Oana Matei on Nehemiah Grew’s science of vegetation

In this seminar, Oana Matei presented her work-in-progress related to the way in which Nehemiah Grew planned to build a science of vegetation, with a focus of his “The Anatomy of Plants”. Oana advanced her provisional thesis that the aim of Grew’s book is to organize different processes of nature into theoretical layers, i.e. in a science of vegetation. Thus, we found out that, for, Grew, “digestion is instrumental to fermentation”, while “fermentation is subservient to vegetation”. These notions, alongside some more details on the way that Grew speaks of generation and motion, gave rise to a discussion on the proper terms that we should use in relation to Grew. Some of us tended to see him as a serious experimentalist (indicating possible connection with Robert Hooke or the medical circle to which Grew belonged), while others emphasized  the vitalistic tone of some of his phrases, or even the bits that rather belong to a mechanical philosophy.

In this context, a number of interesting questions were put on the table. Are some of Grew’s notions of Helmontian influence? In which sense does Grew use the notion of „principles” (Nitrous, Acid, Alkaline, Marine, but he also claims that the atoms are „principles”)? Are they more than mere posits? Why did Grew write an anatomy of plants? To which theoretical level does the anatomy belong? Is Grew part of a larger discussion about the merits of the Ancients vs. the merits of the moderns? (is he engaging with the Hippocratic corpus on generation?). How does Grew reconciliate a physics of processes with geometrical observations (that you only see in an instance)? Is Grew involved in a project of creating artificial life? (and how radical was this?). What is, for him, the difference between biological and non-biological entities? How is Grew’s embryology looking like (how do the structures of pre-established order get intro the seed? Are they there to begin with?).

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