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Nature, Organism and Disease in Ancient Greek Medical Texts and German Idealism. A “New Materialist” Perspective

Vasiliki Dimoula

Open University of Cyprus

In this paper, I propose to discuss nature and the human in ancient Greek medicine through a parallel with notions of organicism in German idealism, with a focus on Friedrich Schelling. The unifying thread of the discussion will be questions formulated at the intersections of new materialism and the life sciences (e.g. Adrian Johnston, Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, 2015) and more particularly the question of the emergence of subjectivity as a denaturalized instance that nevertheless remains immanent to physical substance. 

Depending on the needs of my argument, I will be concentrating on a number of texts of the Hippocratic corpus, where the balance of the human organism appears precarious, because of the antagonisms among the competing natural forces of which it is a part.  The non-unitary constitution of nature itself gives rise to a further division inherent in the body itself, evident in the body’s maladaptation to the eternal swirling of the natural forces, and finally disrupting the continuum between the two. This intra-organic division may be described in terms of the body as the locus of conflicting powers on the one hand, and the always elusive cause that makes this body suffer and die on the other. If the disease is only ever “represented” by its symptoms (eg. “On the Sacred Disease”, Brooke Holmes The Symptom and the Subject), and yet has causal efficacy on the physical body, to what extent can we consider it as a privileged locus of denaturalizing self-reflexivity, which remains inherent in physicality and thus problematizes embodiment without the aid of either the notion of a corporeal unifying soul or the abstractly formulated dualism between body and nous/logos.

Through a web of eclectic references to the “ancient” times, which include, albeit are not limited to, Greek pre-Socratic philosophical views on nature, Friedrich Schelling discusses god, nature and the human person in terms that often make these realms indistinguishable. Reacting to Fichte’s extreme subjectivism, Schelling considers the human in the frame of the wider natural cosmos of which it is a part. Yet, he continuously returns to the question of a spiritual subjectivity, which is at once irreducible and immanent to its biological substratum. The emergence of the subject has everything to do with the fact that nature as a primordial ground is itself internally divided and incompatible with notions of organicism implying a well-orchestrated whole. The passage from inorganic nature to the organism presupposes a constant dialectic between the Ideal and the Real, the spiritual and the natural, existence and ground, which is expressed in terms of a vocabulary of scission (Ent-scheidung) pervasive in Schelling’s writings. Yet, this same vocabulary of self-division also signals nature’s tendencies to sickness, contagion and death. In fact, the dialectic of potencies is in constant danger of being inhibited, yielding to an irreducible core of brute factical givenness in humans, where evil and disease acquire fully fledged being. But in writings such as the Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom or the Stuttgart Seminars, it seems that the diseased organ is the dark other side of the very core of free subjectivity. This links to ancient Greek inquiries into nature and the body: by necessarily narrowing their perspective from the natural universe down to the human body, medical authors came upon an elusive phusis, which merges what is distinctively human to an “indivisible remainder” of inhumanity.

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From Plants to Planets: Human and nonhuman Relations in Ancient Medicine

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