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Galen and the

Mechanical Philosophy
Sylvia Berryman

It is a common practice among scholars of ancient natural philosophy

and the early history of science to talk of ancient accounts of the natural
world as falling into one of two categories, the Ideological or the mechanistic. These terms can refer either to individual accounts of specific
phenomena, or to a more general approach to natural philosophy; in the
latter sense, the two need not be mutually exclusive. Many interpretations of Aristotelian teleology take his approach to be compatible with
offering 'mechanistic' explanations of specific phenomena.1 The philosophers most commonly said to have a consistently 'mechanistic' approach
i.e., to avoid teleology altogether are the atomists, although the
term is also applied to other Presocratic and medical theories.
Although the term 'mechanistic' is widely used in this context, there
are acknowledged problems with using this modem term to categorize
ancient philosophers. At different times scholars have either questioned
whether the atomists in fact satisfy a given modern conception of the

For an overview of positions on the status of teleological accounts in Aristotle, see

Allan Gorthelf, 'Understanding Aristotle's Teleology', in Richard F. Massing, ed.,
Final Causality in Nature and Human Affairs, Studies in Philosophy and the History
of Philosophy volume 30 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press
1997) 71-85. For different notions of teleology and their applicability to Galen, see
R.J. Hankinson, 'Galen and the Best of all Possible Worlds', Classical Quarterly 39
(1989) 206-227.

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236 Sylvia Bern/man

mechanistic,2 suggested that applying the term 'mechanistic' to the

ancients might be anachronistic,3 or noted that different claims could be
intended by calling an ancient view 'mechanistic'.41 offer a different form
of challenge here: I propose that we should better think in terms of a
threefold schema of approaches to explanation, broadly speaking, and
further suggest that the branch most aptly called 'mechanistic' may not
be that represented by atomist thought at all.
The received view is most clearly presented in David Furley's study,
The Greek Cosmologists. Discussing Socrates' dissatisfaction with the
explanations of his predecessors in Phaedo, Furley describes Socrates
as seeking teleological explanations, while his predecessors offered
only mechanistic explanations, those 'that refer ... to material components and their motions'.5 Furley notes that this dichotomy of explanatory approaches aligns with the distinction between the 'Closed World'
of the teleologists a finite, structured cosmos in which forms are
permanent and the 'Infinite Universe' of the atomists, wherein
complexes purposelessly arise and decay in infinite space. Different
approaches to the nature of matter and change also map onto this
divide: the teleologists take matter to be continuous and capable of
qualitative alteration; the atomists posit discrete, unalterable smallest
Although in Aristotle's day these different commitments tend to
cluster on either side of a divide, it is also recognized that later figures
do not classify so neatly. Furley raises the possibility that later philoso-

2 See David Balme, 'Greek Science and Mechanism II. The Atomists', Classical Quarterly 35 (1941) 23-8; Ulrike Hirsch, 'War Demokrits Weltbild mechanistisch und
anhteleologisch?' Phronesis 35 (1990) 225-44
3 David Furley, The Creek Cosmologists Vol l The Formation of the Atomic Theory and its
Earliest Critics (New York Cambridge University Press 1987); Hirsch, 'Demokrits
4 IM. Lonie, 'The paradoxical text "On the Heart"', Medical History 17 (1973) 1-15 and
136-53,138; 'Hippocrates the latromechanist', Medical History 25 (1981) 113-50
5 The Greek Cosmologists, 13. See also his Cosmic Problems: Essays on Greek and Roman
Philosophy of Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press 1989).
6 The Greek Cosmologists, 1-8: the phrases are Koyre's. Furley notes that the atomists
also differ in recognizing no distinction in kind between the motion of sublunary
and heavenly bodies.
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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 237

phy includes 'eclectics'.7 These anomalous figures have been said to

forge a 'compromise' between two poles.8 In new work on the interactions between medicine, mechanics and philosophy, von Staden writes
of an 'accommodation' or 'combination' of teleological and mechanistic
approaches.9 My proposal here differs in that, rather than assuming a
background dichotomy of teleological and 'mechanistic' approaches
between which compromises or combinations might be forged, I suggest
that later ancient natural philosophy is better understood in terms of
three rather than two competing approaches. I take Galen's account of
the explanatory options available in his day as evidence that a third,
independent position arises in later natural philosophy, with somewhat
different motivations. This third option takes its impetus from the idea
that natural things can be understood by the methods and techniques
used in ancient mechanics.
The idea that natural philosophies form a dichotomy is not a modern
one: Galen sometimes talks of two competing approaches,10 while Hobbes claims Diodorus Siculus as his authority for such a view.11 The use
of the term 'mechanistic' to describe one branch of this dichotomy seems
to stem from a usage of the seventeenth-century 'mechanical philosophers', who sometimes compared their approach to that of Presocratics,
particularly the ancient atomists. Alternatively, the term may seem to
draw its legitimacy from similarities between ancient atomism and
commitments associated with modern uses of the term 'mechanistic',
particularly the idea that explanation of all phenomena should depend

7 The Greek Cosmologists, 8. Furley indicates that these will be discussed in volume two
of his work, which has not yet appeared.
8 See Hermann Diels, 'ber das physikalische System des Straton', Sitzungsberichte
der Pruessischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (1893) 101-127,106.
9 Teleology and Mechanism: Aristotelian Biology and Early Hellenistic Medicine',
in Wolfgang Kullmann and Sabine Fllinger, eds., Aristotelische Biologie: Intentionen,
Methoden, Ergebnisse (Stuttgart: F. Steiner 1997) 183-208, 203; 'Body and Machine:
Interactions between Medicine, Mechanics, and Philosophy in Early Alexandria', in
John Walsh and Thomas F. Reese, eds, Alexandria and Alexandrianism (Malibu, CA:
J. Paul Getty Museum 1996) 85-106,96
10 On the Natural Faculties 1.12, discussed below.
11 De Homine 1.1. I owe to Paul Keyser the reference to Diodorus Siculus 1.6, which
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238 Sylvia Berryman

on the motions of material bodies alone. I shall suggest instead that the
term 'mechanistic' is better applied to those whose approach to natural
philosophy is guided by principles and techniques from what the ancients called ta mechanika or he mechanike techne, 'the mechanical art'.12
First, then, the evidence that later natural philosophy was thought to
admit of three rather than two distinct approaches. When Galen claims,
in On the Natural Faculties, that there are two main approaches to natural
philosophy, he is focusing on the view of the nature of matter and not
on the style of explanation. The difference, in his view, depends on
whether matter is taken to be unified and thus capable of acting and
being affected throughout (Nat Fac II27).13 This is one of the central ways
Aristotle distinguishes his view from the atomists: in his view, there is
no underlying substrate at which qualitative alterations turn out to be
mere rearrangement of smallest parts so as to produce apparent qualitative change at the macroscopic level. For Aristotle, as for Galen, qualitative change occurs throughout and matter does not resolve, at the
microscopic level, into discrete smallest parts of matter. The atomists, by
contrast, think that, at a microscopic level, all change involves the
rearrangement of atoms that are otherwise unchangeable.
Galen initially presents these two approaches to the nature of matter
as definitive of the two main sects of philosophers and doctors alike.
Moreover, he suggests that this division on the nature of matter aligns
with a dichotomy between those who accept and those who deny the
role of Nature as artificer and caretaker (Nat Fac II 28). One sect try to
explain all effects by the interaction of the inert primary bodies; the other
take Nature to be a causal agent that has explanatory priority and is
responsible for the form and capacities of animals and plants. As a
doctor, Galen is primarily concerned with explaining the function of
living bodies: one of the focuses of debate, for him, is on explaining the
ability of different organs of the body to attract appropriate matter and
fluids to themselves and to repel foreign matter. This seems to Galen to
be a stumbling block for those who think organisms arise without design

12 Diogenes Laertms VIII 82-3; Aristotle APo 19, 76a24; 113 78b37; Plutarch Marcellus
13 References to Galen's work are to Khn volume and page number, and follow the
abbreviations in Appendix 2 of R.J. Hankinson, Galen On the Therapeutic Method
Books I and (Oxford: Clarendon 1991), 238-47.

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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 239

or by the rearrangement of unchanging particles: he thinks the functioning of organs in a body requires special powers, dunameis, that allow
bodies to act on one another qualitatively (e.g., Nat Fac II26-30). Nature's
foresight lies in providing us with these powers. These powers are not
distinct ingredients: ascribing to an organ a power for something merely
means that the organ is able to perform that function (QAM IV 769-70).14
Nature's ability to change material qualitatively is required to provide
each organ with its powers; these powers do not admit analysis into
nonqualitative, structural properties. Organs have their own particular
homoiomerous matter,15 so that fashioning a brain or heart involves
transforming matter qualitatively to give it the natural powers of that
organ. They cannot be specified nonteleologically, i.e., in terms of material properties that do not make reference to the function of the organ in
Galen thinks he can show empirically that the rival approaches are
inadequate; the lack of adequate alternative legitimates his hypothesis
of powers as primitives. Galen's opponents try to explain the phenomena by structural properties only, without acquiring qualitatively different powers. As well as minor disagreements over which phenomena
require positive explanatory resources,16 arguments that go to the heart
of the matter concern the kinds of explanatory resources required. A
general way to characterize the solutions Galen rejects is that they
depend on the structure and arrangement of the parts of the body, not
on explanatorily primitive powers. More specifically, the techniques
used parallel those found in the Hellenistic Pneumatica treatises.17
One attempt to explain organic functioning without powers hypothesizes that passageways, poroi, are the key explanatory device for the
movement of fluids in the body (Nat Fac II 80-1). Presumably this

14 Hankinson notes Galen's awareness of the problem of 'Moliere explanation' in

positing powers: Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought (Oxford: Clarendon
1998), 373-403.
15 Or in some cases are composed from more than one homoiomer (Nat Fac 13).
16 For example, Galen thinks that certain drugs have powers to extract embedded
objects from flesh; his opponents claim that the drugs merely reduce the inflammation so that the foreign body comes out automatically (Nat Fac 54).
17 The connection noted in Diels, ' ber das physikalische System', has been explored
more thoroughly since: see below
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240 Sylvia Bern/man

approach relies on the size and placing of passageways to explain

unusual movement of fluids. Another passage cites the use of filters to
separate out the fluids: one of Galen's opponents tries to show how urine
is separated from the blood by means of a sieve-like part (Nat Fac II57-8).
Another indicates that the situation of the organ vis--vis the relevant
vapours is taken to be explanatory, given the natural tendency of vapours to rise (Nat Fac II33). These explanations depend on the shape and
position of the parts involved. Although this is not so obvious, the
approach which relies on the 'refilling of emptied spaces' a favourite
target of Galen's also depends on structural properties. The tendency
of spaces to refill automatically can only explain refilling if the vessels
are sufficiently robust that matter must flow in rather than the vessels
collapse. Galen sees both that his rivals need to posit vessels of fixed
dimensions, overlooking the possibility that veins could collapse; and
that they cannot use this technique to explain, say, a case where vessels
expand as a result of overfilling.18 These explanations of the fluid dynamics of the body the use of the positioning of siphons, pipes and
vessels, and the use of the 'refilling of emptied spaces' to explain the flow
of fluids draw on techniques and the explanatory principles found in
ancient pneumatics.
Other scholars have noted evidence of even more marked use of mechanical technology to understand the functioning of organisms. Lonie
noted that Erasistratus' account of the heart closely parallels the water
pump invented by Ctesibius.19 This parallel supports other indications in

18 Nflf Fac II64,75-76,95 For an excellent overview of this debate, see David J Furley
and J.S. Wilkie, Galen on Respiration and the Arteries Edition with English translation
and commentary of De usu respirahonis, An in arteriis natura sanguis contmeatur,
De usu pulsuum, and De causis respirationis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press 1984), 32-9. There is more to explaining why matter refills empty or emptier
spaces: see David Furley, 'Strata's Theory of Void', Cosmic Problems Essays on Creek
and Roman Philosophy of Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press 1989)
149-60; David Sedley, Thiloponus' Conception of Space', in Richard Sorabji, ed.,
Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (London: Gerald Duckworth and
Co. 1987) 140-153; J.T. Vallance, The Lost Theory of Asclepiades of Bythma (Oxford.
Clarendon 1990); also my 'Horror Vacui in the Third Century BCE: When is a Theory
not a Theory?', in Richard Sorabji, ed., Aristotle and After, BICS s.v. II (1997) 147-57.
19 Lonie, 'Paradoxical Text'; developed further by von Staden, Teleology and Mechanism'; 'Body and Machine'; 'Andreas de Caryste et Philon de Byzance: medecine et
mecanique Alexandrie', in Gilbert Argoud and Jean-Yves Guillaumin, eds., Sei-

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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 241

Galen's work that Erasistratus was interested in conceptions of the organism that might explain fluid dynamics by analogy to techniques available
in pneumatics. Von Staden has pointed to a number of linguistic parallels
between the surgical device of Andreas of Carystus and the war machinery of Philo of Byzantium: he argues that these similarities show that third
century authors saw the body in mechanized terms.20
Galen sometimes takes the reliance on structural properties and the
rejection of special powers in a theory to align with the question whether
there is design in nature: he takes the presence of special powers to show
Nature's forethought in providing organs with the means of attracting
specific fluids and repelling foreign matter. Some of Galen's opponents
are accused of seeking to explain everything by the impulses of matter
alone, bereft of craft or forethought.21 However, this alignment does not
always hold. Erasistratus is among those criticized for denying attraction, yet as von Staden has emphasized he is said to take Nature to
be craftsmanly.22 This is at first presented by Galen as a lapse of consistency on the part of Erasistratus.23 However, other passages show that
Galen recognizes a coherent third approach. Rather than viewing Erasistratus' position as a fusion of sorts, it is worth considering whether he
should better be seen as representing a third approach, which is motivated rather differently from either position in the traditional dichotomy
of 'mechanistic' and teleological approaches.

ences exactes et sciences appliquees Alexandrie (Saint-Etienne: Publications de 1'Universite de Saint-Etienne 1998) 147-72; cf. also Longrigg, Greek Rational Medicine:
Philosophy and Medicine from Alcmaeon to the Alexandrians (London: Routledge 1993),
207-9; Vallance, Asclepiades, 71. Longrigg is more sceptical, noting that the parallel
between heart and pump is imperfect: Creek Rational Medicine, 208. I thank Mark
Schiefsky for references
20 von Staden, 'Andreas et Philon', 163: he sees the cross-fertilization of ideas between
mechanics and medicine as working in both directions. Erasistratus' system has
been called 'mechanical' in other senses, e.g., Furley and Wilkie, Galen on Respiration,
32; perhaps Diels, ' ber das physikalische System', 106.
21 , Nat Fac II 80.
22 technike, Nat Fac II81. See von Staden, Teleology and Mechanism', 187-8.
23 For the extent to which Galen's criticisms of his rivals focus on the degree of
commitment to teleological explanation, see von Staden, Teleology and Mechanism', Hankinson, 'Galen and the Best of all Possible Worlds'.
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242 Sylvia Berryman

Galen distinguishes two different ways in which Nature could be

taken to be a designer. In one way that which Galen is arguing for
Nature has abilities not available to human craftsmen.24 These include
the abilities to rum blood into bone or flesh or marrow; that is, to effect
qualitative change rather than mere reshaping of unchanging parts, and
to make tissues with special powers that are not functions of their
shaping. The other is to think of Nature as rather like a human sculptor
reshaping wax but unable to alter its inner nature. The issue is not only
about the existence of design in nature, but also the kinds of techniques
available to Nature in designing organisms. While Galen talks about the
techniques of the sculptor, his criticisms would seem to apply equally to
the ancient mechanic or constructor of pneumatic devices. Explanation
in terms of the fashioning of passageways, however cunningly contrived, is in Galen's eyes inadequate. This approach makes Nature like
a sculptor who can only decorate and mould the outside of a statue, but
leaves the interior unaffected (Nat Fac IIS2).25 It seems that some theorists
allow the possibility of design, but deny qualitative alteration. The battle
isn't here about the existence of design, but about the different ways that
Nature might be taken to craft matter to its purposes. In Galen's eyes,
the techniques of the sculptor won't do.
Galen tells us more about this in his account of the development of
the foetus, where he contrasts his own view with two distinct alternative
explanations (Form Foet IV 688-9). The atomists attempt to account for
generation from completely purposeless motion, an account whose inadequacies Galen takes to be manifest and sufficiently shown elsewhere.
But he considers more seriously the idea that organisms function in the
same manner as thaumata, theatrical devices:
Such is the argument of Epicurus and those who hold that everything
happens without design; but this is not convincing. It would then be
necessary either that the construction of the foetus moves towards the
accomplishment of an excellent purpose without the aid of reason or
design, or that what happens is like the case of those who engineer

24 Mixture throughout ' belongs to God and nature: Temp 1563.

25 Socrates contrasts the abilities of human and divine artisans on precisely this point
at Graf 432B. I thank Rachel Barney for the reference.

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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 243

theatrical devices ( ): they provide the

first impetus of the motion and then depart, so that their devices
continue to move by design () for a short space of time.
It could be that in the same way the gods, once they have constructed
the seeds of plants or animals in such a way as to be able to perform
this enormous transmission of motions, no longer act themselves .. ,26

In contrast to atomism's implausible claim that the regular development

of organisms can be accounted for without design, this school take the
role of the gods to be, not that of guiding organic development on an
ongoing basis, but rather that of designing a device that can run for a
time unassisted. They draw a comparison to theatrical devices that are
constructed so that they will continue to move once their maker has
departed: the puppet-master provides the origin of motion, then disappears.
The suggestion Galen considers is that the gods have constructed
seeds of plants and animals so that they continue to operate on their own
for some time without constant intervention from the gods. The sequence of motions is an automatic result of the design of the device,
where 'automatic' means that no further agency or deliberative powers
are involved. The hypothesis, then, is that something can be designed so
that a sequence of causes and effects follow, one from another, in a
manner that is intended by the designer and controlled, as it unfolds,
purely by the prearranged construction. This hypothesis, he thinks, isn't
as ludicrous as the atomist theory that a random process could produce
well-designed forms that reliably reproduce themselves. In another
work he indeed takes it rather seriously, comparing the workings of
devices designed to imitate the motion of the planets to the succession
of motions in organisms. Organisms, like planetary models, are designed
to work without need of an overseer (epistates, UP TV 156-7).
While Galen makes limited use of the comparison to human technology, he does not take it to suffice. In On the Usefulness of the Parts, he
compares organisms to planetary models. The comparison is offered to
legitimate the idea that parts can be designed to run by themselves
without supervision, and thus to deny that they need minds of their own.

26 Translation by Singer: P.M. Singer, ed., Galen Selected Works, Translated with an
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244 Sylvia Bern/man

In On the Formation of the Embryo, he ultimately rejects the idea that the
techniques used by those constructing devices could be adequate as a
point of comparison, because the sequence of motions could not be made
sufficiently technike by a nonrational substance (Foet Form IV 689). The
term technike is used by Galen to describe Nature's particular ability to
make materials with the powers to produce the needed effects. He seems
to doubt that a series of local motions such as those used in human
manufacture could be sufficiently responsive and artistic technike
to account for the abilities of organisms.
The case of the development of the organism how parts of a foetus
can grow into more complex parts with the appropriate capacities is
only a more difficult case of a general problem. The same criticisms of
the technological comparison hold in the case of the functioning of a
developed organism: in both cases, the reshaping of material is insufficient to explain its powers. Galen thinks that a pre-established sequence
of cause-and-effect is inadequate to produce the technike responses of
organisms however we are to understand this term even while he
hesitates to credit parts of organisms with deliberative capacities. Some
doctors credit each muscle with conscious awareness, but both here and
in On the Useilness of the Parts, Galen rejects this idea. He thinks that
muscles are capable of technike response in a manner impossible to inert
matter, yet they do not themselves exercise the judgement associated
with art.
This is of a piece with Galen's notion of the special powers granted
by Nature to organs to perform their special functions, powers that
cannot be produced by mere rearrangements. These powers somehow
convey a selectivity to the organ, of a kind that could not be produced
by the techniques of a mechanic. This position seems to be motivated
less by a limited view of the capacities of devices and more by the notion
he shares with Aristotle, a notion that powers dependent on qualitative
changes are different in kind from those produced by structural changes,
and cannot be replaced by the latter. While he grants that there are
artificial devices displaying complex sequences of motions, Galen rejects
the claim that the techniques of the mechanikoi could illustrate how
Nature makes parts of an organism with powers suitable to their functions. Organs may not have minds of their own, but they have powers
that art cannot reproduce.
As Galen is rejecting a comparison to theatrical devices, it would be
helpful to know what kinds of devices were available. The thaumata here
are, I think, quite different from, say, the marionette (thauma) to which
to youascribed
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Plato compares us (Laws 644E) or animated statuesBrought
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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 245

Hephaestus or Daedalus.27 A surviving text by Hero of Alexandria, Peri

Automatopoietikes, describes the kinds of theatrical devices that were
available in Galen's time.28 Hero's designs include a simple 'robot', a
little cart on wheels designed to start and stop moving T?y itself, i.e.,
without ongoing intervention by an agent. The device is operated by a
falling weight attached to a rope, which passes over pulleys and descends to wrap around the axle. As the weight falls, the rope is pulled
and unwinds the axle, making the device roll until the weight comes to
rest, at which point it stops. The fall of the weight is slowed because it
rests on a bed of millet. The robot is in fact a little silo on wheels, with
an upper and a lower chamber separated by a trap door: as the millet
trickles down once the trap door is opened, the weight falls. The operator
can open the trap door ahead of time, and the time lag before the device
starts moving means that he is not directly manipulating the device
indeed, he can be out of sight at the time when the device begins to
move. Hero gives other indications as to how to sustain the impression
that the device runs *by itself and how by winding the rope in
different patterns more complex back and forth movements can be
programmed in advance.29
Hero's theatrical devices are designed so that a succession of motions
unfolds according to the design established beforehand by the builder.
This is important: the device does not merely continue in a single kind
of morion On its own', like an arrow in flight, but is so constructed that
one kind of motion gives rise to another, and in turn to another: the
downward fall of a lead weight is translated into the pull of the rope, the
unwinding of the axle, and the motion of the wheels. Moreover, the
construction is such that, once the process has begun, the sequence of
causes continues automatically, without further intervention by an
agent. The device is constructed so as to seem, to an uninformed observer, as if it is stopping and starting of its own volition.
There is evidence, then, that some doctors' investigation of the functioning of organisms was informed by a comparison to the workings of
constructed devices. The engineers mechanikoi of Hellenistic times

27 I argue this in 'Ancient Automata and Mechanical Explanation', in progress.

28 A work ascribed to Hero can be dated to 62CE: see A.G. Drachmann, The Mechanical
Technology of Greek and Roman Antiquity (Copenhagen Munksgaard 1963), 12.
29 Auf 354-62 (Schmidt)

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246 Sylvia Bern/man

made sophisticated devices using pipes, valves, pulleys, wheels, siphons, ropes, weights.30 These sorts of contrivances seem to answer to
the description found in Galen of devices that run unassisted. The sense
in which it is fair to characterize such an account of organisms with the
modem term 'mechanistic' is that explanations of natural things rely on
the kinds of techniques available from 'the mechanical art' of the time
period in question. This usage is independent of modern assumptions
about the contents a 'mechanistic' view should have: what kinds of
properties it should attribute to matter or what kinds of laws of motion
it should endorse. Rather, it implies only that an account uses only the
techniques of mechanics ta mechanikahowever they are understood.
The attempt to rely systematically on techniques of the mechanics to
explain organisms is different from the piecemeal use of such techniques
within a ideological programme. Galen does not doubt the craftsman's
ability to build devices that help illuminate the cause-and-effect workings of organisms: he uses such comparisons himself. Technological
comparisons are common: for example, he compares the point of attachment of tendons to the technique used in marionettes (UP III 48,262), in
order to show that Nature designed us well. Comparisons to the joinery
found in pulleys and pivots appear in descriptions of the articulation of
joints (Mot Muse IV 410); the spine is compared to a keel (UP III 179; IV,
42), the skull to a helmet (UP III 661), the articulation of connecting bones
to the meshing of two serrated saws (UP III 689). He writes favourably
of the well-tested methods of the 'architect' (Pecc Dig V 99-100),31 a
discipline that includes mechanics and pneumatics,32 and endorses the
kinds of demonstrations made by 'architects' using devices for predicting eclipses and constructing various mechanical and pneumatic devices
(Pecc Dig V 68-9; Lib Prop XIX 40).33

30 On the classification of pneumatics among the branches of mechanics, see Pappus

Collectio VIII1.
31 Cf. also Aff Dig V 42. Jim Hankinson noted in correspondence that Galen's father,
whom he admired greatly, was an architect
32 See, e.g., Vitruvius de Arch; Galen Pecc Dig V 68-9; Lib Prop XIX 40.
33 The use of models of celestial motions involves rather different issues than the
comparison between mechanical devices and organisms, on their different histories,
see Derek J. de Solla Price, 'Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy', Technology and Culture 5 (1964) 9-23 Brought to you by | UNAM
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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 247

Galen does not object to the use of methods from the sciences. Nor
does he reject the comparison to devices or to the techniques used in
constructing them, if it is made in order to exhibit the skill and
forethought of Nature's designs. The architect, after all, might be
imitating nature (UP III 561). What he rejects is the idea that the kinds
of techniques available to human craftsmen, who like the sculptor can
only reshape and position materials without changing their nature,
could adequately account for natural processes and obviate the need
for powers. His continued emphasis on the need for qualitative transformation and special powers, then, aligns with his rejection of the
idea that the techniques available from human technology pneumatics and mechanics could be adequate. Galen even concedes that
organisms are like devices in operating by themselves without minds
(UP IV 156-7); but they are unJike devices in that their powers require
more than mere rearrangement of materials. The techniques of the
craftsmen won't do.
This point is brought home most vividly in a passage where Galen
might seem to be endorsing a 'mechanical' account of the parts of the
body.34 In de Usu Partium, he compares the distinct organs of the body
to the self-moving constructions of Hephaestus in Iliad 18,414ff., which
tells of bellows that work themselves, golden handmaidens and tripods
that enter the assembly of the gods by themselves. Galen calls these
creations autokineta (UP III 268), which seems to suggest that each part
of the body is analogously capable of self-starting. These creations,
however, are not examples of mechanical technology of the techniques available to human craftsmen but require the special power
of the god. Although Galen says that the construction of the devices
(kataskeue, UP III 268) is important, he thinks that they are not mechanically contrived but have been given divine powers.35 Although he
compares the coordinated functioning of parts of the body to a city,36

34 Lonie, 'Hippocrates the latromechanist', 125n29, cites this passage as evidence of

teleology fostering the idea that organisms can be understood to work like automata.
35 Hankinson suggests that the rejection of mechanism is that it cannot Tie supplied
with a detailed account of the sort of cybernetic, feedback processes that can allow
mechanism to mimic intentionality': Cause and Explanation, 390.
36 A comparison Aristotle uses (MA 10): on the prevalenceBrought
of the political
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248 Sylvia Bern/man

he does not think of the parts of the body as intelligent individuals,

so much as parts serving a purpose. In the analogous case, the bellows
are executing the will of their master, while the handmaidens seem to
be responding to the god's movements even as they move themselves.37
This passage only shows how far Galen's view of the natural powers
stands from technological devices: he uses as his analogue not the
devices built by human art, but a mythical account of animistic creation
by a god.
Another text confirms the suggestion that Galen's criticism of the
comparison to the functioning of puppets involves the rejection of the
idea that merely external shaping rearrangement of parts rather
than qualitative change could be adequate. In de Semine, he rejects
Aristotle's view that the seed merely starts a series of movements in the
menstrual blood and departs, leaving no material contribution. Galen is
trying to show that the contributions from both parents, the seed and the
blood, each supply both matter and powers to the resulting embryo; his
immediate target is the idea that merely instigating a series of motions,
kineseis, would be sufficient. He accuses Aristotle of treating the seed
merely as the beginning of motion, just as in puppets (thaumata), which,
because of their construction (kataskeue), need only such an initial motion
to keep going for some time. Galen's objection is that qualitative alteration and not merely local motion is needed in order for organs to acquire
the power of attracting their proper fluids and repelling foreign matter
(Sem I 5). In his view, as seen above, the merely structural arrangements
used by some of his rivals to explain fluid dynamics are inadequate.
Galen seems to be misunderstanding Aristotle, who surely does not
intend to exclude qualitative alteration, and who uses kinesis as a general
term for all kinds of change, including qualitative transformation. However, the objection is helpful in showing how Galen understands the
problem with the comparison to automata as it is used in his own day.
Aristotle draws a comparison to what happens in automatic puppets (en

for natural order, see G.E R. Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy (New York Cambridge
University Press 1966).
37 )
(UP , 268; cf. // 18, 419-20). J.D. Bruce notes that they are intelligent:
'Human Automata in Classical Tradition and Mediaeval Romance', Modern Philology 10 (1913) 511-26,512.

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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 249

fois automatons thaumasi, GA II 5, 741b9; II1, 734bll). Aristotle is merely

trying to say that causation is transitive: A moves B, B moves C, so that
even though the first mover may no longer be in contact, A can be said
to move C. His point is to allow that in generation the male seed could
be said to act on the maternal blood even when it is no longer materially
present. In automatic puppets, something external sets the first part in
motion and this in rum moves the next part; analogously, the seed
originates changes further along a sequence even when it is no longer
materially present. The seed is composed of a unique material, pneuma,
which enables it to perform this special task. Galen resists the analogy
because he takes the kineseis to mean local motions only, as indeed would
be the case in puppets. This was not Aristotle's point, but it does seem
to be how the comparison to automata was used in Galen's time.
It should not be surprising that comparisons to automatic devices in
Galen's day are used to make a more significant point than that made by
Aristotle, given that the technology available had advanced in the intervening years. What is perhaps striking is that the comparison to these
devices leads to a new position in conceptual space, a third explanatory
option. This is a comparison to automatic devices that Aristotle does not
consider: that the kinds of techniques available for the construction of
automatic devices the techniques of the 'mechanical art' might be
sufficient to explain the functioning of organisms.38 Aristotle does not
offer an account in terms of the structure of the organism: rather, at the
crucial point, he introduces a theoretical material with the necessary
powers.39 Aristotle may use analogies to automatic puppets, but he
ultimately rejects a 'mechanistic' understanding of organisms.40
This is not to deny that Aristotle uses comparisons to technology, and
often provides 'mechanisms' or instrumental explanations in his accounts of organisms. But Galen is, I suggest, right to think that Aristotle

38 His point at Politics 13,1253b33 is to reject this possibility.

39 The same move occurs in his other comparison of organisms to automatic puppets
in MA: I argue this in 'Aristotle on pneuma and animal self-motion', Oxford Studies
in Ancient Philosophy 23 (2002) 85-97.
40 The point that these are not the same is well made by Des Chene in his discussion
of Descartes' use of machine analogy: Spirits and Clocks. Machine and Organism m
Descartes (Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press 2001), 14. Use of the term mechane
does not imply a mechanistic conception: cf Aristotle, Metaph
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250 Sylvia Bern/man

would not countenance the view that structural arrangements of the

material the kinds of techniques available to human craftsmen
would suffice to explain the workings of organisms. It seems, then, that
while Aristotle and Erasistratus may be alike in the sense that they both
accept teleology and acknowledge its limitations, the differences between them are more significant. Von Staden emphasizes the continuities between Aristotle and Erasistratus, in that both accept limitations to
teleological explanation and offer material explanations.41 However, if
concessions toward nonteleological explanations qualify a view as a
fusion, the latter category may be too large and heterogenous to be
diagnostically useful. Even Galen, after all, uses technological examples
freely to illustrate Nature's design.
There is a real difference here between the piecemeal use of techniques
from technology and the idea that organisms work entirely like mechanical devices.42 'Mechanistic', like 'materialist', seems to be one of those
terms implying a restriction, i.e., that the bearer uses only certain kinds
of means. I want to suggest that, rather than thinking of the latter as one
of several approaches combining teleology and ideas from the materialists, this systematic use of technological parallels constitutes a distinct,
third alternative. This third approach is motivated rather differently,
taking its impetus from the kinds of techniques seen to work in the
technology of the day.43 The focus shifts away from the older questions
about the need for design or whether forms are eternal, and onto questions about the kinds of techniques required to explain specific functions
within the organism. The method of investigation is delimited by the
comparison to techniques seen at work in constructed devices rather
than by a priori ideas about the way Nature works or the imperceptible
substructure of matter.
While it is to the atomists, of all ancient theories, that the term
'mechanistic' is most often applied today, I suggest that the more appropriate application of the term is to those who use techniques from 'the
mechanical art' to understand natural things. Although the minimalist

41 Teleology and Mechanism', 207 However, this alone would not distinguish him
from Galen: see Hankinson, Cause and Explanation, 388-91.
42 See Des Chene, Spirits and Clocks, 14
43 The criticisms of Erasistratus by Anonymous Londinensis rely on effects outside the
body, i.e., in inanimate things ( , 20; XXVI44,51;
XXVII1 (Jones).
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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 251

program of the ancient atomists seems to have much in common with

the metaphysics of seventeenth-century mechanical philosophers, there
are many different ideas associated with the modem term 'mechanistic'
as a description of a metaphysical theory of the nature of matter and
motion. It is too easy to lose sight of the real differences between ancient
and modern physicalist theories. As scholars have warned, the current
usage carries with it a real danger of anachronism in importing seventeenth-century ideas about the motivation of atomism and what counts
as 'properties of body as such'. It leads too readily to assumptions like
that Balme questions, that the atomists share seventeenth-century views
on, say, inertia.44 But the modem term 'mechanistic' would have an
application to ancient thought if it is taken to mean only that the
techniques of the mechanics of the day are used to understand the
functioning of natural things.
I suggest that the different approaches to explanation of organisms in
Galen's day are best understood in terms of these three main options.
Atomists take rearrangement of unchanging smallest parts to be the only
real change, and reject all forms of teleological explanation in favour of
contact-action of smallest parts. The presence of functioning complexes
is a chance result of the contact-action of unchanging smallest parts
moving in a void. Some teleologists take this to be inadequate to account
for organic functions: they take qualitatively different powers to be
explanatorily basic and indispensible; structural rearrangements of parts
are inadequate to the phenomena, which requires organs to have actively
selective powers in order to ensure their own proper functions. These
are the means by which nature's providential care is realized on an
ongoing basis. Mechanists take the development of complex artifacts to
show that a complex can be constructed so that a sequence of necessary
physical interactions can regularly perform a given function. The effects
realized in constructed devices indicate that the apparently unique
functioning of organisms is not in fact different in kind from that of
inanimate things, and that structural rearrangement of parts can explain
organic functions without positing explanatorily basic powers. The ability of artifacts to simulate the functions thought to be unique to organisms rather than metaphysically grounded commitments to
theoretical primitives guides the choice of means used in explana-

44 Balme, 'Greek Science and Mechanism

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252 Sylvia Bern/man

tion.^ The idea that the construction of a complex explains its ability to
realize beneficial functions via a sequence of necessary causal interactions does not exclude the idea that the complex is designed: the function,
not the origin of the complex, are at issue.
Galen's 'third school' try to employ the kinds of devices that can be
constructed merely by reshaping the material to explain the functioning
of human beings. His trichotomy in fact echoes Robert Boyle's understanding of the explanatory approaches available in the seventeenth
century.46 Boyle, who is interested in ancient philosophy and medicine,
presents a rather Galenic reading of the prevailing 'Aristotelian' approach to teleology. Boyle is concerned that the idea of Nature's constant
forethought seems to impute mind to Nature, or at least the idea of an
immanent guide capable of constant intervention and direction of natural processes towards their goal. The alternatives to this immanent
teleology are, in Boyle's eyes, two: the atomist attempt to leave out
design altogether, and the mechanical philosophy. This third approach
does not deny that there is design in nature, but takes the designer to
have built a world that works unassisted, like a machine.47
I have been suggesting that, in ancient natural philosophy, there is
evidence of not two but three distinct approaches to explanation. I also
suggest that the third alternative has a claim to be called 'mechanistic'.
Besides those ideologists who posit irreducible differences in kind between different substances, and the atomists, who take all change to be
reducible to the rearrangement of smallest parts and all macroscopic
structures to occur without design, a third school take natural things to
work by means analogous to the techniques of 'the mechanical art'. The
evidence in Galen suggests that interactions between mechanics, philosophy and medicine in the period after Aristotle opened up a new
conceptual approach, one whose motivation was different in kind from
that of ancient atomism. Some doctors looked to the available mechani-

45 I argue that the heuristic use of this comparison to existing technology can function
ahead of theoretical understanding of mechanics: 'Ancient Automata and Mechanical Explanation', in preparation.
46 On his reputation as a leading representative of the mechanical philosophy, see
Marie Boas Hall, The Mechanical Philosophy (New York: Amo Press 1981)
47 Robert Boyle, A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, Edward B.
Davis and Michael Hunter, eds., (New York: Cambridge
University Press 1996).
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Galen and the Mechanical Philosophy 253

cal technology as a model for understanding the causal processes in

organisms. This, I claim, constitutes a distinct approach to explanation,
in the late ancient as well as the modem world.48
Department of Philosophy
230 North Oval Mall
The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH 43210

48 This paper was written during a period of generous support from Center for
Hellenic Studies and The Ohio State University. I am grateful to Jim Hankinson,
who first introduced me to Galen, to Sean Kelsey, Paul Keyser, Tim O'Keefe and the
anonymous reviewer for searching comments and criticisms on earlier versions of
this paper. All errors are of course my own.
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