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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 6: The Renaissance Natural World: Cradle of a Newfound Physiologia


Chapter 6The Renaissance Natural World: Cradle of a Newfound Physiologia

          The importance of a renaissance lies not so much in the rebirth of the past – though this is often its most conspicuous feature – as in the loosening from the present brought about by focussing upon the past, which makes possible the next new development.

– Vivien Law, The History of Linguistics in Europe (2003)

          The great forward movements of the Renaissance all derive their vigour, their emotional impulse, from looking backwards. The cyclic view of time as a perpetual movement from pristine golden ages of purity and truth through successive brazen and iron ages still held sway and the search for truth was thus of necessity a search for the early, the ancient, the original gold from which the baser metals of the present and the immediate past were corrupt degenerations. Man’s history was not an evolution from primitive animal origins through ever growing complexity and progress; the past was always better than the present, and progress was revival, rebirth, renaissance of antiquity.

– Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964)

The Renaissance – the one customarily spelled with a capital R – is the “rebirth” that is most familiar to us. Despite its common usage in present-day historical jargon, the Renaissance (like the Middle Ages beforehand) does not carry a precise meaning. Usually dated to the period from the fourteenth (or the fifteenth) century through the sixteenth century, it is seen...

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