Monsters in early modern philosophy

Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences (2020)
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Monsters as a category seem omnipresent in early modern natural philosophy, in what one might call a “long” early modern period stretching from the Renaissance to the late eighteenth century, when the science of teratology emerges. We no longer use this term to refer to developmental anomalies (whether a two-headed calf, an individual suffering from microcephaly or Proteus syndrome) or to “freak occurrences” like Mary Toft’s supposedly giving birth to a litter of rabbits, in Surrey in the early eighteenth-century (Todd 1995). But the term itself has a rich semantic history, coming from the Latin verb monstrare (itself deriving from monere, to remind, warn, advise), “to show,” from which we also get words like “monitor,” “admonish,” “monument” and “premonition”; hence there are proverbs like, in French, le monstre est ce qui montre, difficult to render in English: “the monsters is that which shows.” Scholars have discussed how this “monstrative” dimension of the monster is in fact twofold: on the one hand, and most awkwardly, the monster is an individual who is “pointed at,” who is shown; on the other hand, the monster is a sign, a portent, an omen, and in that sense “shows us” something (on the complex semantic history of the term across Indo-European languages see Ochsner 2005). The latter dimension persists in naturalized form in the early modern period when authors like Bacon, Fontenelle or William Hunter insist that monsters (or anomalies) can show us something of the workings of Nature.

Author Profiles

Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès
Silvia Manzo
Universidad Nacional de La Plata


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