A Chemistry of Human Nature: Chemical Imagery in Hume’s Treatise

in Early Science and Medicine
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David Hume’s ‘science of man’ is frequently interpreted as an enterprise inspired in crucial respects by Newton’s Principia. However, a closer look at Hume’s central concepts and methodological commitment suggests that his Treatise of Human Nature is much more congruent with the research traditions that arose in the wake of Newton’s Opticks. In this paper I argue that the label Hume frequently attached to his project, ‘anatomy of the mind,’ is a metaphor that, considered in itself, seems to be expressing a commitment to the study of human nature in analogy with organic living nature. In this vein, Hume’s anatomy relies on conceptual and methodological resources derived from a chemical and physiological perspective on the natural cognitive and affective functioning of human beings. Since the idea of natural functioning provides various options for deriving normative considerations, Hume’s account can be seen as a middle-range theory that connects the discourses of organic nature and normative morality.

A Chemistry of Human Nature: Chemical Imagery in Hume’s Treatise

in Early Science and Medicine




 Richard Olson“The Human Sciences,” in The Cambridge History of Science. Volume 4. Eighteenth-Century Scienceed. Roy Porter (Cambridge 2008) 436-462 436; Barry Stroud Hume (London 1977) 5; Roy Porter “Medical Science and Human Science in the Enlightenment” in Inventing Human Science eds. Christopher Fox Roy Porter and Robert Wokler (Berkeley 1995) 53-87 67; Theodore M. Porter “Objects and Genres of Social Inquiry from the Enlightenment to 1890” in Cambridge History ofScience. Volume 7.The Modern Social Sciences eds. Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross (Cambridge 2003) 13-39 33; Terence Penelhum Themes in Hume (Oxford 2000) 43.


 See e.g. Miren Boehm“Filling in the Gaps in Hume’s Vacuum,” Hume Studies 38 (2012) 79-99; Schliesser “Hume’s Attack on Newton’s Philosophy.”


 I.B. Cohen“Newton and the Social Sciences, with Special Reference to Economics, Or, The Case of the Missing Paradigm,” in Natural Images in Economic Thoughted. Philip Mirowski (Cambridge 1994) 55-90.


 See e.g. Andrew Cunningham“Sydenham vs. Newton: The Edinburgh Fever Dispute of the 1690s between Andrew Brown and Archibald Pitcairne,” Medical HistorySupplement No. 1 (1981) 71-98; John P. Wright “Metaphysics and Physiology: Mind Body and the Animal Economy in Eighteenth-Century Scotland” in Studies in the Philosophy of the ScottishEnlightenment ed. M.A. Stewart(Oxford 1990) 251-301; Roger R. Emerson “The Founding of the Edinburgh Medical School” Journal of the History of Medicine and the Allied Sciences 59 (2004) 183-218.


 See e.g. SchoefieldMechanism and Materialism3-4.


 See e.g. Alan Shapiro“Experiment and Mathematics in Newton’s Theory of Color,” Physics Today 37/9 (1984) 34-42.


 See especially Alan Shapiro“Newton’s ‘Experimental Philosophy’,” 2002 , accessed on 30/9/2015. See also ibid., “Newton’s ‘Experimental Philosophy’,” Early Science and Medicine9 (2004) 185-217.


 See e.g. ThackrayAtoms and Powers121; Arthur Donovan Philosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh 1975) passim; Henry Guerlac “Joseph Black and Fixed Air: Part II” Isis 48.4 (1957) 433-56 445; David B. Wilson “Enlightenment Scotland’s Philosophico-Chemical Physics” in Between Leibniz Newton and Kant ed. Wolfgang Lefèvre (Dordrecht 2001) 129-45 131.


 See e.g. Schaffer“The Glorious Revolution and Medicine” 175-81; Reill Vitalizing Nature 33-41.


 See e.g. Tamás Demeter“Post-Mechanical Explanation in the Natural and Moral Sciences: The Language of Nature and Human Nature in David Hume and William Cullen,” Jahrbuch für Europäische Wissenschaftskultur6 (2012) 139-58.


 See DonovanPhilosophical Chemistry97-9. The distinction is widespread across Europe not only in Scotland. Beside Cullen Stahl Macquer and Show also rely on it. See Georgette Taylor “Unification achieved. William Cullen’s Theory of Heat and Phlogiston as an Example of his Philosophical Chemistry” British Journal for the History of Science 39 (2006) 477-501 487; Mi Gyung Kim Affinity That Elusive Dream: A Genealogy of the Chemical Revolution (Cambridge MA 2003) 210.


 OwenHume’s Reason79.


 See Demeter“Enlarging the Bounds” 177-8.


 See e.g. SchoefieldMechanism and Materialism215-6. See also W.A. Smeaton “E.F. Geoffroy Was Not a Newtonian Chemist” Ambix18 (1971) 212-4; Lawrence Principe “A Revolution Nobody Noticed? Changes in Early Eighteenth-Century Chymistry” in New Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry ed. Lawrence Principe (Dordrecht 2007) 1-22 6; Kim Affinity 142. It also seems clear that Geoffroy’s achievement emerged in a Newtonian context see e.g. J.B. Shank The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment (Chicago 2008) 115-7; and that it was put to Newtonian use in the eighteenth century see e.g. Kim Affinity 208-11. See also Georgette Taylor Variations on a Theme: Patterns of Congruence and Divergence among 18th Century Chemical Affinity Theories (PhD thesis University of London 2006) 44-8. It is worth noting that in 1704 Geoffroy began preparing a French translation/précis of the first edition of Newton’s Opticks: between August 1706 and June 1707 he read sections to members of the Académie; the audience included Malebranche Varignon and Fontenelle. See R.A. Hall “Newton in France: A New View” History of Science 13 (1975) 233-50.


 See e.g. WilsonSeeking Nature’s Logic80-3.


 See DonovanPhilosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment129-31.


 See Demeter“Hume’s Experimental Method” and “Hume’s Copernican Turn,” in The Making of Copernicus: Early Modern Transformation of the Scientist and His Scienceeds. Wolfgang Neuber Thomas Rahn and Claus Zittel (Leiden 2015) 88-109. See also Hazony “Newtonian Explanatory Reduction.”


 See KimAffinity209-10; Donovan Philosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment 97-9.


 See e.g. Alan Shapiro“Skating on the Edge: Newton’s Investigation of Chromatic Dispersion and Achromatic Prisms and Lenses,” in Wrong for the Right Reasonseds. Jed Z. Buchwald and Allan Franklin (Dordrecht 2005) 99-125; Niccolò Guicciardini “The Role of Musical Analogies in Newton’s Optical and Cosmological Work” Journal for the History of Ideas 74 (2013) 45-67.


 Hsueh Qu“Prescription, Description, and Hume’s Experimental Method,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy279-301 (2016); this recent paper approaches the issue in epistemological terms but its reading seems to be in agreement with the present line of argument.


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