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The Science of WalkingInvestigations into Locomotion in the Long Nineteenth Century$
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Andreas Mayer

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780226328355

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226352480.001.0001

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Observers of Locomotion: Theories of Walking in the French Science de l’homme

Observers of Locomotion: Theories of Walking in the French Science de l’homme

(p.39) Chapter Two Observers of Locomotion: Theories of Walking in the French Science de l’homme
The Science of Walking

Andreas Mayer

, Robin Blanton, Tilman Skowroneck
University of Chicago Press

This chapter details the predicament of observation as it became most acute in the ambitious program of the French “science of man” derived from Montpellier vitalism (Barthez) and its further proponents in Paris (Moreau de la Sarthe, Gerdy). In this context, practices of observation were often opposed to forms of experiment, following a well-known opposition within the disciplinary development of anatomy and physiology. The chapter asks whether the new experimental physiology championed by Magendie was successful in opposing the larger cultural framework of the anthropological physiologies of locomotion. The tension between a semiotic approach to walking and a new mechanics grounded on animal experiment played out in several polemical discussions among Paris physicians. At the end, Balzac’s “Theory of walking” is presented and discussed in this context. His conception of a “social pathology” of the gait lead to the skeptical conclusion that there may be no such thing as the “natural gait.” The flâneur-observer, then, is left with the task of seizing the entire spectrum of culturally shaped manifestations and deformations of walking: an endless project, doomed to failure. Balzac’s essay can serve as a cultural index of the epistemological predicaments of the human sciences of this period.

Keywords:   Montpellier, Vitalism, Paul-Joseph Barthez, Honoré de Balzac, observation, experiment, flâneur, Magendie, François, Gerdy, Pierre Nicolas

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