Vital anti-mathematicism and the ontology of the emerging life sciences: from Mandeville to Diderot

Synthese:1-22 (2017)
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Intellectual history still quite commonly distinguishes between the episode we know as the Scientific Revolution, and its successor era, the Enlightenment, in terms of the calculatory and quantifying zeal of the former—the age of mechanics—and the rather scientifically lackadaisical mood of the latter, more concerned with freedom, public space and aesthetics. It is possible to challenge this distinction in a variety of ways, but the approach I examine here, in which the focus on an emerging scientific field or cluster of disciplines—the ‘life sciences’, particularly natural history, medicine, and physiology —is, not Romantically anti-scientific, but resolutely anti-mathematical. Diderot bluntly states, in his Thoughts on the interpretation of nature, that “We are on the verge of a great revolution in the sciences. Given the taste people seem to have for morals, belles-lettres, the history of nature and experimental physics, I dare say that before a hundred years, there will not be more than three great geometricians remaining in Europe. The science will stop short where the Bernoullis, the Eulers, the Maupertuis, the Clairauts, the Fontaines and the D’Alemberts will have left it.... We will not go beyond.” Similarly, Buffon in the first discourse of his Histoire naturelle speaks of the “over-reliance on mathematical sciences,” given that mathematical truths are merely “definitional” and “demonstrative,” and thereby “abstract, intellectual and arbitrary.” Earlier in the Thoughts, Diderot judges “the thing of the mathematician” to have “as little existence in nature as that of the gambler.” Significantly, this attitude—taken by great scientists who also translated Newton or wrote careful papers on probability theory, as well as by others such as Mandeville—participates in the effort to conceptualize what we might call a new ontology for the emerging life sciences, very different from both the ‘iatromechanism’ and the ‘animism’ of earlier generations, which either failed to account for specifically living, goal-directed features of organisms, or accounted for them in supernaturalistic terms by appealing to an ‘anima’ as explanatory principle. Anti-mathematicism here is then a key component of a naturalistic, open-ended project to give a successful reductionist model of explanation in ‘natural history’, a model which is no more vitalist than it is materialist—but which is fairly far removed from early modern mechanism.

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Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès


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