The specular body in eighteenth century Britain


School of Science and Technology Studies, University of New South Wales, Kensington, NSW 2052, Australia


 Truth to nature  is the ruling dictum of all scientific atlases, yet ideas of nature and truth can be explored historically. The varying ways in which the truths of nature have been secured in the past is an ongoing project of medical history.

This paper investigates the problem of scientific representation in eighteenth century Britain and changes in the ways in which nature was defined as an object of study. In particular I will discuss those changes relating to medical knowledge and ways of knowing the human body. Medical artefacts such as technical illustrations of the brain and nervous system, and specialized instruments such as the early microscope, will be placed in their historical and epistemological context. The century began at the end of the era of the classical microscopists, and ended with a new regime of knowing the human body - what Foucault has named 'power over life'. The dead body gained a new status as a source of information about the living body. I investigate the differing ways of seeing that were embodied in the enterprises of microscopists and makers of anatomical imagery through the eighteenth century. In this paper I will argue that the eighteenth century saw a new value placed on the visible and, consequently, the invisible. I will attempt to explain the conditions of this possibility, in terms of the changing nature of objectivity as discussed in contemporary debates amongst medical scientists about the nature of naturalism and the scope of the microscope. I will also explore the status of images in the communication of natural knowledge in the eighteenth century, and historicise the truism that seeing is itself an act of understanding and knowing.

Such an investigation into the history of ways of seeing and knowing indicates that the anatomical body is in all respects a specular one. The 'living' body is an a priori - an effect of the very interpretative practices eighteenth century medical men argued about in this history of how they experienced what they saw. At the end of the paper I draw attention to the play of realism and illusion in scientific images, and the significance of such an investigation for medical historiography.


Panel 7A   (Nervous Fluids and Innards in Early Modern Physiology and Culture)
Friday, 17 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999