From its inception, philosophy considered and contemplated the issue of living power within man and nature. Hippocrates termed this the vis medicatrix naturae, which was able to resist hurtful forces (Brown’s “hurtful powers” and Hahnemann’s “inimical potencies”) and restore health. Galen (circa 130 AD), the influential physician until the modern era, spoke of a life force in the various organs. However, due to the rise of the separative mens (mentation), the idea of a living power within human nature and Mother Nature degenerated into an intellectual construct disconnected from any physical reality. The success of the first Scientific Revolution in celestial and telleuric physics and mechanics (Kepler, Galileo, Newton) in the 1500-1600’s, shifted the emphasis from vital nature (natura naturans) to inert nature (natura naturata) and a mechanistic and later materialistic view of life. However, the mechanical methodology that had been so successful when applied to inert nature, when applied to the issue of vital nature, failed, and in the mid-1700’s scientists turned again to explore anew the idea of a living power or life force as a way of understanding vital nature.
However, while the Romantic approach was seeking a scientific basis for approaching living nature (natura naturans) and a true physiology (dynamic functions) to underpin a natural science, it struggled against the tendency of the intellect to study living organisms through a mechanistic approach (anatomy, bio-chemistry and fluid mechanics). At the same time, it also had to distinguish itself from the idea of a living principle or power that was simply posited, yet divorced from any real connection to nature and man (vitalism), therefore not applied in a practical, effective way, such as in therapeutics.
The Idea of the Living Principle
The idea of life as a power and principle independent of and not reducible to matter had been put forward in England by Thomas Reid, (Common Sense philosophy) and John Hunter in the mid 1700’s. A highly influential anatomist and surgeon as well as an observational scientist in the true Baconian tradition, Hunter rested the idea of the life principle on close observation of nature. For him, anatomy and structure, matter and form were simply outer expressions of a vital internal dynamics. This idea found a receptive soil in German philosophy, which had developed the concept of a life force or energy (Lebenskraft), but which had remained mostly speculative or metaphorical.
In 1781, Johan Friedrich Blumenbach, a natural philosopher and researcher published his thoughts regarding the Bildungstrieb, a dynamic power that was evolutive, progressive, and creative. Blumenbach’s work preceded the later important distinction (by Hahnemann) between a sustaining power (Lebenserhaltungskraft) seeking dynamic equilibrium (homeostasis) and a generative power (Erzeugungskraft) seeking its own dynamic balance (palingenesis). The generative side of the Living Power was not just for procreation in all its myriad forms, but also could and did operate in and through creative acts of the mind, which for Coleridge involved the power of imagination (as opposed to fancy), both primary (unconscious figuration), involving perception, and secondary, the latter leading to emergent constructs.
All of this set up a climate for ideas and concepts that went beyond the mechanistic method of inert science, one that allowed a role for creative actions of the mind (works of articulation) as well as reactions to sensations involving objects. Equally, the climate was conducive to considering a dynamic between subject (self and mind/consciousness) and object, one in which the mind is both receptive and pro-active, and also one in which the mind is critical to determining the meaning and reality of any given stimulation from the world outside. It also involved a profound re-examination of the concept of self-consciousness as life itself, an act, not a thing, and self-generating, transcending the subject-object duality of things, and the limitations of sensory-based knowledge (wissen) to go to a higher power of mind (noetic) operating off of Goethe’s Gemüt and also the super-conscious capacity (Geist), in what Coleridge termed the ‘human mind above nature’. (Hahnemann’s Geistes und Gemüts-zustanden).
English used to have a polarity of knowing between sensory-based intellect-mediated experience (Erfahrung in German) of mind expressed in the terms to wit, wit, witting, now only retained in certain idiomatic expressions as ‘keep your wits about you’ and ‘at wit’s end’, and a direct living experience (Erlebnis in German) expressed in the term ken, now relegated to Scottish dialects. Thus, there is a fundamental difference between a science involving knowledge (‘know wittingly’ or wissen) gained via the intellect (wit or Sinn) and the mentative process of mind (witting or sinnen) called Wissenschaftslehre in German, or what we could term Wit-based science in English (the true scientist having ‘all his wits about him’); and that knowledge gained through a different function (noetic) and capacity (Gemüt) of mind (to ken, or kennen, resulting in knowledge of the inner essence of a thing, or Erkenntnis), called Erkenntnislehre.
Romantic Science and the Idea of Consciousness
John Locke provided the seminal Romantic idea of self-consciousness, by conceptualizing a relationship between mind (subject) and outer world (object) wherein the mind is set in motion by objects producing sensations, but also has an internal activity of its own (reflection) that acts on the sensations to create perception and conceptions into an ever-growing ‘apperceptive mass’. For Locke, the activity of mind is, as for Bacon, paramount, and it is only through the activity of mind (consciousness) that the outer world can be ‘realized’ as causative and actual. Identity for Locke lay in the capacity for the ‘I’ (consciousness) to unite disparate ‘deeds’ or actions of nature (as cognized by the mind), into a meaningful unity. Identity of self exists in nothing other than participation in life (the etheric) by means of fluctuating particles rendered meaningful and real by acts of the mind and consciousness. Locke did not accept the view that life is a product of “the chance whirlings of unproductive particles” (Coleridge), but rather that the mind of God creates these particles in various configurations we call forms, and that we can participate them (an act of love, mind and consciousness) by means of a supersensible, organizing idea (archetype) .
Locke’s ideas were taken up towards the end of the 1700’s by Johann Fichte in Germany and developed into a philosophy of nature and natural science based on mind and consciousness, which he termed Wissenschaftslehre. Fichte, as so many of that time, was inspired to challenge Kant’s views on human freedom (constraints by material forces) and the limits to knowing, and sought this in Locke’s emphasis on the mind and consciousness as the pivotal actor and creator of reality. Fichte’s key contribution was to challenge the reflection theory of self-consciousness that dominated philosophy in his day (and still to this day), as ensconced formally by Kant. Fichte’s questions of the prevailing reflection theory created “a new stage in the history of theories of self-consciousness, a stage in which the structure of the Self becomes the essential theme.” (Henrich) The Self is the creative force, and the world is essentially fashioned in its image, up-ending the Kantian view of an objective world of things. It also created a gap between the Self and knowledge of the Self, which is generally ignored (modern material science) for, if pursued, leads only to perplexity.
Finally, Fichte’s work provided the basis for validating the views of John Brown, which had been circulating in Germany for a number of years without much comment or notice. It was the Romantic writer, Novalis (Friedrich von Hartenberg) who was struck by their commonality: first, the unitary explanation for all change in the world of appearances (coming from signals or stimuli, whether mainly from within – mind (Fichte), or from without (Brown); second the identity between change in subject and change in object. This led Novalis to publish an essay in 1795 setting out the Fichtean foundation of Brown’s ‘excitation theory’. This essay marks the other side of the 1795 revolution in medicine: whereas the first had essentially destroyed the pretensions of the Old School of medicine to be scientific, this second provided the basis for its replacement.