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Caroline Warman

Published On


Page Range

pp. 137-176

Print Length

39 pages

4. Diderot the Physiologist

  • Caroline Warman (author)
This chapter compares Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie with other introductory works to the field of physiology written during the mid-to-late-eighteenth century. Warman first shows how the definition of ‘physiology’ remained unfixed throughout this period, referring to both the specific ‘economy of the human body’ and more general concerns about life and health. A more major debate raged between materialist and vitalist thinkers; the former group perceived the body as a machine whereas the latter argued for the existence of a vital principle within all living organisms. Drawing ideas from both these frameworks, as well as from his own grounded knowledge of chemistry, Diderot developed a unique strand of materialist vitalism which saw all human beings as conjoined masses of nature, matter, life, and sensation. The chapter also chronologically tracks the publication of various writings on physiology from 1747 to 1833, using the preeminent Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller as a reference point for every subsequent work discussed within this section. While the Éléments contains a significant amount of Hallerian physiology, its organisation of material vastly differs from Haller’s eight-volume Primae lineae. Warman ultimately argues that Diderot, with his concise descriptions, sharp writing style, frequent references to medical anecdotes, and anti-abstract approach to the human body, provided a superior introduction to physiology than any of his contemporaries.


Caroline Warman