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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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          What we know and what we think is not a new fountain gushing fresh from the barren rock of the unknown at the stroke of the rod of our intellect, it is a stream which flows by us and through us, fed by the far-off rivulets of long ago.

– Michael Foster, Lectures on the History of Physiology (1901)

Words have lives of their own, and life has words of its own. “Physiology” is a word that fits both statements. Today, physiology belongs to the lexical realm of the life sciences, purporting to encompass the investigation of “how life works.” A mystic might argue that physiology is just where it should be, for it has always been about the “study of life” in Western philosophy. The Greek conception of physis – commonly translated purely as “nature” – incorporated metaphors and analogies of “life” from its prehistoric origin. Nature was deemed as “alive”; as birthing, generating, and begetting; as a mirror reflection of humankind’s “self” – the macrocosm of cosmic nature and the microcosm of the earthly living being. Nature’s laws – seen or unseen – constituted the causative principles at work in the living realm. Medicine and natural philosophy went hand-in-hand from ancient times onward, as medicine was regarded as the rational (“scientific”) connection between nature’s operation and the understanding (and treatment) of human health and well-being. Whence, physiology emerged as the “handmaiden” to medicine. Though modern-day medicine still claims a privileged relationship to it, physiology rightfully belongs to biology...

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