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Physiology: The Language of Life and Nature


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 4: Physiologia in Early Medieval Times


Chapter 4Physiologia in Early Medieval Times

          Looking at the Antique World, we are caught between the regretful con­templation of ancient ruins and the excited acclamation of new growth.

– Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: 150–750 AD (1971)

We now come to a period loosely called “Late Antiquity.” There are various specifications for this historiographic catchphrase. The Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity (, for instance, describes this time as follows: “‘Late Antiquity’, the period between approximately 250 and 750 CE, witnessed massive cultural and political changes: the emergence of the world’s great monotheistic religions, rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the development, and eventual destruction, of the Sasanian empire – the last Persian empire of Anti­quity; the Germanic conquest and settlement of the western Roman empire; the transformation of Byzantium into a militarised and christianised society.” Other scholarly sources define the time-period more narrowly (cf. Brown, 1971; Johnson, 2012; Scourfield, 2007). Generally, this era designates the transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages. It was a turbulent age, marked broadly by the reorganization of the Roman Empire into the “West” (centered at Rome) and the “East” (centered at Byzantium/Constantinople), the eventual fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the decline of learning in the Christian West, and the preservation of classical knowledge from the Hellenistic realm in the Islamic East.

The rise of Christianity led to the dominant belief that all secular knowledge, including Greek philosophy (such as...

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