Dana Jalobeanu on the Historia et inquisitio de animato et inanimato

In this seminar, Dana Jalobeanu invited us to explore one of  Francis Bacon’s lesser known texts, the Historia et inquisitio de animato et inanimato. Starting from the conditions for the apparition of animated bodies, („an enclosed spirit, heat attenuating and dilating the spirit, soft and sticky matter, and a matrix closed up for the right length of time”), Dana started an investigation into the proper place of the Historia et inquisitio in the broader context of Bacon’s corpus of texts, suggesting that it could provide a roadmap to Bacon’s unwritten 4th part of the Great Instauration.

Dana emphasized that, in this project of a systematic inquiry into the domain of animated matter, we find a convoluted, but technical, terminology (inquisitio as a more advanced part of inquiry than the mere historia; „inquisitio inartificialis et in confuso” vs. „inquisitio artificialis”). An important example of such a technical concept – on which we spent some time – are the „canones mobiles”,  i.e. flexible rules and generalizations that are evolving alongside the process of discovery (and which, as it was suggested by the audience, come from a medical tradition, for which the „canones” represent a series of rules agreed upon by the greatest physicians). The use of canones mobiles is relatively widespread in Bacon’s programme (for instance, in the De vijs mortis we are presented with such a canon: „anything that can be constantly fed, and by feeding be wholly restored, is, like the vestal flame, potentially everlasting”). The terminological discussion led to the question of how are such concepts to be organized and what can this tell us about Bacon’s programme of an experimental natural philosophy. Thus, Dana argued that we should distinguish between ”mother-histories” (the first level of inquiry) and the more advanced inquisitio (exploratory experimentation that can be done at different levels of inquiry). We also examined the theory of matter that underpins the discussion on vivification. For Bacon, „vivification” (the switch from inanimate to animate matter) occurs when the „spirits” that make up the matter are disposed in a specific structure (they are „branched”). What we obtain from this is a continuous taxonomy of the animated bodies, since this account also allows for degrees (some things are more „animated” than others). We took the discussion on step further and asked how is it possible for the artificer to produce artificial life in the laboratory. Dana showed that there are two possibilities on the table (controlling the process of „putrefaction” vs. controlling the matter), and then proposed to look closer at some steps towards the production of artificial life, such as the processes of concoction or of enclosed distillation.

The speaker also received a good number of relevant questions from the audience, such as: what is, in this context, the difference between imitating and perfecting nature? Is the whole universe animated, for Bacon? Can we divide the spirits? Can we produce better animals? What role do limit-cases play in the context of vivification (animals that live in extreme environments, deep ground that ceases to be fertile etc.)? Which sort of things can be vivified and which ultimately can not? (Can we vivify gold? How about Paracelsus’s homunculus? Why shouldn’t we try to reproduce it?) Is vivification related to density and rarity?