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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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          Physiology, noun

          1.   Natural philosophy, natural science. Also: a particular system or doctrine of natural science. Obsolete.

          2.   The branch of science that deals with the normal functioning of living organisms and their systems and organs. Also: the functional processes of an organism, organ, or system. Also figurative.

– Oxford English Dictionary

This is a story of life and nature in a word – physiology. It is an old word. It came down to us, via Latin, from the ancient Greek world, from the time of Aristotle, where it signified the “study of nature.” It originates from an even older Greek root, physis – meaning “nature” – that stretches far back into pre-history. Our go-to reference, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – pronouncing itself “the definitive record of the English language” – gives two meanings of the term “physiology.” The first definition shows the original Greek gist of the word – a connotation that held sway for a long time throughout history. Yet, it is the second definition that rose to characterize physiology in the modern era. Broadly speaking, physiology nowadays denotes the “study of life” – more specifically, “how life works.” Today, it is a canonical scientific discipline that is entrenched in biology and medicine. How did this word come to express two such seemingly disparate meanings, as the “study of nature” and the “study of life”? What does this word tell us, historically, about humankind’s grasp of the essence of nature and the essence of life...

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