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Whytt and the Idea of Power

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Physiological Evidence as a Challenge to the Eighteenth-Century Criticism of the Notion of Power

In An Essay on the Vital and Involuntary Motions of Animals, Robert Whytt maintained that the muscular motions that perform the natural functions of the organism are caused by an immaterial power. Here we consider to what extent the philosophical criticism of power urged by Locke and Hume may jeopardize his thesis, how his response mobilizes the resources of the Scottish experimental theism and whether he makes an original use of such resources. First, we examine various pieces of experimental evidence from which Whytt infers the need to evoke this power, before showing how they prompt him to stand by the immaterial power in the face of the empiricist criticisms. Following this, we explore the link Whytt makes between power and agency, in particular comparing his thought with Locke’s. Lastly, we examine his work in the light of Hume’s criticism regarding the question of whether a power may be felt.

Affiliations: 1: University of Paris X (Paris-Nanterre-La Defense)


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