Western Michigan University
“Mechanics” and Mechanism in William Harvey’s Anatomy: Varieties and Limits
In the preface to his 1655 De Homine, arch-mechanist Thomas Hobbes identified William Harvey as the first to discover and demonstrate the science of the human body, and set him alongside Copernicus and Galileo as a founder of true science. Nor was Hobbes alone among “mechanical” philosophers in his high opinion of Harvey’s work, the foundational significance of his discoveries, and the fruitfulness of his scientific methodology. 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. William Harvey—and especially his De motu cordis (1628)—played a prominent role in the rise of mechanical and experimental approaches to natural philosophy in the 17th century.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that Harvey’s was a self-consciously Aristotelian and Galenic approach to anatomy. He understood the goal of anatomy to be final causal Aristotelian scientia of the parts of animals articulated using the Galenic notions of the “actions” and “uses” of the parts. Furthermore, Harvey defended the existence of a non-mechanical pulsific “force” or “faculty” in the heart. He was critical of Descartes’ mechanistic theory of the heart and, more generally, of the corpuscularianism associated with (e.g.) Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes, and Boyle. In his work on animal generation he even criticizes his one-time teacher Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente (who was no mechanical philosopher) for being overly influenced by the “petty reasoning of mechanics.” At the same time, in the De motu cordis Harvey compares the passive expansion of the arteries to the inflation of a glove and the expansion of a bladder or wineskin. There, too, he compares the motion of the heart to that of the gears of a machine and of the various components of the mechanical contrivance used to fire a gun. In the Letters to Riolan published in 1649, Harvey compares the heart to a pump or syringe. Furthermore, in his anatomy lecture notes Harvey compares various digestive organs to chemical apparatus, and in his working notes on the organs of animal locomotion, he devotes an entire section to the mechanical construction (artificium mechanicum) of the muscles and considers a multi-step process leading to muscle contraction under the heading ratio mechanica. What is this but the mechanization of the animal that is championed by Descartes and others?
Clearly, Harvey’s attitude towards “mechanics” and the “mechanical” is a complex one. This should be no surprise, because the nature and meaning of “mechanics” and “mechanical” in the 17th century is itself a complex and multi-faceted issue. In this paper I explore the complex and varied uses of the mechanics/mechanical in Harvey’s works. I argue that, despite the apparent diversity, Harvey’s attitude toward mechanism is consistent, stable, and creative, reflecting the contemporary semantic ambiguities of “mechanics” and the “mechanical,” as well as his own Galeno-Aristotelian understanding of anatomy.
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