The Overlooked History of Vegetal Life. From the Vegetative Soul to Metabolism in Early Modern Philosophy and Biomedicine

Project code: PN-III-P1-1.1-PD-2016-1496

Principal investigator: Dr. Fabrizio Baldassarri  —   (personal website)(academia)

Abstract. This research project aims to delve into a mostly overlooked topic of the history of philosophy and the history of sciences, the philosophical role attributed to vegetation for the understanding of life in early modern Europe. During the Renaissance and early modernity the questions concerning living beings became particularly controversial, as life phenomena difficultly matched the Scholastic interpretative programme attributing life to souls and spirits, and substantiating the academic knowledge of the epoch. From mechanical philosophy to alchemical traditions, alternative systems developed different interpretations of life, resulting in fiercest clashes without a clear and definite solution. Life apparently remained an undefinable, though crucial feature of philosophy and biomedicine. An innovative role within this controversial situation was provided by vegetal studies, as plants silently witnessed life in beings. This was not an untraditional claim, as the Scholastic tradition conceived life starting with the vegetative faculties of the soul. However, it is only during the 16th and 17th centuries that vegetal studies acquired a more crucial condition in this respect, as a change from the vegetative soul to metabolism characterized the biomedical revolution concerning life. While plants emerged as compelling items of knowledge – the Botanical Renaissance composed a relevant section of the naturalistic studies of the period through collecting and classifications of natural, vegetal diversities – a philosophical interpretation of plants as representing the minimal level of vitality led studies to important and fascinating attempts to redefine life. This project seeks to reconstruct this section of the history of vegetal life especially focusing on René Descartes’ and the Cartesian’s attempts. Related to the botanical and medical work in the United Provinces, an early modern vegetal philosophy emerges, resulting in a crucial philosophical interpretation of life.

Project development for 2018

Published or forthcoming papers:

  1. “Descartes’ Bio-Medical Study of Plants: Vegetative Activities, Soul, and Power”, in Early Science and Medicine, vol. 23/5-6, 2018, pp. 509-529.
  2. “I moti circolari nella meccanica della vita in Descartes: embriologia e nutrizione nella medicina e nella botanica”, in Physis: Rivista di Storia della scienza, 2018, forthcoming. [in Italian]
  3. “The Mechanical Life of Plants: Descartes on Botany”, in British Journal for the History of Science, forthcoming.

Fascicle of journal:

  1. 1. Manipulating Flora: Seventeenth-Century Botanical Practices and Natural Philosophy, ed. by F. Baldassarri, O. Matei, in Early Science and Medicine (Brill), vol. 23/5-6, Winter 2018. (Forthcoming.)

Book review:

  1.  G. Manning, C. Klestinec (eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine: Essays in Honor of Nancy Siraisi, Cham., Springer, 2017, on Gesnerus: Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Science, forthcoming, vol. 75/2 (2018).

Event organization:

  1. Session Organization for the History of Science Society (HSS) Annual Meeting, Seattle (US). 1-4 November 2018

Panel title: “Plants as Case Study in the History of Philosophy, Science, and Medicine”.


  1. Report Title: “Plants as Models in Early Modern Medicine: The Case of Jean Riolan the Younger, William Harvey, and Marcello Malpighi”, panel session: “Plants as Case Study in the History of Philosophy, Science, and Medicine” – Speaker at: HSS Annual Meeting. Seattle, Washington. November 1-4, 2018.
  2. Report Title: “A Green Thread from Galen to the Early Modern Medicine: The Analogy between Animals and Plants” (website) – Speaker at Galen and the Early Moderns, Ca’ Foscari University, Venice (Italy). Organized by Matteo Favaretti Camposampiero and Emanuela Scribano. October 25-26, 2018.

Scientific report for 2018