examined why “the father of contemporary physiology” quotes so explicitly from Spinoza’s work, and refers to it at different stages of his impressive career. This is even doubly remarkable, given the fact that during the last decades there has been so much interest in Spinoza’s philosophy among contemporary biologists, Antonio Damasio[1], Henri Atlan[2] and Jean Pierre Changeux[3] included, who argue convincingly that the Dutch philosopher (1632-1677) anticipated modern biological thinking. Likewise, it is amazing that Spinoza’s name is completely absent in several important biographies of Johannes Peter Müller[4] (1801-1858).

This paper aims at filling in this striking gap by investigating the relation between Spinoza’s sensory philosophy and Johannes Peter Müller’s sensory physiology. After having resolved some misunderstandings concerning Johann Müller’s name, it examines, in the second section, when and where precisely J.P. Müller mentions Spinoza (1632-1677) in his works. In a third section, it tries to find out why Müller applies the ideas of the Dutch philosopher rather than those of other influential early modern philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Hume, or Hobbes. This part explores several elements of Spinoza’s philosophy and claims that especially his innovative ideas on memory and his views on the affections of the body (E2p16) played an important role. Contrary to Piccolino & Drake[5] (2013), this paper claims that in his revolutionary theory of sensations, Müller was directly influenced by Spinoza rather than indirectly from Galileo, whose ideas were transmitted via Kant and Locke.  However, this paper argues that also elements from Spinoza’s ontology were playing an important role even though the 19th-century physiologist only seems to quote from his epistemology and his theory of emotions, being afraid to be accused of Spinozism.

Müller’s main work Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen[6] (1837 & 1840) was in 1845 translated into French,[7] and between 1838 and 1842 into English,[8]  so that his ideas spread rapidly in Western Europe. Consequently, this paper will help not only to clarify the relation between the influential Copley-medal winner and Spinoza, but also that between Müller and the myriad physiologists who were subsequently inspired by his work, Jacob Henle (1809-1885), Hermann Helmholtz (1821-1894), Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), Theodor Schwann (1810-1882), Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896) and Ernst Wilhelm Ritter von Brücke (1819-1892), and their students such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), included.  

[1] Damasio, A.R., Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. London, William Heinemann, 2003.

[2] Cf. Atlan H., Cours de philosophie biologique et cognitiviste – Spinoza et la biologie actuelle. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2018.

[3] Cf. J.P. Changeux and P. Ricoeur, What makes us think? Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[4] See for instance:  the introduction of Nicholas J. Wade in the first volume of his edition of Müller’s Elements of Physiology and Laura Otis’s biography of J. P. Müller. ‘Spinoza’ was never mentioned neither in Laura Otis’s recent publication entitled “Müller’s Lab” (2007).

[5] Galileo’s sensory philosophy. In: Marco Piccolino and Nicholas J. Wade, Galileo’s Visions, Oxford: OUP, 2013,164-186.

[6] Müller, Johannes. Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen für Vorlesungen. Erster

Band (1837) &  Zweiter Band (1840). Coblenz: Verlag von J. Hölscher.

[7] Müller, J.P., Manuel de Physiologie. Paris : J.-B. Baillière, 1845.

[8] Müller, J.P., Elements of physiology. 1838-1842. Publisher London Taylor & Walton. For a modern edition, see: Müller, Johannes. Müller’s Elements of Physiology (Edited by N. Wade). 4 vol. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2003.


Dr. Filip Buyse received his MSc in Biochemistry and MA in Philosophy from the University of Louvain before completing an interuniversity DEA in the Philosophy of science at the ULB, the UCL and the ULg. In 2014, he received his PhD in Philosophy cum laude from the Université Paris 1 Panthéon – Sorbonne. His PhD project was on the conception of the body in Spinoza and Galileo. His interests include early modern philosophy, early modern science, the mind/body-problem, epistemology and ontology. Dr. Filip Buyse has given many lectures in several countries, organized some international conferences and published several articles, mainly on the philosophy of 17th century thinkers such as Spinoza, Descartes, Hobbes and Boyle. Furthermore, he edited a special issue of the Intellectual History Review on Galileo and Spinoza and was the invited editor of two special volumes of the Society and Politics: one on Letters by Early modern Philosophers and one on The Pendulum Clock in 17th Century Philosophy. Last year, he has been awarded fellowships at the HAPP Center in Oxford, the Vossius Center in Amsterdam and the Descartes Center in Utrecht. Currently, he is working on a project examining a manuscript by A.C. Crombie and A. Carugo that he has discovered in Trinity Archive in Oxford.  

Notions of Experience in Early Modern Anatomy and Pharmacy

Benjamin Goldberg (University of South Florida)

In this presentation, I will discuss two conceptions of the idea of ‘experience’ that are present in early modern medicine. The first finds its origins in Renaissance Humanism, in particular, in the tradition of ’autopsia’ (seeing for oneself) that became so important in learned discussions of anatomy, particularly among the anatomists of Padua. This tradition emphasizes the way that expertise arises from constant observation and manipulation of human and animal bodies, as well as broad, comparative experience amongst different kinds of animals (anatomical historia, as argued by Gianna Pomata). This expertise forms the foundation of anatomical judgment, and thus the basis of any attempts at explanation of the functionality of anatomy so described. I will focus here on the work of William Harvey, who demonstrates that one might make revolutionary discoveries while still wedded to a basically classical, Aristotelian picture of scientific method. 

The second conception of experience I will discuss is found in the world of pharmacy, in particular, the realm of medical trials. Here I will discuss various schemes for testing the efficacy of medicines, which I argue, following Evan Ragland and pace Peter Dear, are distinct from the idea of trials found in the mathematical sciences a la Galileo. Instead, these trials, found especially among householders manufacturing their own medicines, are based on what has been variously called the ‘artisanal epistemology’ or ‘maker’s knowledge’ tradition, as has been argued by Wendy Wall, Elizabeth Spiller, William Eamon, Lynette Hunter, Ann Stobart, and Elaine Leong among others. This tradition emphasizes the importance of personal observation and experience of a medicine’s effects. Here I will focus on a number of early modern recipe collections, in both print and in manuscript, including the understudied manuscript collection of William and Margaret Cavendish.

While these traditions have different etiologies, there are a number of points of commonality. For instance, both emphasize the importance of personal, first-hand experience, as well as the importance manipulation—changing, on the one hand, the ingredients in a medicine, and, on the other, cutting and ligating a vivisected animal. Another point of commonality lays in their emphasis on repeated experiencing as the basis of expert judgment. There are also important distinctions—the learned, anatomical tradition understands itself in terms of a long tradition going back to Galen and Aristotle, and is an elite practice of individual investigators aiming at knowledge of causes. The pharmaceutical tradition, meanwhile, is an outgrowth of medieval books of secrets, and is distinguished from the anatomical tradition both by its emphasis on common, household experience, as well as its fundamentally communal nature, involving not just elite practitioners, but housewives, milk aides, animal handlers, and other assorted characters, working together as a household unit to produce practical knowledge.

I will end with some questions about how to integrate these ideas into our overall histories of philosophy and science.

Works that will be discussed:

• William Harvey: Prelectiones anatomie universalis (Manuscript), De motu cordis, De generatione animalium

• Elizabeth Talbot Grey, A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets 

• Queen Henrietta Maria, The Queen’s Closet Opened 

• Alethea Talbot Howard, Natura Exenterata 

• William and Margert Cavendish, A Booke, wherein is Contained Rare Minerall Receipts Collected at Paris from those who hath had great      Experience of them  (Manuscript)

• Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy


Dr Benjamin Goldberg is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. His work focuses on the intersection of medicine and philosophy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, having published numerous articles on figures such as William Harvey and Margaret Cavendish. In collaboration with Dr Justin Begley, Dr Goldberg is currently finishing a transcription and commentary on the medical recipe collection of Margaret and William Cavendish for Palgrave MacMillan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s