Catherine Packham, Eighteenth-Century Vitalism

Catherine Packham, Eighteenth-Century Vitalism: Bodies, Culture, Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 264pp. Hb £50.00. ISBN 9780230276185.

In Eighteenth-Century Vitalism, Catherine Packham considers, in a wider context, a theory of life that is most strongly associated with Romantic-era medicine: the existence of a 'vital principle'. Packham also denies Romantic claims of the earlier century’s mechanistic view of nature, arguing instead that the supposition of a power or force that animated organic life became central to a new understanding of nature in the eighteenth century (2).

Previous criticism on vitalism has focused mainly on the 'vitality debate' of the 1810s, which saw London surgeons William Lawrence and John Abernethy in vehement and public opposition over the supposition of this power or principle: Lawrence’s assertion that medullary substance – the matter of the brain – could be capable of thought invited accusations of materialism and of denying the existence of the human soul. Lawrence was publicly criticised in the periodical press by religious conservatives, suspended from his position at Bridewell and Bethlem hospital, and forced to write a letter of retraction. Sharon Ruston’s Shelley and Vitality tracks the influence of the debate, and the surgeons personally, on Percy Shelley’s writing.

However, Packham argues that the prevalence of vitalist thought and the tension between vitalism and alternative concepts of life began earlier. Over six chapters, she persuasively examines differing representations of the human body in Scottish physiology and the political repercussions of vitalism during the Enlightenment, and considers the use of a vitalist vocabulary in eighteenth-century literature, including Erasmus Darwin’s poetry and women’s writing of the 1790s. Packham also examines how concepts such as sensibility, sympathy, resuscitation, and the use of physiological metaphor to describe political systems, were all influenced by the idea of an unconscious animating force.

The opening chapter commences with an examination of a poem representing the search for self and the interest in the human subject that typifies the science, theology, and philosophy of the period. The tension between mechanistic and vitalist views of the body and the self are discussed as a key concern of the Scottish Enlightenment. The use of medical discourse in didactic poetry demonstrates the ways in which philosophical anxieties surface in literature in the eighteenth century, and the political and theological implications of a 'new vocabulary of animation' (31), used to discuss the self-regulation of the body, strongly supports the usefulness of a historicist method in the field of literature and science.

Chapter two examines the medicalization of sensibility, using Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to demonstrate the friction between the 'cult of sensibility' and its critics. The persuasive connections between vitalism, sensibility and sympathy made by Packham, including their mutual emergence in the period, demonstrate the ways in which the body was discussed as independent of the conscious mind. These concepts, conceived of as reflex, unconscious, and uncontrollable powers, invoke the body’s self-regulating power, a thread that runs through the first half of the book and neatly brings together discussions of sensibility, labour, politics, and nature.

The third chapter examines the labouring body in political economy, exploring the ways in which the body politic metaphor was subject to vitalist physiology in the eighteenth century. Packham argues that Smith’s Wealth of Nations portrays political economy based on these labouring bodies as vitalist in its ideal of 'self regulation' (88) guaranteeing its own health. Labour as a task required for a healthy body is also put forward by Smith. Chapter four examines John Hunter’s role in vitalist physiology and the search to differentiate between animated and unanimated matter in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Hunter’s work became the platform from which the vitality debate of the 1810s sprang; Abernethy, once his student, claimed he was privy to Hunter’s unwritten speculations on the vital force or principle, but the periodical press claimed his assertions were a misrepresentation of Hunter’s views. This chapter also examines resuscitation and its use in literature, and physiological metaphor in political discourse, as ways into discussions of how questions of the nature of life were 'circulating in unresolved, but powerful ways' (127) during the period.

In the fifth chapter, the book's focus turns to Erasmus Darwin, the figure perhaps best known by modern scholars for poetry and science in the late eighteenth century. Packham demonstrates how Darwin’s poetry can be described as both vitalist and materialist, collapsing the boundaries between these two opposing views (151-52). Darwin’s contemporary reception as a natural philosopher who wrote poetry also provides Packham with a perspective that is useful for the historicist literature and science scholar. The book finishes by examining women’s writing of the 1790s, and steps further into the Romantic period in chapter six by returning to the vitality debate and the text most often mentioned alongside the debate, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, Packham provides a fresh point of view by placing the text in Shelley's conscious setting of the story earlier in the century, rather than its own time, demonstrating the earlier arrival of vitalist theory.

The focus of this book is extensive, and Packham builds a comprehensive picture of the debate about the nature of life in the human subject in the Enlightenment period, grounding the work already done on the politics of Romantic vitalism in its wider context. This is a convincing examination of the prevalence of vitalist thought in medicine, literature, and political discourse in the eighteenth century. Packham thus presents the vitality debate in the light of earlier tensions between vitalism and materialism while maintaining the importance of the discussions of the 1810s.

Jessica Evans, University of Salford