Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Anatomy of Observation: From the Academie Royale De la Chirurgie to the Salons of Denis Diderot

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Anatomy of Observation: From the Academie Royale De la Chirurgie to the Salons of Denis Diderot

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In the early eighteenth century four milestones in the history of surgery marked its ascent as a profession and as a discipline in the Royal Academic system of France: (1) Louis XV's 1724 letter patent, creating the College of Surgery on the rue des Cordeliers; (2) the establishment of the Royal Academy of Surgery in 1731; (3) the 1743 royal letter patent, making de jure the long-standing de facto separation of surgeons and doctors; and (4) a third royal letter patent in 1768, guaranteeing surgery its institutional independence in the construction of the Academy and Schools of Surgery (completed in 1774 under Louis the XVI).

The title of this study, "Anatomy of Observation," highlights the important changes that new ways of observing brought to surgery during its transition from a craft to a dominant science in the post-revolutionary university system in France. "Anatomy of Observation" also refers to a way of reading the epistemology of observation within the general discourse of Enlightenment. I describe the reading offered here as an "anatomy" because it situates observation in a system that divides and organizes the body's various structures and their functions. At the same time this reading deciphers the processes by which bodies are observed, for instance the observer's sensory perception and his or her imagination as well as the regulation of those processes.

The first part of this article gives a history of surgery from its origins as a handicraft to its establishment as a discipline in the royal academic system, including an examination of the important roles played by anatomy in surgery's professionalization. In the second part I formulate a reading of surgery as both a science and an aesthetics by focusing on its poetics: narrative and figurative structures that invent and give form to the body thereby producing knowledge about it. In part three I demonstrate how the epistemology of observation made incursions into the Salons of Denis Diderot and established a set of aesthetic parameters for the Enlightenment observer. Finally, the conclusion situates the epistemology of observation in the legacy of the Enlightenment bias toward vision in contemporary accounts from the fields of medical history, the history of ideas, and art history.

II. As in Science so in Art, As in Art so in Science

In one of Denis Diderot's Essays on Painting (1765), "Ce que tout le monde sait sur l'expression, et quelque chose que tout le monde ne sait pas,"(1) Diderot makes the following simple but well-informed claim: "Un comedien qui ne se connait en peinture est un pauvre comedien; un peintre qui n'est pas physionomiste est un pauvre peintre."(2) Diderot's requirement that painters study the functions and structures of the human body was much more than the standard Enlightenment bid for the mutual support of various disciplines in the production of scientific or artistic works. It was an enactment of a rhetorical confluence and epistemological cross-fertilization between science and art. Such an enactment contradicts the contemporary notion upheld by Max Horkheimer and Ernst Adorno that science and poetry, including literature and the visual arts, were irreparably torn apart by Enlightenment philosophy.(3) Horkheimer and Adorno refer to the "practical antithesis of art and science" in Enlightenment discourse. They argue moreover that Enlightenment science effected the repression of poetry through the radical separation of disciplines and, finally, through the policing of the absolute art work.

Denis Diderot came to his profession as art critic, philosopher and novelist a self-taught man of medical science.(4) Indeed, in the years preceding the period in which Diderot composed the Salons (1759-81) the philosophe cultivated his knowledge of natural philosophy through general study, including for instance the works of Bernard Le Bouvier de Fontenelle, Pierre Louis de Maupertuis, Theophile de Bordeu (and the works of two other vitalists, Barthez and Whytt), Albrecht von Hailer and Herman Boerhaave; through regular attendance of the lectures given by the doctor-surgeon, Cesar Verdier at the anatomical theater of Saint-Come; as well as through translating Robert James' medical dictionary (1745-48) and the preface to Carl Von Linne's Fauna sucia (1746). …

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