Contact: Dr. Heinrich C. Kuhn
Document created: 2005-08-03
Last update: 2005-08-03
Forrester, John M. (ed. & trans.)
Henry, John (coed.)
On the hidden causes of things
Forms, souls, and occult diseases in renaissance medicine
(= De abditis rerum causis <lat., engl.>)
Leiden, Boston [Brill] 2005
X, 779 p.
Series: Medieval and early modern science ; 6
Price: EUR 172.0
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This title was reviewed by: Martin Mulsow of "Seminar für Geistesgeschichte und Philosophie der Renaissance"
Item arrived at GGREN on: 2005-06-03
Review was finished on: 2005-08-03
Jean Fernel's De abditis rerum causis (1548) has long been underestimated as a key text not only of Renaissance medicine, but also of Renaissance natural philosophy. Although widely disseminated in the sixteenth century, there was no modern edition or translation, and Fernel always stood in the shadow of much more noted figures like Vesalius, Paracelsus or Cardano. In their lengthy introduction (pp. 3-65), John Henry and John M. Forrester emphasize however, that Fernel's book may help to understand the relationship between theories of occult causes and the development of the experimental method. De abditis rerum causis is Fernel's most original contribution to medicine and natural philosophy. It is a Ciceronian Dialogue of three interlocutors, which Fernel wrote after having received lessons in Latin style by Jacques Destrebey. In it, Fernel puts forward his essentially original ideas on the nature of "total substances", of generation and the seeds of disease. The book marks a crucial stage in the Renaissance discussions about the "arcana rerum" or the "causae occultae" between Ficino on the one hand and later theorists like Bodin on the other hand. Fernel gives a re-examination of the Aristotelian theory of forms and souls, and he fosters the turn to experimental method precisely to learn more about the properties of the hidden causes. The editors argue rightly that the present contraposition of "occult" versus "scientific" mentalities is misleading in this respect. Fernel was perfectly rational or "scientific" when he introduced occult qualities to cope with difficult medical phenomena like contagious diseases or generation.
The editors do not talk much about the influence of Fernel's book. They only state in a general way that it was decisively important: "This reassessment [of occult qualities and their usefulness in natural philosophy] played a key role in the critique of scholasticism, prising open the fetters of Aristotle's definitions in natural philosophy and the bonds of Galenic medicine, and clearing a path towards the amalgamation of the experimental method with traditional natural philosophy, to provide its practitioners with a more certain way of acquiring knowledge of the natural world. With hindsight, we can see that what Fernel and the other innovatory thinkers who introduced the experimental method into natural philosophy did was to turn the traditional natural philosophy into something much closer to modern science." (p. 65). One could add that there were complicated ways through which this happened. For example, Bernardino Telesio, one of the foremost critics of Aristotelian natural philosophy, was influenced by Fernel through Giovanni Argenterio, and thus he combined "modern" Renaissance Aristotelian medicine with Fernel-like experimental dealings with occult causes for his new approach in philosophy of nature.
This book contains an excellent edition and translation of the text, a useful synopsis of the content (pp. 73-102), quite a few important annotations, a bibliography and an index. Hopefully it will bring Fernel's book back into the discussions about the emergence of "modern" medicine and natural philosophy.
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Author1: Fernel, Jean Author2: Forrester, John M. (ed. & trans.) Author3: Henry, John (coed.) main Title: On the hidden causes of things subtitle: Forms, souls, and occult diseases in renaissance medicine uniform title: (= De abditis rerum causis <lat., engl.>) series: Medieval and early modern science ; 6 place of publ.: Leiden, Boston publisher: Brill year: 2005 no of pages etc.: X, 779 p. ISBN: 90-04-14128-6 currency: EUR price: 172.0