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Physiology: The Language of Life and Nature

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George Rick Welch

This book paints a flowing picture of the relationship beween life and nature, through the evolution of a word – physiology. Today, it denotes a scientific discipline at the intersection of biology and medicine, signifying the «study of life». Yet, physiology manifests a split personality in the course of history. It came down to us from the ancient Greeks, where it represented the «study of nature», or «natural philosophy» – the precursor of modern-day «science». Physiology originates from an older Greek root, physis – meaning «nature» itself – that stretches far back to the birth of Greek thought. How did this word generate two such disparate meanings? What does this word tell us, historically, about humankind’s grasp of the essence of nature and the essence of life – and the interrelationship between the two? The author follows an etymological path into the distant past, in writing the biography of the word «physiology». The book delves into linguistic pre-history, in search of the primordially interwoven views of life and nature – and the words that symbolized those views. It tracks the evolving meaning of those words in Western civilization across time, space, language, and culture.
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Chapter 2: The Living Being

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Chapter 2The Living Being

          Man is the measure of all things, of what is, that it is, of what is not, that it is not.

– Protagoras, On Truth

The expression of “being” is deeply rooted in various attributes of life – living, presence, existence, genesis, birth, growth, nature, etc. – in many languages, cultures, and religions. In English, for example, we regularly refer to people as “human beings” and deities as “supreme beings”; and animate creatures are commonly called “living beings” (or just “beings”). Philosophically, we sometimes use the capitalized term Being to portray a sense of ultimate reality, as opposed to an individual thing. A fabled confrontation between humankind and the deity, which has become incorporated into the Western religious mythos, is found in the biblical Exodus story, as God appoints Moses the deliverer of the “chosen people.” When Moses asks God by what name shall He be called, we come to one of the most famous verses in the Hebrew Torah: “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” – translated as “I am that I am” or “I am and shall be present,” often interpreted as the “Being One” or the “Everlasting One” (Buber, 1946). The early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in the Septuagint renders “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” into Greek as “Ego eimi ho on” – signifying “I am He who is,” or “I am the Being.” As evidenced by mythologies around the world, such commonalities in the sense of “being” abound in the collective human psyche (Bonnefoy...

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