The Renaissance encounter of the separations of Greek psychobiology with the new chemistry of the Arab world

Gerald S. WASSERMAN <codelab@purdue.edu>
Sensory Coding Laboratory, Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

Chemical techniques (e.g., medicating, smelting) existed at the dawn of history but their early understanding was radically different from that given by modern chemistry; its origins have only been traced as far back as the quantitations of Geber of Persia (d. 803). Hence, Greek psychobiology was based on a prechemical paradigm so different from ours as to render their thoughts quite obscure for us. Of present interest is its concept of the separation of materials by the application of moist heat. Often called concoction, it appears to have been conceptualized in fairly physical terms as being akin to the filtration of a mixture into components.

Although variant formulations existed, Europeans derived four concoctions from Galen's synopsis of Greek psychobiology: 1) Food separated into chyle and excrement in the gut. 2) Chyle separated into natural spirits and excrement in the liver. 3) Natural spirits separated into vital spirits and (excretory) exhalations in the heart and lungs. 4) Vital spirits separated into animal spirits and (excretory) phlegm in the brain. The difficulty for moderns is the implication that the most rarified animal spirits putatively used by the nervous system are already present in food.

The arrival of the new Arab chemistry in Europe evoked a prolonged comparison of "chymical" and "galenical" methods. Distillation was particularly successful in refining traditional herbal medicines into useful and noxious parts. But the obvious success of the new ideas and methods did not immediately overthrow Greek psychobiology. Indeed, excellent scientists strove to incorporate the new into the old. Thus, even after Harvey's (1628) discovery of the circulation, Willis (1664), studying cortex, explicitly assimilated the old concoctions with the new distillations.

This was then a remarkably slow paradigm shift. And the conceptual issue is still relevant, because ancient Greek psychobiology provided rationalizations for fasts, emetics, and purgatives, practices currently in vogue in some quarters.

I thank the Huntington Library for providing access to its collection of early printed works.


Session VIII -- Poster Session 2
Saturday, 16 June 2001, 9:00 - 9:30 am

Sixth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Eighth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Cologne, Germany