Irritable Glue: The Haller–Whytt Controversy on the Mechanism of Muscle Contraction

  • Eugenio Frixione

Animal motion has been one of the longest-lived great themes in neurophysiology. For the most part of that development the soul (anima), in any of its various versions – aerial, atomistic, or purely spiritual – was taken as the actual agent causing animation. Then, as it is well known, in the midseventeenth century this view was formally challenged by René Descartes (see Des Chene, 2001). The iatrophysical school he contributed to create maintained that the animal body is an automatic machine fully capable of executing and controlling all its operations, independently of any incorporeal assistance. Perhaps nowhere these two confronted positions – animist and mechanicist – clashed more loudly over a single specific topic than in the long dispute sustained, in the 1750s and early 1760s, between Albrecht von Haller and Robert Whytt about the persistence of irritability in isolated muscles.

The colorful Haller–Whytt debate, which was concerned also with the parallel physiological faculty of sensibility, has been thoroughly reviewed in stepwise detail (French, 1969; Miller, 1939). These excellent accounts of the subject, though, concentrate on the discussions about the relative irritability or sensibility of specific organs, the presence or absence of nerves in particular anatomical locations, or the spatial distribution of the soul in the animal body. Comparatively little attention has been focused on the radically opposed views of the two great authors regarding the basic mechanism of muscle contraction.

The present chapter examines this important aspect of the debate, starting from a brief background sketch of the theory of fibers as taught by Herman Boerhaave, under whom both Haller and Whytt studied. Then, following a summarized review of the main arguments on each side of the controversy, a few possible reasons are discussed of why and how was muscle the first province of the animal body to become permanently liberated from the sovereignty of the soul. A preliminary version of this paper has been published in abstract form (Frixione, 2004b).


Muscle Contraction Animal Body General Physiology American Philosophical Society Animal Spirit 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eugenio Frixione
    • 1
  1. 1.Sección de Metodología y Teoría de la CienciaCentro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados IPNMéxico

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