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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 3: Physiology: The Mythos and Logos of Life in Antiquity

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Chapter 3Physiology: The Mythos and Logos of Life in Antiquity

          The Greek philosophical tradition thought of the world as, first and foremost, an overarching order: at once harmonious, just, beautiful, and good. The word ‘cosmos’ connotes all of this. For the Stoics, for example, the universe resembles a magnificent living organism. If we want to get an idea of this, we might think of what doctors or physiologists or biologists discover when they dissect a rabbit or a mouse. What is better constructed than an eye for seeing, than lungs for oxygenating the muscles, than a heart for pumping blood via an irrigation system? These organs are a thousand times more ingenious, more harmonious and complex, than almost all of the machines devised by man. Moreover, our biologist discovers something else: that the ensemble of these organs, which considered individually are sufficiently astonishing, together form a quite perfect and ‘logical’ whole – what the Stoics indeed named the logos, to refer to the coherent ordering of the world as well as to verbal discourse – and a whole that is infinitely superior again to any human invention.

– Luc Ferry, The Wisdom of the Myths (2014)

The idiom physis, as we have seen, is deeply rooted in the Proto-Indo-European semantic notions of “being,” “existence,” “birth,” “conception,” “genesis,” “generation,” “growth” – all manifestations of what we know as life. Over time, this word-form evolved to stand for the characteristics, the features, the qualities – the essence – of things in the...

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