Mind & Body: The Philosopher’s Body as a Subject

I’ve been doing a lot of (re-)reading lately on ideas of the body and the embodiment of  knowledge on the body–mainly because I was aiming for some background reading as I prepared the CFP for the 2011  HAPSAT Conference. Some of these were based on reading summaries I prepared for Prof. Lucia Dacome’s “Body and Medicine in Early Modern Europe” course at IHPST. So if you’re tired of these article summaries, please let me know!

Article Summaries:

Paula Findlen, “The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment Italy” in The Faces of Nature in Enlightment Europe (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2003), pp. 211-236.

Simon Schaffer, “Regeneration: The Body of Natural Philosophers in Restoration England” in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1998), pp.83-120.

The philosopher’s mind in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was often perceived in close relation with his body. Could there be a separation between the ideas of the mind and carnal knowledge associated with the body? Could knowing bodily secrets hold the key to philosopher’s knowledge and its interpretations in the mind? Paula Findlen and Simon Schaffer bring these issues into light, Findlen narrating the story of eighteenth century Bologna’s “Virgin Doctor,” Laura Bassi, and Schaffer presenting perspectives on regeneration within the Royal Society in Restoration England. Both Findlen and Schaffer analyze the ways in which natural philosopher’s knowledge and integrity is explored through perspectives of their body and bodily functions.

Findlen tells us that eighteenth century fascination with Laura Bassi was not only due to her role as one of the first female graduate of the University of Bologna and its most celebrated professor, but rather due to Bassi’s merging of two distinct types of knowledge: scientific knowledge associated with the philosopher, and carnal knowledge of the woman’s body. Prior to her marriage to Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, Bassi was perceived as a virginal icon of knowledge, dedicated to the glory of the city as its Minerva. Successfully defending forty-nine theses by the time she was twenty years old, Bassi was highly regarded as an intellectual as much as a woman, especially within the cultural movement of “modern conversations.” During the 1730s, Bassi continuously tested her intellectual mettle within public settings, often engaging in discourses with scholarly men, sparking rumours sexual misbehaviour within the groups. Continuous jokes and satire circulated within the city, since as Findlen explains, Bassi’s high intellect embodied a masculine state of mind, which her body was expected to reflect. Bassi’s mixed reputation – as a philosopher, and a sexual woman – often centered her in city gossip, alluding damage to her reputation; public perspectives of Bassi’s closest supporters were often viewed as her lovers, or at least admirers (e.g. Zanotti, Beccari, Bianchi).

There was as much interest in Bassi’s sexual life, if not more, as in her choice to focus on modern issues of Newtonian philosophy and physics, rather than restricting herself to ancient texts. Findlen argues that the extreme interest in Bassi’s body essentially was due to the fact that Bassi’s body was distinctively a female one, and it embodied potential for a maternal image of knowledge. The possibility that Bassi could be the new Galatea – a woman shaped and molded by men – also caused problems for her reputation, and reminded the public that Bassi’s mind simply could not be separated from her body. Despite being an object of envy and ridicule, Bassi eventually provided a solution of the problem of her female body: she decided to take charge of her own sexuality, restricting it to the boundaries of marriage in order to remove it from public scandal. She believed this to be the only way to ensure her reputation and allow her to teach in public. Bolognese citizens, however, were shocked at her decision, for many expected her to maintain the image of the virginal Minerva. As Findlen argues, “Once a man had dominion over her body, what would happen to her mind?” Nevertheless, Bassi eventually gave birth to eight children, and taught a successful physics course in her home, though her frequent pregnancies continued to remind males of her differences.  The plain awareness of her sexual difference is also reflected in debates as to whether Bassi was allowed to join the Academy of the Institute of Sciences (she did, in 1734). Bassi is a reflection of one of the rare women who succeeded, though the distinction between her mind and body never really disappeared.

Schaffer on the other hand, examines the close relation between instrumental use of the body, and traditions of “magical, religious and symbolic action.” He provides three instances upon which the idealized philosopher’s body was used, or viewed, for scientific experiments by the Royal Society in Restoration England: the blind Jan Vermassen, who could discriminate colors by touch, the sheep’s blood transfusion into Arthur Coga, and “stroker” Valentine Greatrakes’ miraculous cures. The Royal Society (especially Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle) emphasized the exploration beyond bodily limits of knowledge; the use of instruments – e.g. the eyeglasses, the microscope – could expand the frontiers upon which knowledge was obtained. The idea that formulated was whether through the body politic, the regeneration of bodies could be possible through natural or spiritual powers, in order to distance the world of refined bodies (and thus reliable facts) from the grotesque. Schaffer provides the example of the “royal touch,” which presented the monarch as the spiritual healer of the nation’s wounds and the embodiment of its restored health. The royal touch to cure King’s evil, an old tradition that emphasizes the idea that the king’s touch could cure King’s Evil, a disease known as scrofula, which caused hideous boils. Thousands knelt before Charles’ I, and each time he did so, he demonstrated his divine right to rule. After the Commonwealth, Charles II continued the practice – though it was also illegal for anyone else to claim cure for the disease. The insecurity of the monarch and elaborate processions towards the use of the royal touch seemed to remind him of the clear contrast between angelic and monstrous bodies, a gesture that carried implications upon natural philosophy within the idea of regeneration.

Vermassen’s case raised a philosophical debate of whether “color” was confined to the body, igniting questions between real colors inherent in bodies, and imaginary ones (e.g. Descartes). Boyle and Descartes denied this distinction, and Boyle himself argued that different bodily states produce different colors, demonstrating that bodily sensations could not reliably be trusted. He emphasized the use of instruments as a way of perfecting the human fallacies in order to restore man to Eden. Thus, following Boyle, to test on one’s own senses became a moral duty of the natural philosopher, and is demonstrated by Coga’s transfusion with sheep’s blood. Schaffer argues that like optical and philosopher’s instruments, the idea of transfusion was perceived by seventeenth century natural scientists as a way of restoring prelapsarian man’s perfection, by reversing some of the Fall’s effects. Experimental philosophy also subjected itself to human conditions, using the saint as a subject. The idea of regeneration was also spread to debate about the roles of mundane bodies and divine spirits, as with continuous observations and experiments on Greatreakes’ hands, which were believed to exhibit some divine conditions, or at least a divine spirit in Greatreakes’ body.

Both Schaffer and Findlen’s arguments presents a historical picture upon which ideas about the body were closely tied to ideas of the mind, even within natural philosophers themselves, representing idealized beliefs about the process in obtaining knowledge. What we receive from their arguments is that social meanings of bodily techniques often is reflected in the philosopher’s use of representation of the body – knowing the body reflects the mind’s status, the philosopher can thus use it to explore and expand knowledge itself.

Latest Comments

  1. Thony C. says:

    You almost certainly already know this book but just in case have you read Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2004?


  2. Jai Virdi says:

    I believe I read parts of it for this same course..


  3. sbej says:

    I finding them fascinating and in a context as yet I am not familiar with.

    The concepts are however distinctly familiar.

    This may seem like an odd recomendation.

    John T. Koch, The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources For Ancient Celtic Europe And Early Ireland And Wales, Aberystwyth 2003 4th ed.

    Story of Mis and Dubh Rois

    Its actualy written in the late 17th cen. Thought to be a scribal re-work of a lost 12th cen. narrative.

    It contains some very interesting material and needs to be looked at in its later context. The emphasis in Celtic studies as the title suggests is somewhat different.


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