"thinking" physicians is well chronicled and can in part be summarized as a debate over theutility of their hands-on experience as opposed to the abstract reasoning and book-learningof a group unwilling to give up a long-entrenched educational monopoly and an officiallysanctioned superiority. The progressive triumph of the surgeons took place first andforemost in France, where they formed their own institutions, including a Royal Academyand a school of dissection, and officially broke with the barbers. The lines betweenphysicians and surgeons became increasingly blurry. Far outnumbering their competitorsand, as general practitioners, far more of a visible presence in the private lives of individuals, surgeons came to have an impact on the way the Enlightenment reasoned andphilosophized.
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Indeed, surgery and philosophy nourished one another. It was surgery that greatly furtheredmedical knowledge during the eighteenth century. Surgeons legitimized themselves byadapting the methods, arguments, and tactics of the philosophers; philosophers,meanwhile, in their attempts to grapple with the meaning, origins, and functioning of their universe, looked to surgeons or to doctors trained in anatomy as sources of new scientificdata. Their encounter was fortuitous, for the philosophical interest in anatomy anddissection went well beyond the literal. Anatomizing, involving at once an unearthing of hidden mysteries or origins and a dividing into parts so as to reassemble a coherent whole,was
paradigm of all philosophical enterprises and was duly reflected in all branches of knowledge and artistic activity.
Nicolai's memoir hints at such anatomical gestures. The model philosopher is he who iscapable of distinguishing the real from the illusory, of abstracting eternal mind fromperishable body. The eighteenth century was heir to a dualism that posited the world as theproduct of a fall away from oneness, purity, and eternal bliss into mixture, contamination,and the transitory.
Though part of the traditional role of the philosopher was to restoreknowledge to its prelapsarian state, hopes of such an enterprise began to erode. TheEnlightenment's fascination with origins, its museums, its massive encyclopedias, and itsarchaeological resurrections of lost cities all attest to the feverishness with which it tried toovercome a growing sense of the abyss, "a yawning gulf stretching between absence andpresence."
The Deists' God washed his hands, so to speak, of the
hic et nunc.
And worseyet was the creeping sense that there is no beyond at all, no difference between inside andoutside, between self and other.In this essay, I will focus on some of the problems that the dualism of body and mind posedto Western epistemology in the eighteenth century, presuming that in any attempt to knowor to represent reality, the status of the body must be negotiated. More specifically, I willreflect upon the hand of the philosopher in the
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quest for and transmissionof knowledge, particularly in scientific and artistic representations of the human body.(Nicolai's predicament, for instance, springs from what Edmund Husserl critically termed the"natural attitude," the attitude that there is some reality out there to be unproblematicallycaptured--itself said by Norman Bryson to entail the suppression of all that is bodily in thename of mimetic art.)
As my comments have already begun to suggest, I use the term
in the broad eighteenth-century sense of the educated individual, competent ina variety of domains. The eighteenth century did not divide disciplines as we do today, andarrogation of this title was one way to facilitate the ascendancy of one's opinions. Thenarrative I construct will be one of the progressive attempt to efface the presence of thehand or body of the experimenter and to finally turn hopefully toward the machine as theperfect, most hygienic way of generating scientific images and information. In so doing, mywork contributes to the recent scholarly reflections on proof and evidence across variousdisciplines, and to related attempts to contextualize and historicize notions of objectivity.
While the anonymous surgeon in Nicolai's anecdote remains in the shadows, the surgeonwill here emerge as a sort of doppelgänger, a figure whose acknowledgment turns out to bea harbinger of the philosopher's own potential demise.I begin my story in the spirit of the Enlightenment, by seeking out origins in order toexamine a few ancient hand gestures that helped confer a special spiritual status on thehand of the experimenter or philosopher. Moving into the Middle Ages and beyond, I dwell