Hints towards the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life Part 1

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Hints towards the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life.

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


The accompanying pages contain the unfinished Sketch of a Theory of Life by S. T. Coleridge. Everything that fell from the pen of that extraordinary man bore latent, as well as more obvious indications of genius, and of its inseparable concomitant-originality. To this general remark the present Essay is far from forming an exception. No one can peruse it, without admiring the author's comprehensive research and profound meditation; but at the same time, partly from the exuberance of his imagination, and partly from an apparent want of method (though, in truth, he had a method of his own, by which he marshalled his thoughts in an order perfectly intelligible to himself), a first perusal will, to many readers, prove unsatisfactory, unless they are prepared for it by an introduction of a more popular character. This purpose, therefore, I shall endeavour to accomplish; it being to be understood that I by no means make myself responsible either for Mr. Coleridge's speculations, or for the manner in which they are enunciated; and that, on the contrary, I shall occasionally indicate views from which I dissent, and expressions which perhaps the author himself, on revision, would have seen reason to correct.

It is clear that Mr. Coleridge considers the unity of human nature to result from two combined elements, Body and Soul; that he regards the latter as the principle of Reason and of Conscience (both which he has largely treated in his published works), and that the "Life," which he here investigates, concerns, in relation to mankind, only the Body. He is far, however, from confining the term "Life" to its action on the human body; on the contrary, he disclaims the division of all that surrounds us into things with life, and things without life; and contends, that the term Life is no less applicable to the irreducible _bases_ of chemistry, such as sodium, pota.s.sium, &c., or to the various forms of crystals, or the geological strata which compose the crust of our globe, than it is to the human body itself, the acme and perfection of animal organization. I admit that there are certain great powers, such as magnetism, electricity, and chemistry, whose action may be traced, even by the limited means which science at present possesses, in admirable gradation, from purely unorganized to the most highly organized matter: and, I think, that Mr.

Coleridge has done this with great ingenuity and striking effect; but what I object to is, that he applies to the combined operation of these powers, in all cases, the term _Life_. If we look back to the early history of language, we shall probably find that this word, and its synonymes in other tongues, were first employed to denote _human_ life, that is, the duration of a human being's existence from birth to the grave. As this existence was marked by actions, many of which were common to man with other animals, those animals also were said to "live;" but the extension of the notion of Life to the vegetable creation is comparatively a recent usage,-and hitherto (in this country at least) no writer before Mr.

Coleridge, so far as I know, has maintained that rocks and mountains, nay, "the great globe itself," share with mankind the gift of Life. On the other hand, there are well known and energetic uses of the word "Life," to which Mr. Coleridge's speculations, as contained in the accompanying pages, are wholly inapplicable. Almost all nations, even the most savage, agree in the belief that individuals of the human race, after they have ceased to exist in this mortal life, will exist in another state, to which also the word Life is universally applied; but to this latter Mr.

Coleridge's views of magnetism, electricity, &c., can hardly be thought applicable. Still less can they apply to "Life" in its spiritual sense; as, when Moses says to the Jews, "the words of the law are your _life_,"

(Deut. x.x.xii, 47,) and when our Saviour says, "the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are _life_;" (John, vi, 63;) and again, "I am the resurrection and the life," (John, xi, 25.) Upon the whole, therefore, I think it would have been advisable in Mr. Coleridge to have adopted a different phraseology, in tracing the operation of certain natural agencies first on unorganized, and then on organized bodies.

Another word, of which I consider an improper use to be made in this Essay, is "Nature." I find this imaginary being introduced on all occasions, and invested with attributes of personality, which may be extremely apt to make a false impression on young or thoughtless minds. At one time, "the life of Nature" is spoken of; then we are informed that "Nature has succeeded. _She_ has created the intermediate link between the vegetable world and the animal." Again, it is said that "Nature seems to fall back, and to reexert _herself_ on the lower ground, which _she_ had before occupied;"-and elsewhere we are told that "Nature never loses what _she_ has once learnt; though in the acquirement of each new power _she_ intermits or performs less energetically the act immediately preceding.

_She_ often drops a faculty, but never fails to pick it up again. _She_ may seem forgetful and absent; but it is only to recollect _herself_ with additional as well as recruited vigour in some after and higher state."

Now the word "Nature," in any intelligible sense, means nothing but that method and order by which the Almighty regulates the common course of things. Nature is not a person; it is not active; it neither creates nor performs actions more or less energetically, nor learns, nor forgets, nor reexerts itself, nor recruits its vigour. Perhaps it will be said that all this is merely figurative language. Figurative language is very much misplaced in strict philosophical investigations; and these particular figures, which might be quite consistent with the atheistical philosophy of Lucretius, sound ill in the mouth of a pious Christian, which Mr.

Coleridge undoubtedly was. He probably adopted them unconsciously from Bacon; but Bacon's use of the word Nature ought rather to have served as a warning than an example; for it has contributed, in no small degree, to the atheistical philosophy of recent times.

The prevalent natural philosophy of the present day is that which is called _corpuscular_, because it a.s.sumes the existence of a first matter, consisting of _corpuscula_ or atoms, which are supposed to be definite, though extremely small, _quant.i.ties_, invested with the _qualities_ of extension, impenetrability, and the like; and from certain combinations of these qualities, Life is considered, by some persons, to be a necessary result. This philosophy Mr. Coleridge combats. The supposed atoms, he says, are mere abstractions of the mind; and Life is not a thing, the result of atomic arrangement or action, but is itself an act, or process.

He refutes various definitions of Life, such as, that it is the sum of all the functions by which death is resisted; or, that it depends on the faculty of nutrition, or of anti-putrescence. His own definition he proposes merely as an hypothesis. Life, he says, is "the principle of Individuation," that is to say, it is a power which discloses itself from within, combining many qualities into one individual thing. This individualising principle unites, as he conceives, with the cooperating action of magnetism, electricity, and chemistry. At least, such is the inference to be drawn from the present state of science; though it is easily conceivable that future discoveries may bring us acquainted with powers more directly connected with Life. The most general law governing the action of Life, as a tendency to individuation, is here designated _polarity_; for instance, the power termed magnetism (not meaning that there is necessarily an actual tangible magnet in the case) has two poles, the negative, answering to attraction, rest, carbon, &c., and the positive, answering to repulsion, mobility, azote, &c.; and as the magnetic needle which points to the north necessarily indicates thereby the south, so the power disposing to rest has necessarily a counteracting influence disposing to mobility, between which lies the point of indifference. Now this quality, to which Mr. Coleridge gives the name of polarity, is in truth nothing more than an exemplification of the doctrine of opposites, the p??? ?????a ??t??e???? ??t??es??, which the Eleatic Philosopher, in Plato's "Sophist," applies to the idea of existence and non-existence, and which accompanies every other idea as its shadow, whether in physics, in intellect, or in morals; for the finite is opposed to the infinite, the false to the true, the evil to the good, and so forth; which we say, not to derogate from the value of Mr. Coleridge's application of the doctrine, of which he has very ably availed himself; but merely to explain the term polarity, by referring it, as a species, to a higher genus of intellectual conceptions.

Reverting to the three powers before mentioned, it is not to be understood, that on Mr. Coleridge's hypothesis of Life, they ever act separately; but in the different modifications of Life, at one time the power of magnetism predominates, at another that of electricity, and at another that of chemistry. Magnetism is stated to act as a line, electricity as a surface, and chemistry as a solid; for all which Mr.

Coleridge refers to certain physical experiments. The predominance of magnetism is characterised by reproduction, that of electricity by irritability; and irritability, which first appears as muscle, gradually rises into sensibility as nerve. The limits of a mere introduction will not permit me to examine Mr. Coleridge's first principles more in detail; and I can but briefly notice their application to the successive stages of ascent, from the first rudiments of individualised Life, in the lowest cla.s.ses of the mineral, vegetable, and animal creation, to its crown and consummation in the human body. Beginning with magnetism, by which, in its widest sense, he means what he improperly calls the first and simplest differential act of _Nature_ (he should rather have said the first and simplest conception that we can form of a differential act of G.o.d, in the work of creation), he supposes the pre-existence of chaos, not, indeed, in the Miltonic sense-

"For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four champions fierce, Strive _there_ for mast'ry, and to battle bring Their embryon atoms,-"

but rather as one vast h.o.m.ogeneous fluid, and even _that_ he suggests not as a historical fact, but as the appropriate symbol of a great fundamental truth. The first effort of magnetic power, the first step from indifference to difference, from formless h.o.m.ogeneity to independent existence, is seen in the tranquil deposition of crystals; and an increasing tendency to difference is observable in the increasing mult.i.tude of strata, till we come to organic life; of which the vegetable and animal worlds may be regarded as opposite poles; carbon prevailing in the former and azote in the latter; and vegetation being characterised by the predominance of magnetism in its highest power, as reproduction; whilst the animal tribes evince the power of electricity, as shown in irritability and sensibility. Pa.s.sing over the forms of vegetation, we come to the polypi, corallines, &c., in which individuality appears in its first dawn; for a mult.i.tude of animals form, as it were, a common animal, and different genera pa.s.s into each other, almost indistinguishably. The tubipora of the corals connects with the serpula of the conchylia. In the _mollusca_ the separation of organs becomes more observable; in the higher species there are rudiments of nerves, and an exponent, though scarcely distinguishable, of sensibility. In the snail, and muscle, the separation of the fluid from the solid is more marked, yet the prevalence of the carbonic principle connects these and the preceding cla.s.ses, in a certain degree, with the vegetable creation. "But the _insect_ world, taken at large (says Mr. Coleridge) appears as an intense _Life_, that has struggled itself loose, and become emanc.i.p.ated from vegetation-_Florae liberti, et libertini_!" In insects we first find the distinct commencement of a separation between the muscular system, that is, organs of irritability, and the nervous system, that is, organs of sensibility; the former, however, maintaining a pre-eminence throughout, and the nerves themselves being probably subservient to the motory power. With the fishes begins an internal system of bones, but these are the results of a comparatively imperfect formation, being in general little more than mere gristle. In birds we find a sort of synthesis of the powers of fish and insects. In all three, the powers are under the predominance of irritability; but sensibility, which is dormant in the insect, begins to awaken in the fish, and, though still subordinate, is quite awake in the bird, of which no better proof can be given than its power of sound, with the rudiments of modulation, in the large cla.s.s of singing birds, and in some others a tendency to acquire and to imitate articulate speech. The next step of ascent brings us to the _mammalia_; and in these, including beasts and men, the complete and universal presence of a nervous system raises sensibility to its due place and rank among the animal powers.

Finally, in Man the whole force of organic power attains an inward and centripetal direction, and the "apex of the living pyramid"becomes a fit receptacle for Reason and Conscience.

It is much to be regretted, that the estimable Author did not live to put a finishing hand to this Essay; but the part completed involves speculations of so interesting a nature, and presents such striking marks of deep and original thought, that the Editor, to whose hands it was committed, did not feel himself justified in withholding it from the judgment of the public.



When we stand before the bust of John Hunter, or as we enter the magnificent museum furnished by his labours, and pa.s.s slowly, with meditative observation, through this august temple, which the genius of one great man has raised and dedicated to the wisdom and uniform working of the Creator, we perceive at every step the guidance, we had almost said, the inspiration, of those profound ideas concerning Life, which dawn upon us, indeed, through his written works, but which he has here presented to us in a more perfect language than that of words-the language of G.o.d himself, as uttered by Nature.

That the true idea of Life existed in the mind of John Hunter I do not entertain the least doubt; but it may, perhaps, be doubted whether his incessant occupation, and his stupendous industry in the service, both of his contemporaries and of posterity, added to his comparatively slight acquaintance with the arts and aids of logical arrangement, permitted him fully to unfold and arrange it in distinct, clear, and communicable conceptions. a.s.suredly, however, I may, without incurring the charge of arrogance or detraction, venture to a.s.sert that, in his writings the light which occasionally flashes upon us seems at other times, and more frequently, to struggle through an unfriendly medium, and even sometimes to suffer a temporary occultation. At least, in order to dissipate the undeniable obscurities, and to reconcile the apparent contradictions found in his works,-to distinguish, in short, the numerous pa.s.sages in which without, perhaps, losing sight internally of his own peculiar belief, he yet falls into the phraseology and mechanical solutions of his age,-we must distinguish such pa.s.sages from those in which the form corresponds to the substance, and in which, therefore, the nature and essential laws of vital action are expressed, as far as his researches had unveiled them to his own mind, without disguise. To effect this, we must, as it were, climb up on his shoulders, and look at the same objects in a distincter form, because seen from the more commanding point of view furnished by himself.

This has, indeed, been more than once attempted already, and, in one instance, with so evident a display of power and insight as announces in the a.s.sertor and vindicator of the Hunterian Theory a congenial intellect, and a disciple in whom Hunter himself would have exulted. Would that this attempt had been made on a larger scale, that the writer to whom I refer(1) had in consequence developed his opinions systematically, and carried them yet further back, even to their ultimate principle!

But this the scientific world has yet to expect; or it is more than probable that the present humble endeavour would have been superseded, or confined, at least, to the task of restating the opinion of my predecessor with such modifications as the differences that will always exist between men who have thought independently, and each for himself, have never failed to introduce, even on problems of far easier and more obvious solution.

Without further preface or apology, therefore, I shall state at once my objections to all the definitions that have hitherto been given of Life, as meaning too much or too little, with an exception, however, in favour of those which mean nothing at all; and even these last must, in certain cases, receive an honour they do not merit, and be confuted, or rather detected, on account of their too general acceptance, and the incalculable power of words over the minds of men in proportion to the remoteness of the subject from the cognizance of the senses.

It would be equally presumptuous and unreasonable should I, with a late writer on this subject, "exhort the reader to be particularly on his guard against loose and indefinite expressions;" but I perfectly agree that they are the bane of all science, and have been remarkably injurious in the different departments of physiology.


On The Definitions Of Life Hitherto Received. Hints Towards A More Comprehensive Theory.

The attempts to explain the nature of Life, which have fallen within my knowledge, presuppose the arbitrary division of all that surrounds us into things with life, and things without life-a division grounded on a mere a.s.sumption. At the best, it can be regarded only as a hasty deduction from the first superficial notices of the objects that surround us, sufficient, perhaps, for the purpose of ordinary discrimination, but far too indeterminate and diffluent to be taken unexamined by the philosophic inquirer. The positions of science must be tried in the jeweller's scales, not like the mixed commodities of the market, on the weigh-bridge of common opinion and vulgar usage. Such, however, has been the procedure in the present instance, and the result has been answerable to the coa.r.s.eness of the process. By a comprisal of the _pet.i.tio principii_ with the _argumentum in circulo_,-in plain English, by an easy logic, which begins with begging the question, and then moving in a circle, comes round to the point where it began,-each of the two divisions has been made to define the other by a mere rea.s.sertion of their a.s.sumed contrariety. The physiologist has luminously explained Y plus X by informing us that it is a somewhat that is the ant.i.thesis of Y minus X; and if we ask, what then is Y-X? the answer is, the ant.i.thesis of Y+X,-a reciprocation of great service, that may remind us of the twin sisters in the fable of the Lamiae, with but one eye between them both, which each borrowed from the other as either happened to want it; but with this additional disadvantage, that in the present case it is after all but an eye of gla.s.s. The definitions themselves will best ill.u.s.trate our meaning. I will begin with that given by Bichat. "Life is the sum of all the functions by which death is resisted," in which I have in vain endeavoured to discover any other meaning than that life consists in being able to live. This author, with a whimsical gravity, prefaces his definition with the remark, that the nature of life has. .h.i.therto been sought for in _abstract_ considerations; as if it were possible that four more inveterate abstractions could be brought together in one sentence than are here a.s.sembled in the words, life, death, function, and resistance. Similar instances might be cited from Richerand and others. The word Life is translated into other more learned words; and this _paraphrase_ of the _term_ is subst.i.tuted for the _definition_ of the _thing_, and therefore (as is always the case in every _real_ definition as contra-distinguished from a _verbal_ definition,) for at least a partial _solution_ of the _fact_. Such as these form the _first_ cla.s.s.-The second cla.s.s takes some one particular function of Life common to all living objects,-nutrition, for instance; or, to adopt the phrase most in vogue at present, a.s.similation, for the purposes of reproduction and growth. Now this, it is evident, can be an appropriate definition only of the very lowest species, as of a Fungus or a Mollusca; and just as comprehensive an idea of the mystery of Life, as a Mollusca might give, can this definition afford. But this is not the only objection. For, _first_, it is not pretended that we begin with seeking for an organ evidently appropriated to nutrition, and then infer that the substance in which such an organ is found _lives_. On the contrary, in a number of cases among the obscurer animals and vegetables we infer the organ from the pre-established fact of its life. _Secondly_, it identifies the process itself with a certain range of its forms, those, namely, by which it is manifested in animals and vegetables. For this, too, no less than the former, presupposes the arbitrary division of all things into not living and lifeless, on which, as I before observed, all these definitions are grounded. But it is sorry logic to take the proof of an affirmative in one thing as the proof of the negative in another. All animals that have lungs breathe, but it would be a childish oversight to deduce the converse, viz. all animals that breathe have lungs. The theory in which the French chemists organized the discoveries of Black, Cavendish, Priestly, Scheele, and other English and German philosophers, is still, indeed, the reigning theory, but rather, it should seem, from the absence of a rival sufficiently popular to fill the throne in its stead, than from the continuance of an implicit belief in its own stability. We no longer at least cherish that intensity of faith which, before Davy commenced his brilliant career, had not only identified it with chemistry itself, but had subst.i.tuted its nomenclature, even in common conversation, for the far more philosophic language which the human race had abstracted from the laboratory of Nature. I may venture to prophecy that no future Beddoes will make it the corival of the mathematical sciences in demonstrative evidence. I think it a matter of doubt whether, during the period of its supposed infallibility, physiology derived more benefit from the extension, or injury from the misdirection, of its views. Enough of the latter is fresh in recollection to make it but an equivocal compliment to a physiological position, that it must stand or fall with the corpuscular philosophy, as modified by the French theory of chemistry. Yet should it happen (and the event is not impossible, nor the supposition altogether absurd,) that more and more decisive facts should present themselves in confirmation of the metamorphosis of elements, the position that life consists in a.s.similation would either cease to be distinctive, or fall back into the former cla.s.s as an identical proposition, namely, that Life, meaning by the word that sort of growth which takes place by means of a peculiar organization, consists in that sort of growth which is peculiar to organized life. _Thirdly_, the definition involves a still more egregious flaw in the reasoning, namely, that of _c.u.m hoc, ergo propter hoc_ (or the a.s.sumption of causation from mere coexistence); and this, too, in its very worst form. For it is not _c.u.m hoc solo, ergo propter hoc_, which would in many cases supply a presumptive proof by induction, but _c.u.m hoc, et plurimis aliis, ergo propter hoc_! Sh.e.l.l, of some kind or other, is common to the whole order of testacea, but it would be absurd to define the _vis vitae_ of testaceous animals as existing in the sh.e.l.l, though we know it to be the constant accompaniment, and have every reason to believe the constant effect, of the specific life that acts in those animals. Were we (_argumenti __ causa_) to imagine sh.e.l.l coextensive with the organized creation, this would produce no abatement in the falsity of the reasoning. Nor does the flaw stop here; for a physiological, that is a real, definition, as distinguished from the verbal definitions of lexicography, must consist neither in any single property or function of the thing to be defined, nor yet in all collectively, which latter, indeed, would be a history, not a definition. It must consist, therefore, in the _law_ of the thing, or in such an _idea_ of it, as, being admitted, all the properties and functions are admitted by implication. It must likewise be so far _causal_, that a full insight having been obtained of the law, we derive from it a progressive insight into the necessity and _generation_ of the phenomena of which it is the law. Suppose a disease in question, which appeared always accompanied with certain symptoms in certain stages, and with some one or more symptoms in all stages-say deranged digestion, capricious alternation of vivacity and languor, headache, dilated pupil, diminished sensibility to light, &c.-Neither the man who selected the one constant symptom, nor he who enumerated all the symptoms, would give the scientific definition _talem scilicet, quali scientia fit vel datur_, but the man who at once named and defined the disease hydrocephalus, producing pressure on the brain. For it is the essence of a scientific definition to be causative, not by introduction of imaginary somewhats, natural or supernatural under the name of causes, but by announcing the law of action in the particular case, in subordination to the common law of which all the phenomena are modifications or results.

Now in the definition on which, as the representative of a whole cla.s.s, we are _now_ animadverting, a single effect is given as const.i.tuting the cause. For nutrition by digestion is certainly necessary to life, only under certain circ.u.mstances, but that life is previously necessary to digestion is absolutely certain under all circ.u.mstances. Besides, what other phenomenon of Life would the conception of a.s.similation, _per se_, or as it exists in the lowest order of animals, involve or explain? How, for instance, does it include sensation, locomotion, or habit? or if the two former should be taken as distinct from life, _toto genere_, and supervenient to it, we then ask what conception is given of _vital_ a.s.similation as contradistinguished from that of the nucleus of a crystal?

_Lastly_, this definition confounds the Law of Life, or the primary and universal form of vital agency, with the conception, Animals. For the kind, it subst.i.tutes the representative of its degrees and modifications.

But the first and most important office of science, physical or physiological, is to contemplate the power in kind, abstracted from the degree. The ideas of caloric, whether as substance or property, and the conceptions of latent heat, the heat in ice, &c., that excite the wonder or the laughter of the vulgar, though susceptible of the most important practical applications, are the result of this abstraction; while the only purpose to which a definition like the preceding could become subservient, would be in supplying a nomenclature with the character of the most common species of a genus-its _genus generalissimum_, and even this would be useless in the present instance, inasmuch as it presupposes the knowledge of the things characterised.

The third cla.s.s, and far superior to the two former, selects some property characteristic of all living bodies, not merely found in all _animals_ alike, but existing equally in all parts of all living things, both animals and plants. Such, for instance, is the definition of Life, as consisting in anti-putrescence, or the power of resisting putrefaction.

Like all the others, however, even this confines the idea of Life to those degrees or concentrations of it, which manifest themselves in organized beings, or rather in those the organization of which is apparent to us.

Consequently, it subst.i.tutes an abstract term, or generalization of effects, for the idea, or superior form of causative agency. At best, it describes the _vis vita_ by one only of its many influences. It is however, as we have said before, preferable to the former, because it is not, as they are, altogether unfruitful, inasmuch as it attests, less equivocally than any other sign, the presence or absence of that degree of the _vis vita_ which is the necessary condition of organic or self-renewing power. It throws no light, however, on the law or principle of action; it does not increase our insight into the other phenomena; it presents to us no _inclusive_ form, out of which the other forms may be developed, and finally, its defect as a definition may be detected by generalizing it into a higher formula, as a power which, during its continuance, resists or subordinates heterogeneous and adverse powers. Now this holds equally true of chemical relatively to the mechanical powers; and really affirms no more of Life than may be equally affirmed of every form of being, namely, that it tends to preserve itself, and resists, to a certain extent, whatever is incompatible with the laws that const.i.tute its particular state for the time being. For it is not true only of the great divisions or cla.s.ses into which we have found it expedient to distinguish, while we generalize, the powers acting in nature, as into intellectual, vital, chemical, mechanical; but it holds equally true of the degrees, or species of each of these genera relatively to each other: as in the decomposition of the alkalies by heat, or the galvanic spark. Like the combining power of Life, the copula here resists for awhile the attempts to dissolve it, and then yields, to reappear in new phenomena.

It is a wonderful property of the human mind, that when once a momentum has been given to it in a fresh direction, it pursues the new path with obstinate perseverance, in all conceivable bearings, to its utmost extremes. And by the startling consequences which arise out of these extremes, it is first awakened to its error, and either recalled to some former track, or receives some fresh impulse, which it follows with the same eagerness, and admits to the same monopoly. Thus in the 13th century the first science which roused the intellects of men from the torpor of barbarism, was, as in all countries ever has been, and ever must be the case, the science of _Metaphysics_ and _Ontology_. We first seek what can be found at home, and what wonder if truths, that appeared to reveal the secret depths of our own souls, should take possession of the whole mind, and all truths appear trivial which could not either be evolved out of similar principles, by the same process, or at least brought under the same forms of thought, by perceived or imagined a.n.a.logies? And so it was.

For more than a century men continued to invoke the oracle of their own spirits, not only concerning its own forms and modes of being, but likewise concerning the laws of external nature. All attempts at philosophical explication were commenced by a mere effort of the understanding, as the power of abstraction; or by the imagination, transferring its own experiences to every object presented from without.

By the former, a cla.s.s of phenomena were in the first place abstracted, and fixed in some general term: of course this could designate only the impressions made by the outward objects, and so far, therefore, having been thus metamorphosed, they were effects of these objects; but then made to supply the place of their own causes, under the name of occult qualities. Thus the properties peculiar to gold, were abstracted from those it possessed in common with other bodies, and then generalized in the term _Aureity_: and the inquirer was instructed that the Essence of Gold, or the cause which const.i.tuted the peculiar modification of matter called gold, was the power of aureity. By the latter, _i.e._ by the imagination, thought and will were superadded to the occult quality, and every form of nature had its appropriate Spirit, to be controlled or conciliated by an appropriate ceremonial. This was ent.i.tled its SUBSTANTIAL FORM. Thus, physic became a sort of dull poetry, and the art of medicine (for physiology could scarcely be said to exist) was a system of magic, blended with traditional empiricism. Thus the forms of thought proceeded to act in their own emptiness, with no attempt to fill or substantiate them by the information of the senses, and all the branches of science formed so many sections of logic and metaphysics. And so it continued, even to the time that the Reformation sounded the second trumpet, and the authority of the schools sank with that of the hierarchy, under the intellectual courage and activity which this great revolution had inspired. Power, once awakened, cannot rest in one object. All the sciences partook of the new influences. The world of experimental philosophy was soon mapped out for posterity by the comprehensive and enterprising genius of Bacon, and the laws explained by which experiment could be dignified into experience.(2) But no sooner was the impulse given, than the same propensity was made manifest of looking at all things in the one point of view which chanced to be of predominant attraction.

Our Gilbert, a man of genuine philosophical genius, had no sooner multiplied the facts of magnetism, and extended our knowledge concerning the property of magnetic bodies, but all things in heaven, and earth, and in the waters beneath the earth, were resolved into magnetic influences.

Shortly after a new light was struck by Harriott and Descartes, with their contemporaries, or immediate predecessors, and the restoration of ancient geometry, aided by the modern invention of algebra, placed the science of mechanism on the philosophic throne. How widely this domination spread, and how long it continued, if, indeed, even now it can be said to have abdicated its pretensions, the reader need not be reminded. The sublime discoveries of Newton, and, together with these, his not less fruitful than wonderful application, of the higher mathesis to the movements of the celestial bodies, and to the laws of light, gave almost a religious sanction to the corpuscular system and mechanical theory. It became synonymous with philosophy itself. It was the sole portal at which truth was permitted to enter. The human body was treated of as an hydraulic machine, the operations of medicine were solved, and alas! even directed by reference partly to gravitation and the laws of motion, and partly by chemistry, which itself, however, as far as its theory was concerned, was but a branch of mechanics working exclusively by imaginary wedges, angles, and spheres. Should the reader chance to put his hand on the "Principles of Philosophy," by La Forge, an immediate disciple of Descartes, he may see the phenomena of sleep solved in a copper-plate engraving, with all the figures into which the globules of the blood shaped themselves, and the results demonstrated by mathematical calculations. In short, from the time of Kepler(3) to that of Newton, and from Newton to Hartley, not only all things in external nature, but the subtlest mysteries of life and organization, and even of the intellect and moral being, were conjured within the magic circle of mathematical formulae. And now a new light was struck by the discovery of electricity, and, in every sense of the word, both playful and serious, both for good and for evil, it may be affirmed to have electrified the whole frame of natural philosophy. Close on its heels followed the momentous discovery of the princ.i.p.al gases by Scheele and Priestly, the composition of water by Cavendish, and the doctrine of latent heat by Black. The scientific world was prepared for a new dynasty; accordingly, as soon as Lavoisier had reduced the infinite variety of chemical phenomena to the actions, reactions, and interchanges of a few elementary substances, or at least excited the expectation that this would speedily be effected, the hope shot up, almost instantly, into full faith, that it had been effected. Henceforward the new path, thus brilliantly opened, became the common road to all departments of knowledge: and, to this moment, it has been pursued with an eagerness and almost epidemic enthusiasm which, scarcely less than its political revolutions, characterise the spirit of the age. Many and inauspicious have been the invasions and inroads of this new conqueror into the rightful territories of other sciences; and strange alterations have been made in less harmless points than those of terminology, in homage to an art unsettled, in the very ferment of imperfect discoveries, and either without a theory, or with a theory maintained only by composition and compromise. Yet this very circ.u.mstance has favoured its encroachments, by the gratifications which its novelty affords to our curiosity, and by the keener interest and higher excitement which an unsettled and revolutionary state is sure to inspire. He who supposes that science possesses an immunity from such influences knows little of human nature. How, otherwise, could men of strong minds and sound judgments have attempted to penetrate by the clue of chemical experiment the secret recesses, the sacred adyta of organic life, without being aware that chemistry must needs be at its extreme limits, when it has approached the threshold of a higher power? Its own transgressions, however, and the failure of its enterprises will become the means of defining its absolute boundary, and we shall have to guard against the opposite error of rejecting its aid altogether as a.n.a.logy, because we have repelled its ambitious claims to an ident.i.ty with the vital powers.

Previously to the submitting my own ideas on the subject of life, and the powers into which it resolves itself, or rather in which it is manifested to us, I have hazarded this apparent digression from the anxiety to _preclude certain suspicions_, which the subject itself is so fitted to awaken, and while I antic.i.p.ate the charges, to plead in answer to each a full and unequivocal-not guilty!

In the first place, therefore, I distinctly disclaim all intention of explaining life into an occult quality; and retort the charge on those who can satisfy themselves with defining it as the peculiar power by which death is resisted.

Secondly. Convinced-by revelation, by the consenting authority of all countries, and of all ages, by the imperative voice of my own conscience, and by that wide chasm between man and the n.o.blest animals of the brute creation, which no perceivable or conceivable difference of organization is sufficient to overbridge-that I have a rational and responsible soul, I think far too reverentially of the same to degrade it into an hypothesis, and cannot be blind to the contradiction I must incur, if I a.s.sign that soul which I believe to const.i.tute the peculiar nature of man as the cause of functions and properties, which man possesses in common with the oyster and the mushroom.(4)

Thirdly, while I disclaim the error of Stahl in deriving the phenomena of life from the unconscious actions of the rational soul, I repel with still greater earnestness the a.s.sertion and even the supposition that the functions are the offspring of the structure, and "Life(5) the result of organization," connected with it as effect with cause. Nay, the position seems to me little less strange, than as if a man should say, that building with all the included handicraft, of plastering, sawing, planing, &c. were the offspring of the house; and that the mason and carpenter were the result of a suite of chambers, with the pa.s.sages and staircases that lead to them. To make A the offspring of B, when the very existence of B as B presupposes the existence of A, is preposterous in the _literal_ sense of the word, and a consummate instance of the _hysteron proteron_ in logic. But if I reject the organ as the cause of that, of which it is the organ, though I might admit it among the _conditions_ of its actual functions; for the same reason, I must reject _fluids_ and _ethers_ of all kinds, magnetical, electrical, and universal, to whatever quintessential thinness they may be treble distilled, and (as it were) super-substantiated. With these, I abjure likewise all _chemical_ agencies, compositions, and decompositions, were it only that as stimulants they suppose a stimulability _sui generis_, which is but another paraphrase for life. Or if they are themselves at once both the excitant and the excitability, I miss the connecting link between this imaginary ether and the visible body, which then becomes no otherwise distinguished from inanimate matter, than by its juxtaposition in mere s.p.a.ce, with an heterogeneous inmate, the cycle of whose actions revolves within itself. Besides which I should think that I was confounding metaphors and realities most absurdly, if I imagined that I had a greater insight into the meaning and possibility of a living alcohol, than of a living quicksilver. In short, visible _surface_ and _power_ of any kind, much more the _power_ of life, are ideas which the very forms of the human understanding make it impossible to identify. But whether the powers which manifest themselves to us under certain conditions in the forms of electricity, or chemical attraction, have any a.n.a.logy to the power which manifests itself in growth and organization, is altogether a different question, and demands altogether a different chain of reasoning: if it be indeed a tree of knowledge, it will be known by its fruits, and these will depends not on the mere a.s.sertion, but on the inductions by which the position is supported, and by the additions which it makes to our insight into the nature of the facts it is meant to ill.u.s.trate.

To _account_ for Life is one thing; to explain Life another. In the first we are supposed to state something prior (if not in time, yet in the order of Nature) to the thing accounted for, as the ground or cause of that thing, or (which comprises the meaning and force of both words) as its _sufficient cause, quae et facit, et subest_. And to this, in the question of Life, I know no possible answer, but G.o.d. To account for a thing is to see into the principle of its possibility, and from that principle to evolve its being. Thus the mathematician demonstrates the truths of geometry by constructing them. It is an admirable remark of Joh. Bapt. a Vico, in a Tract published at Naples, 1710,(6) "Geometrica ide demonstramus, quia facimus; physica si demonstrare possimus, faceremus.

Metaphysici veri claritas eadem ac lucis, quam non nisi per opaca cognoscimus; nam non lucem sed lucidas res videmus. Physica sunt opaca, nempe formata et finita, in quibus Metaphysici veri lumen videmus." The reasoner who a.s.signs structure or organization as the antecedent of Life, who names the former a cause, and the _latter_ its effect, _he_ it is who pretends to account for life. Now Euclid would, with great right, demand of such a philosopher to _make_ Life; in the same sense, I mean, in which Euclid makes an Icosahedron, or a figure of twenty sides, namely, in the understanding or by an intellectual construction. An argument which, of itself, is sufficient to prove the untenable nature of Materialism.

To explain a power, on the other hand, is (the power itself being a.s.sumed, though not comprehended, _ut qui datur, non intelligitur_) to unfold or spread it out: _ex implicito planum facere_. In the present instance, such an explanation would consist in the reduction of the idea of Life to its simplest and most comprehensive form or mode of action; that is, to some characteristic _instinct_ or _tendency_, evident in all its manifestations, and involved in the idea itself. This a.s.sumed as existing in _kind_, it will be required to present an ascending series of corresponding phenomena as involved _in_, proceeding _from_, and so far therefore explained _by_, the supposition of its progressive intensity and of the gradual enlargement of its sphere, the necessity of which again must be contained in the idea of the tendency itself. In other words, the tendency having been given in _kind_, it is required to render the phenomena intelligible as its different degrees and modifications. Still more perfect will the explanation be, should the necessity of this progression and of these ascending gradations be contained in the a.s.sumed idea of life, as thus defined by the general form and common purport of all its various tendencies. This done, we have only to add the conditions common to all its phenomena, and, those appropriate to each place and rank, in the scale of ascent, and then proceed to determine the primary and const.i.tutive forms, _i.e._ the elementary powers in which this tendency realizes itself under different degrees and conditions.(7)

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Hints towards the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life Part 1 summary

You're reading Hints towards the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Already has 357 views.

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