Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities - Alexander von Humboldt Professorship


From “Animal” to “Man”

The medical and philosophical debate on human intelligence and animal perceptual faculties between Aristotelianism, Cartesianism and Post-Cartesianism (16th–18th centuries)

International Conference

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

September 27th-28th, 2012

Organised in cooperation between the AvH-Professur “Medicine of the Mind, Philosophy of the Body” and the ANR Philomed Project “La refonte de l’homme: découvertes médicales et anthropologie philosophique”.

Theme and aims of the conference

This international conference will focus on the rise of the medical and philosophical debate on the differences, analogies, and specificities of human and animal intelligence and sensibility in the early modern age (from the sixteenth to the first half of the eighteenth century). It is in this period that the new anatomical investigations of the brain and the nervous system along with a renewed interest in comparative anatomy allowed doctors and philosophers to ground their theories on sense perception, the emergence of human intelligence, and the ‘soul/body relationship’ on a ‘scientific’ basis by investigating the anatomical structures and the physiological processes that underlie the rise, differentiation and articulation of the human cognitive activities, and by looking for the ‘anatomical roots’ of the specificity of human intelligence when compared to the other forms of animal sensibility.

Already in ancient times such a field of investigation is widely explored by Aristotle, whose zoological works testify to his intention to establish a comprehensive ‘scientific’ discourse on the animal life by means of a systematic comparison of the structures and the functions observable in a huge varieties of species. But it becomes absolutely prominent in the sixteenth century thanks to the revival of the Aristotelian zoology prompted by the medical faculties of the Italian universities of Padua, Pisa, Bologna. For it is in full accordance with the teachings of Aristotle that a ‘medical Aristotelianism’ developed in these Universities, and that doctors and anatomists like Fabrici d’Aquapendente and William Harvey established the methodologies as well as the theoretical premises and the ‘research aims’ of the extensive practice of comparative anatomy in which they were involved.

But the same massive use of a comparative approach in order to account for both the phenomenon of animal sensibility and the specificity of human intelligence is to be found also in Descartes (see the Traité de l’homme) and Cartesianism (also in its medical version of Iatromechanism), although in an openly anti-Aristotelian perspective. It is thus clear that a serious attempt to shed new light on what we may call “the anatomizing of sensibility and intelligence” in the Modern Age cannot be done without taking into serious consideration the manner in which a variety of medical and philosophical representations of man as the ‘rational animal’ par excellence took inspiration from, interacted with and, in some cases, reacted to the Aristotelian and the Galenic traditions, so providing an excellent case study of ‘essential tension’ between reception, transmission and reinvention of the tradition, on one side, and its criticism and ultimate rejection, on the other side.

The conference will present contributions shedding fresh light on early modern authors and texts (both medical and philosophical) that address the question of intelligence and sensibility in man as equated/opposed to, or distinguished from animal forms of intelligence and sensibility, by making use of various forms of comparative approach (first of all, of comparative anatomy) as a heuristic/methodological/theoretical/rhetorical tool, and by explicitly or implicitly adopting strategies of reception and reinvention, or of polemical rejection of, the Aristotelian tradition.

If you wish to participate, please fill out the registration form (MS Word file) and email it to Ms Stefanie Jahnke ( no later than September 20, 2012. There are no conference fees.

Please click here to see the conference programme (pdf file).

A list of options for accommodation, food, and travel is available here (pdf file).

For further inquiries, please contact the organiser:
Dr Roberto Lo Presti (