Herophilus on the (in)visibility of respiration

Abstract

Herophilus of Chalcedon’s paramount advancements in the fields of anatomy and physiology are hailed as revolutionary not only in regard to their content, but also in regard to the methodology that made them possible. Concerning this latter point, later sources concur in attributing to Herophilus the use of human dissection (and possibly even of vivisection) for research purposes, an unprecedented practice that seems to have been abandoned and then systematically retrieved only in the sixteenth century by Leonardo da Vinci and Vesalius. Herophilus’ audacity in the field of anatomical inquiry was nevertheless accompanied by a rather cautious approach to aetiology. “Let the appearances be described first, even though they are not primary” (An. Lond., XXI., 22-3): the medical practitioner must rely on what is visible, even though what is visible is not necessarily sufficient to an exhaustive comprehension of physiological phenomena, nor is it always at one’s disposal. Such a tension between the visible and the invisible, the perceptible and the imperceptible, lies at the very basis of Herophilus’ inquiry of the human body, extraordinarily lucid in defining its own limits. Through this article I propose to focus on the particular case of respiration, subject of the chapter of the Aëtian Placita known under the title Περὶ ἀναπνοῆς, as an example of the Herophilean reflection about the theoretic observability of phenomena that, far from being marginal or occasional, deserves to be recognised as a fundamental part of his epistemology

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