The Asystasy of the Life Sciences: Schelling, Hunter and British Idealism

Tilottama Rajan

Abstract


In 1799 the British Crown purchased 13,000 fossils and specimens from the estate of John Hunter (1728-93). This “vast Golgotha” then became the object of attempts to classify and institutionalize the work of one of the most singular and polymathic figures in the British life sciences whose work encompassed medicine and surgery, physiology, comparative anatomy and geology. The result was the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, separate Lecture Series on comparative anatomy and surgery from 1810, and “Orations” on Hunter’s birthday from 1814. Almost symbolically, these efforts were disrupted by the burning of twenty folio volumes of Hunter’s notes on the specimens in 1823 by his brother-in-law and executor Sir Everard Home. Home may have wanted to emerge from Hunter’s shadow or disguise his borrowings but saw nothing wrong in his actions and divulged them to Hunter’s amanuensis William Clift (by then Chief Conservator of the Museum). Having based over ninety articles on Hunter’s work, Home claimed he had published and acknowledged everything of value, and that Hunter wanted him to burn the papers, though interestingly he waited thirty years to do so. He also claimed he had wanted to present Hunter’s work in more complete form, and spare him from charges of irreligion. And indeed it had been recently that the debate between John Abernethy and William Lawrence had broken out, over whether Hunter and science should be aligned with religion or materialism: a debate that caused Coleridge to invoke Schelling to support a nervous idealization of Hunter in his Theory of Life. Ignoring Home’s activities, the Royal College, it seems, may also have wanted Hunter’s work to be “completed.” But if so what was troubling about the British scientist’s first outlines and his reluctance to arrive at the “system itself”. And given that Schelling would prove a dangerous supplement, how does Hunter’s speculative empiricism converge with the equally explosive transcendental empiricism of Schelling’s First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799), the most fertile and chaotic of his writings in Naturphilosophie?


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