I'm currently reading F. W. Schelling's "First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature". Schelling, a late 18th-early 19th century philosopher, was very well-informed about contemporary scientific developments. One of which is the theory of "galvanism" (according to Wikipedia, today called electrophysiology). According to Wikipedia, galvanism stands for:

[In biology it is] the contraction of a muscle that is stimulated by an electric current. In physics and chemistry, it is the induction of electrical current from a chemical reaction, typically between two chemicals with differing electronegativities.

Throughout the "Outline", most particularly during the Third Division where schelling attempts to deduce the chemical processes of nature, he references galvanism alot, and takes it as one of the foundational processes of nature (it is almost at the base of every process Schelling talks about).

I have two questions regarding galvanism/electrophysiology:

  1. Did any other philosophers acknowledge it as a major part of nature?

  2. Was the theory considered successful in scientific terms, and is it considered a basic/major theory in modern biology?

  • As you can see from Wiki's entry, Galvanism originated with the scientific studies of Luigi Galvani : its discoveries were fundamental (and thus "successful") but today we know a lot more and I cannot imagine any specific philosophical issue with electrophisiology. Oct 9, 2019 at 12:06
  • See the reference to Frankenstein to appreciate the level of interest in late 19th century about galvanism. This is typical of every culture and generation; the fact that current scientific discoverie have impact on popular culture, fiction and philosophy shows only that philosophy is a "mundane" activity and that philosophers reads newspaper and (today) use internet. Oct 9, 2019 at 12:08
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I've seen the reference to Frankenstein - this brought the question of the credibility of the theory. Oct 9, 2019 at 12:17
  • Not sure to understand : "the contraction of a muscle that is stimulated by an electric current. In physics and chemistry, it is the induction of electrical current from a chemical reaction". This is a fact, scientifically discovered an tested. "[Galvani] originally attributed this [fact] to a vital fluid (an old theory of biology that is no longer accepted by science). He later changed his mind and theorized that the action was caused by "animal electricity"—in other words, electricity generated biologically. Both theories were wrong, as proved by Alessandro Volta." Oct 9, 2019 at 12:21
  • My perpexity is the following : on what ground we have to think that Schelling can understand the science of his time better than the scientists of his time do ? Oct 9, 2019 at 12:22

1 Answer 1


Philosophical galvanism (as opposed to the empirical study of electricity in animal tissues) was a peculiar form of vitalism. While vitalism in general was quite popular and influential in the late 18th-19th century, this particular variation was not. Galvani himself soon abandoned references to élan vital, and after Volta's pile vitalists mostly did not associate it with something so specific. After the invention of the Voltaic pile in 1799, galvanism quickly lost currency with scientists, but remained in the popular culture for a couple more decades, albeit faded into the background. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein mentions it, so does Hegel, as late as 1830, see Burbidge, Hegel on Galvanism. Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation (1818/19), even tries to merge Volta's theory with galvanism and assimilate it into his scheme:

"The same thing shows itself in the lowest grades... when galvanism overcomes chemical affinity, decomposes the closest combinations, and so entirely suspends the laws of chemistry that the acid of a decomposed salt at the negative pole must pass to the positive pole without combining with the alkalies through which it goes on its way, or turning red the litmus paper that touches it... For as every body must be regarded as the manifestation of a will, and as will necessarily expresses itself as a struggle, the original condition of every world that is formed into a globe cannot be rest, but motion, a striving forward in boundless space without rest and without end".

But even this is a remark in passing, among multiple other examples of the Will "striving". Other than Schelling, perhaps the most prominent proponent of philosophical galvanism was Erasmus Darwin, a philosophizing physician, early evolutionist and the grandfather of Charles, see Erasmus Darwin, Galvanism, and the Principle of Life. Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life (1790), where his speculative evolution theory was laid out, made Darwin famous. There he talks of "similitude between the spirit of animation, which contracts the muscular fibres, and the electric fluid" and soars to the élan vital driven evolutionary speculation, "that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the Great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts... and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity".

Darwin inspired many, Schelling himself praised his vitalist take on galvanism in Zoonomia, contrasting it to "mechanical" explanations. Among others was Mary Shelley. The preface to the first edition of Frankenstein (1818) opens with "the event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed by Dr. Darwin and some of the physiological writers of Germany as not of impossible occurence".

In Germany, the soil was particularly fertile for vitalistic Naturphilosophie, given its congeniality with philosophical and cultural romanticism prevalent at the time. It influenced the "experiential science" that emphasized holistic and qualitative aspects over Newtonian mathematized mechanics. Pfaff, for example, tells us in Der Elektro-Magnetismus (1824):

"A physical explanation penetrates further than a so-to-speak mathematical explanation, which gives only a formula for the quantitative determination of the phenomena. It seeks to represent the phenomena in their larger general connections with the whole of nature and to connect the fact with which the mathematical construction starts still higher with the essence of the forces of nature themselves and thus to give an account of the qualitative [aspects] of the phenomena".

One can see where Goethe's and Hegel's quarrel with Newton comes from. Schelling took his science from another "experiential" scientist, Ritter, see Schelling and experiential science by Breidbach:

"His terminology describing the potentialities and polarities of nature was formed during Schelling's collaboration with the physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter. This scientist adopted the schema Schelling had developed for the categorization of natural phenomena to describe the peculiar facts that interested him in his area of research. Thus Ritter was able to develop a classification of the various phenomena of animal galvanism. Thus it can be shown that the idealistic "Naturphilosophie" was part of the scientific culture of about 1800. It is to be interpreted as philosophy of science and has to be evaluated not only in a philosophically systematic way but in particular in its influence on the way scientific categories were ordered at the time. Thereby it can be shown that the idealistic vocabulary had close correspondence to French morphology and English Natural Theology."

For more on the said culture, and its soon to come generational abandonment, see Caneva, From Galvanism to Electrodynamics:

"The abstractness of the physics of the younger generation contrasts sharply with the qualitative Anschaulichkeit of concretizing science. Against the former notion that one of the tasks of science was to capture the essence of the phenomena, the new physics dropped the requirement that a theory should provide a true representation of physical reality [...] It is less important that men like Neumann, Fechner, and Liebig eventually turned from Naturphilosophie - and only Liebig spoke contemptuously of it later on - than that the younger generation as a whole felt no sympathy toward the way science was pursued by the members of the older generation of concretizing scientists and declined to take them as models. The failure of the latters' teaching to meet their students' expectations encouraged the younger men to forge their own model of science."

  • If you'd like to add, Schelling acknowledging Darwin's galvanism as the only form of galvanism "close to the truth" - "a plethora of phenomena which galvanism approaches cannot even be conceivedby means of them.—Undoubtedly, the ingenious mode of representation ofErasmus Darwin (in his Zoonomia§) is closer to the truth", and in the footnote: "§He explains contraction by analogy with electrical phenomena, and in fact these appearances arethe only ones with which, as will be shown shortly, matter seems to stand at the same level onwhich it undoubtedly stands in the expressions of irritability." Oct 10, 2019 at 7:19
  • From the "Outline", p. 121 (trans. by Keith R. Peterson). Oct 10, 2019 at 7:20
  • And for a small follow-up question: you are unfamiliar with any other philosopher who supported this theory, because as you say it wasn't popular? Oct 10, 2019 at 7:21
  • @YechiamWeiss See edit. With scientists, Volta's naturalistic theory quickly displaced Galvani's after 1799 (von Humboldt converted in 1805, after spending time with Volta), and the generational shift washed out what was left by 1830-s. You can see it with Fechner, he was a vitalist and a panpsychist, but not a galvanist. For a brief period it seemed like a tangible vindication of romantic intuitions, but then it wasn't. And the Voltaic pile was there to prove it. But Naturphilosophie, more broadly, lasted way into 1850-s.
    – Conifold
    Oct 10, 2019 at 8:27
  • I see. And do you know of any philosopher working with Volta's theory? Oct 10, 2019 at 11:36

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .