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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 8: Physiology: The Word Comes to Life


Chapter 8Physiology: The Word Comes to Life

          One of the phænomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery [...] I resolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology.

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)

8.1   Physiology: A Word Apart

          There are in nature two classes of beings, two classes of properties, and two classes of sciences. Beings are organic or inorganic, properties vital or non-vital, and sciences physiological or physical.

– Xavier Bichat, Anatomie Générale, Appliquée à la Phyiologie et à la Médecine (1801)

The historical separation of the modern terms “physiology,” “physician,” and “physics” was a piecemeal process, due to the longstanding lexical bridge that physica (and, to some extent, physiologia) had occupied between natural philosophy and medicine since Late Antiquity. As the Renaissance unfolded, Bylebyl (1990) remarks, there was a “demise of medical physica in Latin and the Romance vernaculars [and] a general return to classical usage.” In the wake, we read further from the previous author, the medical connotations of physica and physicus “passed out of currency in continental Europe, stranding the English words ‘physic’ and ‘physician’...

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