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The Gestation of German BiologyPhilosophy and Physiology from Stahl to Schelling$
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John H. Zammito

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226520797

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226520827.001.0001

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French Vital Materialism

French Vital Materialism

(p.97) Chapter Four French Vital Materialism
The Gestation of German Biology

John H. Zammito

University of Chicago Press

The stimulus of French vital materialism was decisive in provoking key developments in German life-science. The paradigm shift associated with the ideas of Buffon, Maupertuis, Diderot and La Mettrie around mid-century dramatically re-oriented the focus of natural inquiry in the direction of a non-mathematical physical science, or experimental Newtonianism. Crucial in this was the “Buffonian Revolution” in natural history, which aimed to elevate inquiry into life forms from the descriptive and classificatory approach of traditional natural history to the explanatory ambitions associated with natural philosophy. Diderot and Maupertuis were crucial allies of Buffon in this revolution and La Mettrie carried it into metaphysical arenas by proclaiming the ascendancy of the médecin philosophe who alone could resolve traditional philosophical issues based on a physiological understanding of human nature. There would be no room for supernatural explanations in such inquiry. This naturalism was linked to Epicurean materialism and “Spinozism,” alarming the conservatives of the day in France. Such metaphysical provocations proved as pivotal to the conflict between Buffon and Réumur over the future of natural history as did their methodological differences.

Keywords:   vital materialism, Georges Leclerc de Buffon, natural history, René-Antoine Ferchault de Réumur, Epicureanism, Spinozism, Denis Diderot, Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis, médecin philosophe, Charles Bonnet

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