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William Harvey’s Medical Aristotelianism Part II

Guest post by Benny Goldberg from the Department for History and Philosophy of Science, Pittsburgh

In this post, I will continue with some themes which I broached in my previous blog post. Specifically I will talk about Harvey’s conception of experience.

In my last post I described Harvey’s philosophy as ‘medical Aristotelianism’. One might have called this ‘Galenic Aristotelianism,’ because, for Harvey and for every other physician operating in Europe at this time, Galen is a looming presence in the background. In a certain sense, much of Harvey’s Galenism is hard to detect, for Harvey rarely quotes from or references Galen (especially in comparison with Aristotle), and when he does do so, it is usually in matters of fact and not method or theory. But, especially in his notes for the Lumleian lectures, the Prelectiones anatomie universalis (written and revised from 1616-1627), Galen influence on Harvey is quite apparent once one knows what to look for (though it may be tempting to overstate this, and so one should take what I write here as preliminary and tentative).

In this post, then, I want to explore the ways in which Harvey’s conception of experience is indebted to Galen. (In a subsequent post I will discuss the more Aristotelian side of Harvey’s thought.) And though Harvey’s contemporaries and their methods and traditions are important, I shall, as Harvey himself recommended to Aubrey, return to this particular ‘fountain head’ and ignore the ‘shitt-breeches’


The category of ‘experience’ in natural philosophy is a convoluted and complicated one in the early modern period, and is furthermore undergoing a tremendous shift. The Aristotelians had long maintained that ‘there is nothing in the intellect not previously in the senses’, but what this phrase means is different in different authors. As Stefan Heßbrüggen explores in his draft paper, the role that the senses play in producing concepts and justifying assertions is quite variable even amongst the Aristotelians! Terminologically, the Latin ‘experientia’ and ‘experimentum’ are used interchangeably by most authors, and both mean ‘experience’—I am unsure when the modern sense of ‘experiment’ comes to be clearly distinguished, but it is not in the first half of the seventeenth century! (Many have maintained otherwise, but I am unconvinced; a future project of mine involves using quantitative methods to see if we can track shifts in meaning of these terms).

Experience and experiment for Harvey indicate observation, and though some of what he does in the De motu cordis seems to us to be modern experiments, Harvey himself does not distinguish, say, the ligature procedures he uses to trace the blood flow from the observations he makes from dissecting animals. So what role do these experientiae play in Harvey’s work?

Harvey, unfortunately, never says exactly what he means by experience, what role it plays in his natural philosophy, and so, to understand him, we must scour his works to see if we can put together a picture of what is going on. Key here is the earliest work we have from him, his Prelectiones, which I shall concentrate on in this post. It will be helpful to describe this work, as it has been almost entirely ignored by Harvey scholars, even though it is a veritable treasure trove of information. (I had the pleasure of spending a summer studying the original manuscript in 2009 at the British Library thanks to a grant from the Wesley Salmon Fund at the University of Pittsburgh.)

The Prelectiones

The ability to dissect human bodies was ensured by Queen Elizabeth I in 1565, who gave the College of Physicians the right to dissect annually the bodies of up to four criminals hanged in London, in Middlesex or in any county within a radius of 16 miles. From roughly this point on, the College appointed one of their fellows to give a public lecture on an anatomy. These were called the Lumleian lectures, which were founded by John Lumley in 1582, having been given the seal by Queen Elizabeth.

The duty of the lecturer was to provide, over the course of 6 years, a twice weekly lecture, in both Latin and English, concerning the ‘whole art of surgerie.’ Though the tripartite indenture between Lord Lumley, Richard Caldwell and the President of the Royal College of Physicians establishing the lecture designates a particular course of study, down to the recommended textbooks, Harvey ignored this, and, instead, bases his lectures on his own research, the Theatrum Anatomicum of Bauhin, and the Historia Anatomica of Laurentius.

Harvey was appointed Lumleian lecturer in August 1615 and in the following spring conducted his first public anatomy; he was the fourth such Lecturer. Harvey’s notes seem intended to be given during an actual dissection, as opposed to a mere lecture on anatomy from various authoritative texts, though there is an element of this in the notes. Harvey gave these lectures every two years and added to his notes until at least 1627.

The notes are just that: notes. They are organized, in some places quite complexly, but they are also written over, marked on, with parts crossed out, lines drawn to place added bits, and various notes written in the margins. The order of parts of the text is also somewhat puzzling: for instance, why do the Canones Anatomiae generalis (Harvey 1616, Prelectiones anatomie universalis, f.4.) come immediately after the session on division (loc. cit., f. 1-3), and before the section titled In historia anatomica (loc cit., f.5) Indeed, on some pages there are even doodles, meant to remind Harvey to use his hand to show the numbering of his points to help the students keep track of them. They are, to say the least, messy: Harvey’s handwriting is notoriously terrible—even with the low standards set for the writing of physicians—and his Latin is often mixed with bits of English. His sentences are often no such thing, mere fragments, phrases, or words. In my research, I found a number of mistakes and errors in transcriptions of the original. In addition, the existing translations are all very problematic (All the problems stem from Harvey’s handwriting, which in some parts we must speculate entirely as his scrawl is entirely illegible), and thus I have tried to provide my own translations and the original Latin text in order to make apparent all the choices and inferences made in translating Harvey’s notes into understandable English.

Finally, the following picture is a sample of the text, just to give you an impression of their state and appearance.

Anatomical Experience

Returning now to our theme, to understand Harvey’s conception of experience we must understand it as anatomical experience. Experience for Harvey is, and this is central, skilled experiencing. Experiencing in an anatomy is a matter of ability and learning, it is trained.

We will start, then, with Harvey’s definition of anatomy, the very first line of his Prelectiones (though an inspection of the manuscript reveals that this line was added later). We will look at the line in Latin before providing the translation:

Anatomia est facultas quae occulari inspectione et sectione partium usus et actiones (Harvey 1616, f.1.).

This is a difficult line to translate, because Harvey’s Latin here is so sparse, and certain key verbs are missing. So, for instance, the relationship between ocular inspection and cutting and their uses and actions is unclear. Another difficulty is how to render ‘facultas’; Whitteridge translates it as ‘branch of learning’ but this is a much too modern conception of anatomy. Instead, we must translate the line like this:

Anatomy is an ability which [teaches us] the uses and actions of the parts through ocular inspection and cutting.

Facultas is a word which denotes an ability, in particular, an ability to do something well. So, for instance, in a dictionary of Latin to English from the 1640s, Francis Holy-oke’s (1640) Dictionarium Etymologicum Latinum the definition of a facultas is “Power to doe or speak, leave, licence, feaxe, promptnesse, eloquence.” Anatomy, then, is an ability to do something (and do it well), it is the result of training and practical experience.

Anatomical experience, then, is active: if we turn again to that dictionary, we see that the word anatomia generally denoted a specific instance of performing a dissection: “An Anatomie or cutting up of the body to see the parts.” This is in line with the etymology of the word, which stems from the Greek word for ‘dissection’, from ana- ‘up’ and temnein ‘to cut,’ and, indeed, Holy-oke provides the Greek in the entry. Note first that the goal of anatomy—to see the parts—is mentioned in this very brief definition. The emphasis here is clearly on the activity of dissection, or as an early modern Englishman might say it, ‘anatomizing.’ In other words, the term ‘anatomy’ here emphasizes the process of cutting up a body on a particular occasion more so than it does the product of such cutting (seeing the parts). Indeed, when one considers the wider cultural context of anatomical practices in early modern Europe, this conception of anatomy as an event should come as no surprise. Anatomy was viewed as a public spectacle, a social occasion, and anatomy theaters were built for viewing such civic events. Returning to Harvey’s own definition, at the beginning of the Prelectiones, we find that he, too, emphasizes the active nature of anatomy by emphasizing that it is an ability to do something.

For Harvey anatomy is the ability to learn the ‘uses and actions’ of the parts. This terminology, though Galenic in origin, is a feature shared by both Aristotle and Galen. The uses and actions of the parts are the final causes and efficient causes of a part: so, the use of the heart is to push the blood around the body and the action of the heart is its pattern of systole and diastole by which it effects the circulation. (Though some have argued that Harvey does not speak of final causes this is incorrect, for he does provide the final cause of the heart in the De motu, which just is the circulation; what he cannot figure out, however, is the use of the circulation, which is a separate matter from the use of the heart.) If we remember the doctrines of the De anima, then, we realize that what we learn about through anatomy is the soul of the creature under investigation: we learn about soul in all three senses that Aristotle notes: as the efficient cause (actions) and as the formal and final cause (uses, remembering that, in natural things, the formal and final causes are identical). In other words, what we learn by doing anatomy is the very essence of the parts of the body, their formal natures.

Anatomical experience, then, is used to learn the essences, the uses and actions of the parts. Although Andrew Wear’s (1983) “Harvey and the Way of the Anatomists” emphasizes Harvey’s indebtedness to the anatomical tradition by arguing that Harvey endorses a view in which ‘observational knowledge’ is worthwhile in its own right, we see that, in the Prelectiones at least (and I would maintain throughout his work though I won’t argue for it here) Harvey understands the goal of anatomy as a distinctly causal one. This is in keeping with his Galenic and Aristotelian knowledge, and, indeed, with the larger early modern understanding of science.

Wear tries to argue (and in this many including Roger French have followed) that Harvey accepts the traditional distinction in anatomy between the art of anatomy (the ability to cut up bodies) and the knowledge of anatomy (the science of the body and its causes). The former produces no knowledge and is historical, which is to say, observational; the latter is scientific, and stems from book learning. This conception of anatomy, found in many authors from Laurentius in his (1600) Historia anatomica to Glisson in his (1645) Anatomia hepatis, distinguishes between the art of anatomy, which is experiential, and the science of anatomy, which is rational. So, according to Wear, what we have in Harvey is an attempt to say that the experiential counts as knowledge.

This, I think, fundamentally misunderstands Harvey. Indeed, by locating Harvey’s ‘observational knowledge’ in the tradition of the anatomists, I think it misunderstands a great deal, for the anatomists, more so perhaps than other philosophers, often emphasized the ways in which experience and reason must be combined to produce knowledge. And in Harvey we find that his definition of anatomy is perhaps even more unified than those of other anatomists. Harvey understands that both experience and reason are part of one and the same process; so, in the De generatione, Harvey writes about the theories of previous philosophers on generation, and argues that the fact that,

…these are false and rash sayings will be established easily, and having employed the light of anatomy they will suddenly vanish just like phantoms of the night; nor will they need a laborious refutation, when through ocular inspection you yourself, Reader, shall discover the contrary and find it conformable to reason, having been made more certain by your own eyes; and at the same time, you will understand how unsafe, no, how truly base, it is to be taught from the commentaries of others without a test of the things themselves; especially since the book of Nature is so open and accessible.

Verum haec falsa, & temere dicta esse, facile constabit; & veluti tenebrarum phantasmata (adhibita luce anatomica) subito evanescent, nec redargutionem operosam requirent, ubi per autopsiam contraria, eaq; rationi consentanea, ipsemet (Lector!) propriis oculis certior factus, deprehenderis; simulque intellexeris, quam sit intutum, imo vero turpe, citra rerum ipsarum examen, ex aliorum commentariis institui; praesertim, cum tam apertus facilisque Naturae liber sit.

(Harvey, William (1651), “Praefatio,” In: De generatione animalium, London: B1)

Harvey here does not dismiss book learning nor reason: rather he emphasizes how they must come together with experience in order to be tested. Autopsia—seeing for oneself— is central to Harvey’s conception of anatomical experience, but not as a replacement for reason, but as a way to ensure that one’s concepts of things in the world are true and accurate, to ensure that one is finding the true nature and essence of whatever one is investigating. Reason and experience are a package deal, and you’d be crazy not to take up what it offers.