Observations and adjustments on a very negative review (1834)

Draft of 2021.02.23

May include: digitizationdearchiving&c.

I am manually transcribing some extracts of books I’ve recently scanned into (extended) markdown, because I want to better understand how to make a more automated workflow that does a similar thing. I’ve found that commercial and open-source OCR software packages tend to save to over-featured markup systems (like PDF or TEI-flavored XML), leaving just as much work after “reading” for me to convert from those rich formats to something closer to markdown. But the vast majority of “convert-X-to-markdown” scripts out there seem to imagine there is only “original” markdown, which lacks support for footnotes, tables, mathematics, typographic styles, and all kinds of other useful stuff the original author deemed “presentation”… but which are not. Over the years I’ve come to very much admire the kramdown extended markdown dialect… but even there, I discover little things (like small caps, which appear frequently enough in 19th-century printed works) that are cumbersome to render in kramdown, and which might be something I’d want always ready to invoke with some quick textual move.

So anyway, that’s one thing going on here. It’s exploratory exercise for a possible technical project some day.

Another thing going on here is an exploration of what I might eventually be able to get away with. As I mentioned last time, I may be digitizing old books, but I’m not intending to “be archival” about these works at all. I want to change them in an ad hoc way that isn’t about precision, and so I don’t want the sort of extant tools that support Absolute Scholarly Accuracy or even “version control”. Footnotes and endnotes might not cut it, though in this particular case they might.

I think though I want to do open-ended surgery on the text itself. Give it a hank of leather to bite down on, and get to work cutting and sewing as needed, with whiskey close to hand for everybody involved. I have no intention for this to end up in any kind of “archive”. It is more of a seed. Or a spore.

The raw material and the implications thereof

That said, this second foray wants a more traditional approach somehow. Which I find interesting, because it pushes back against my vandal’s motivation.

The piece I’ve chosen to munge today follows the previous quite literally, since it’s from the subsequent pages of the July 1834 Medico-Chirurgical Review, right after the review of Physiologie Vegetale I scanned and wrote about a few days back. As before, here’s a link to the Google Books version of the work in question, but mine is (1) in color, and (2) much uglier, with page creases and splotching and rat nibbles and all kinds of local physicality (“spores” again) that gave me a headache.

It has some similarities to the preceding review… but more is going on than we saw in the generally positive and upbeat review of Physiologie Vegetale. Mainly because it’s a very bad review indeed. Which is to say: the reviewer clearly dislikes not just the work under review, but the author himself. There’s something going on here, a history that pushes past the professional tone of the vanilla review we saw last time. It puts me in mind of rich middle-aged 18th Century bewigged fellows shaking their walking sticks at one another in a lecture hall in some Northern mill town, calling each other cads and fools for having incorrect philosophical frameworks. Maybe that’s a stereotype that arises mainly from the movies, or my recent re-watch of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but there’s definitely a whiff of spite and gall in the text itself.

It implies that a real context exists, not an idealized “professional” one. I sense that knowing more about who’s who will help. And so I’ve taken some time to do a little cursory research.

So who are the players?

The Medico-Chirurgical Review, like many scholarly and literary review periodicals of the time, didn’t bother publishing the bylines of its reviewers, so we can’t really identify the reviewer. It’s clear enough, from grammar and punctuation, that it isn’t the same author as last time; that fellow relied on many semicolons and numbered inline lists, while this one seems to enjoy the stab of an inline em-dash, and the timbre of a long pull quoted extract.

Wikipedia claims “the content was almost all written by Johnson himself,” and I see no reason to doubt—though again it’s clear the prior wasn’t the same author. But as much as I think this is likely Johnson (we’ll see below, for reasons), let’s hedge and call him “Reviewer Two”.

Reviewer Two is definitely not among the reviewee’s circle of close friends. We arrive in media res here; clearly they have a past, a lingering animosity. I mean seriously look at this, and feel it go well past “wry” and all the way over into “mean”:

We find it utterly impossible to give any thing like a connected view of the paper under consideration, since it refers at every page, and almost in every paragraph, to “my inquiry into the Laws of the Vital Functions”—or “the Papers which I had the honour of publishing in the Philosophical Transactions”—all or any of which we have neither time nor inclination to peruse or re-peruse. We are not certain, indeed, that we can always comprehend our author; and in such cases we must adopt the language and conduct of Parliamentary reporters, who, when they cannot hear a word of the orator, inform their readers that “they understood him to say,” &c. &c.

But we can also see this feud spreads beyond Reviewer Two and the reviewee. The scholarly style of the time was not what you might call “explicit” when it came to citation; a passing mention of “Dr. Smith” or “Lord Jones” in context was taken as sufficient to identify the gentleman in question for any learned reader who kept up with the latest news and views and reviews on the subject. “As Dr. Tuvok has shown in his work on tachyons…,” we would see, and be obliged to work out who the eminent Tuvok was for ourselves. Lacking Google, we’d know it mainly by subscribing to this very journal, and reading the review published in its very pages some months back on his “Observations on the Delta Quadrant and the Nature of Tachyon Toxicity”. And if we were very smart, we might have read the letter in the Federation Scholarly Society Notes soon thereafter, from his bitter rival Dr. Moset, calling Tuvok’s work “misguided” and “… fraught with intemperate meandering unsuitable for even a self-described ‘scientist’.1

That I’m sure is the motivation for Reviewer Two dropping some names in the very first paragraph of the review. We’ll come back to them eventually, but I declare that Drs. “Prout” and “Earle” here are very intentional name-drops, and clearly other vocal critics of the reviewee. Critical enemies are gathering, and they’re willing to gang up:

If ever man deserved immortality, Dr. Philip is that man; for he has studied the “laws of the vital functions,” till, we should imagine, he has them all by heart. But if our worthy and indefatigable author has not been able by any experiments on animals to secure himself from the grave, he has done enough to transmit his name and his fame to posterity (which is all that the most talented can do, or the most ambitious expect). That is, notwithstanding the Ulyssean stratagems of Prout, or the Ajax-like lunges of Earle against the “laws” laid down by Dr. Philip.

In contrast with the first review I played with, the pragmatics of this one are honestly fascinating. Reviewer Two is at times complaining that Dr. Philip (our Reviewee) has bored him, or has restated common knowledge in a roundabout and opaque way, or has just ignored basic facts everybody knows. This is all way beyond the sort of bland negative review that we might summarize as “not his best, read his earlier stuff”. We are in the territory of the snide and admonitory eye-roll. “Well at least we can say that Philip has written a lot, despite how much Prout and Earle have tried to shut him up.”

So yeah it’s time to talk about Dr. Philip, poor fellow.

In situ the book’s author is given only as “Dr. A. P. W. Philip”, and is referred to as “Dr. Philip” throughout the text. From context, I can tell he’s famous enough not to need his name spelled out: the savvy subscriber will already know who he is. But it may also be typographic frugality that keeps the fellow’s entire name out of print, because the gentleman’s name is: Dr. Alexander Philip Wilson Philip, MD, FRS, FRSE, &c. &c.

Sic, I hasten to add. “Philip” twice, yes.

To which I said: Well, that’s interesting. But what do I know of late 18th Century2 rich folks’ naming conventions? Maybe that’s a thing?

It took a while for me to work it out. Supernumerary enphilipment is not explained by most online sources, just mentioned in passing usually. Wikipedia provides a brief biographical stub, and telegraphically states that he was born “Alexander Philip Wilson”, but in 1811 started calling himself “Alexander Philip Wilson Philip”. Not an explanation, really.

Tracking down this particular fact was challenging, despite the gentleman’s relatively profuse writing career and the many years’ time he spent in both the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of London. He has left only very light traces in the scientific and medical literature. Most online resources echo the Wikipedian brevity (probably because people copy from one another).

But there is a reasonable explanation. With some real effort spent, I eventually came across this open source biographical article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences3, and much more was revealed.

Wilson became a Scottish clan chief (by inheritance, not combat or anything) in 1811. And that’s why he changed his name. This from the JHMAS biography:

On the 15th of February [1811], his surname was changed by Royal Licence from Wilson to Philip, when he succeeded on the death of his paternal grandmother, Susannah Philip, to the chieftanship of his clan and to property in Scotland, described in the records of the College of Arms as being “considerable”.

Thus the mystery of A. Philip W. Philip was made clear.

And also more! This article is wonderful for context-setting. Not least on the subject of Philip’s remarkable gang of foes, including Reviewer Two. Look here, let me bold-face some passages of interest:

… [Philip’s] treatise on Indigestion and its consequences, which was first published in 1821 and reached its seventh edition in 1833, was followed in 1827 by a monograph On the treatment of the more protracted forms of indigestion. In it he rebuked both Dr. Ayrton Paris, who was another of his sponsors, and Dr. James Johnson for having misunderstood him and misquoted him. Personally, he had always tried to keep his mind unbiased, and he would strongly recommend the same maxim to them. He added somewhat offensively: “It is the respectability of the foregoing gentleman alone which has induced me to reply to them; for I find nothing in their works but opinion brought in opposition to the facts I adduce, and as I have neither time nor inclination for controversy I shall not in future be easily induced to reply to any similar observations.” The Medico-Chirurgical Review, which up to now supported him, began to suspect that Wilson Philip was riding a hobby horse. As a friend and a physician they had respected him, they said, in no ordinary manner and when prostrate on the bed of sickness, they had solicited his aid which was generously afforded: no stronger proof of their estimation of his skill could be well given. But they must not let their private friendship come between them and their duty as reviewers. They then proceeded to deliver an unfavourable judgment on his latest work, alleging that his pathological assumptions were unfounded and his conclusions based on insufficient evidence.

And this, describing an even later Medico-Chirurgical Review hit piece on Philip’s 1830 work, A treatise on the nature and cure of those diseases which precede the change of structure, which again has the sound of our Reviewer Two to it:

In the whole course of their lives they had never read such a jumble of absurdity, contradictions, and bad physic. They would have thought that the total failure of an earlier but similar enterprise—as his publisher’s shelves could attest—might have moderated Dr. Philip’s zeal in the illumination of the public or even checked the overflowing of his philanthropy in rendering them independent of doctors as well as of disease. His election to the Royal Society, they said, had turned his head, for ever since they had done him “the honour” of publishing his lucubrations, the ears of the profession had been stunned with the eternal reiteration of the said honour. It was astounding that he should really set out to educate the public. Did he really think that one person understood a fiftieth part of his ‘vital laws’? No, Dr. Philip was neither insane nor knavish, but he was very cunning; he was flattering the public because he had learned that they always relish a little flattery. This last book of his was packed with references to his previous outpourings and this also was an extremely politic device: it was, in fact, one of the most ingenious modes of evading the advertisement duty with which they were acquainted. He had nothing new to offer, but he had devised a technique “of multiplying literary bantlings without any new births, but merely by fresh christenings.” It was unworthy of a pen from which so much valuable matter had previously flowed.

Which is to say: Despite what you might think, Philip is neither insane nor knavish. He’s just a greedy bastard trying to sell more of those terrible books he keeps writing.

At any rate, the JHMAS piece also shines light also on the otherwise enigmatic references by Reviewer Two to “Prout”, and also possibly “Earle”. Here is a little snippet regarding the (apparently many years of) acrimony between Dr. William Prout and Wilson Philip:

As the argument proceeded, some hard knocks were given and taken. Wilson Philip clearly could not forgive the personal slight implied when Prout said that there had been no advance in physiology during the last twenty years, for had he not been engaged in his physiological researches for exactly twenty years? He saw in these Goulstonian Lectures an attack on physiology and its self-appointed high-priest, Wilson Philip. It was Prout and not Wilson Philip who had thrown down the gauntlet. Wilson Philip criticised his semasiology: he was very careless about his use of terms, he said, and he ought to know better. Prout in return threatened to dip his pen in gall, accusing him of having a fondness for wordy disputes and for being determined to find fault with everything. The public were being treated by him to “the same thrice-told tale.” Wilson Philip in the next round refuses to stoop to the language of Prout and his techniques which he says are but those of the lowest pamphleteer.

And so on. I might venture to guess that Philip was not an easy man to read, nor to argue with. He pissed folks off.

Perhaps there is a larger story there. Maybe an award-winning musical, some day.

But: Despite the persnickety personalities and feuding and all the Inside Baseball eye-rolling criticism, I think there’s something else going on here. These books and reviews are situated near the beginning of the argument over the nature not merely of medicine—which was being formalized and professionalized in the same period—but also science more broadly. Think about it: this review was printed in 1834, the same year William Whewell first published the neologism “scientist”.

These folks were working out the ontology of their own professions on the fly. Not just the names of things, but also the meanings and implications of those names.

Philip, for example, comes across as thinking that the chemical compositions of living bodies and their secretions might be interesting, but also unable to explain the actions of living beings in any useful way. It’s not clear at all that he believed that what things were made of could in any useful way explain what they did.

“Chemistry” in these days was still working out the consequences of its newfangled atomic theory. “Chemicals” were considered in a way that barely acknowledged the existence of “molecules” as qualitatively different from their atomic constituents. Some simple proportions of atoms, in simple molecules, were starting to be worked out experimentally. But a typical experiment—like the ones we saw in the last review—would involve collecting all the gases produced from a thing on the hypothesis that this “air” was all one gas.

I don’t imagine that the idea of a “macromolecule” had even been posed at this point. “Flesh” and “organs” were as far from “oxygen” and “carbon” as one could imagine, both in theory and practice. And so when Philip heard somebody speaking of how “the components of urine” might aid diagnosis, I can imagine that he heard this as a something to do with the gross weight of various atoms in pee, not their “composition” in the same sense we mean today. The difference between “blood” and “molecules” was far from clear.

That said, it also sounds like Philip was kindof an asshole about it all, as well. He may well have warranted a bloc of enemies. But what I think may be happening in Philip’s book (which I have not read, nor apparently has Reviewer Two) might be subtler. From the sound of the extracts here, it feels like Philip is actually framing the nervous system as having both an activation and inhibition role in some physiological phenomena, and I am tempted to think that might be a little ahead of its time, in the year 1834. That is: maybe he’s an asshole, but one who is sometimes right about stuff, in a blue-sky sort of way.

I have known folks like that.

Paradigms shifting all over the place. Whatever hindsight we might have about the correctness of their mental models and ontologies, it seems important that we acknowledge that in 1834 these dudes were navigating a very different terrain. Their work, even the most “scientific”, was entirely composed of anecdotes, not “data” as we have it today. When one published a work of Natural Philosophy, it differs from our professional scientific experience: because these dudes were mainly practicing physicians (and “gentlemen”), because these dudes wrote longhand, and because these dudes all knew one another.

I am reminded that when I started in molecular biology in the early 1980s. It was a huge fucking deal back then to have published a paper in Nucleic Acids Research. Mind you, papers in Nucleic Acids Research were usually photo-reproductions of hand-typed (or dot matrix printed) manuscripts, but they had a lot of clout. When a DNA sequence of a few hundred nucleotides was worked out back then, that was worth writing home about. Because (as we all understand so well now) knowing the exact nucleotide sequence of an organism’s DNA gives us everything we really need to understand it fully, and to cure its diseases.

Heh. See what I did there? I am giving a wink and a nod to poor obscure Dr. Philip’s recalcitrance about his contemporaries’ excitement over what stuff is made of. Because knowing the exact nucleotide sequence of an organism’s DNA is worth fuckall for knowing what it does, more or less. Imagine all the powerful enemies Philip made by saying “it’s more complicated than that”. Maybe he didn’t write clearly, but people were also working out what “writing clearly” actually meant in context, too.

So that’s for perspective.

But seriously, it could be much simpler. Much of the tone here, and some of the anecdotes in the JHMAS biography, suggest to me that maybe Dr. Philip was not a very thoughtful, or perhaps careful, writer. I can’t quite puzzle out whether Reviewer Two is angry that Philip refers constantly to his older published works (as one does, nowadays), or that Philip refers to unpublished works, or perhaps that he reprints earlier lectures in collections with overlapping contents. But then all of those, on their face, seem… OK? Not bad? Standard for modern times?

This is all just me working out how Reviewer Two came to be so fucking angry over Philip’s book about sleep and stuff. These fellows fought. They yelled in print. This piece is a pile of that yelling in print.

A different memory, which is maybe not any

This magazine I scanned is not rare, and is archived in libraries all around the world. I feel no pressure to be accurate in transcribing it. What I’ve extracted from it below is not what was contained in the printed work, nor what’s in the archives now, nor even in the moldy physical copy I was sneezing over the other day.

This lives alongside those versions, editions, works.

Further, my fiddling can’t be called “improvement”. Most likely I’ve ruined it. I won’t even deign to tell you what I’ve changed (though I am surprised by how little, this time). There’s no way for you to run git diff and see what I did—not without re-typing your own copy of the “original” and then worrying about your own mistakes as you look for mine.

My only excuse is that it caught my eye. In this case, the text “caught my eye” merely by being at hand, but it dragged a few mysteries along with it. Who was Philip? Why does Reviewer Two denigrate him so? And Prout? Earle? We are left with a scent of lost context. I can feel the meanness, but I doubt we’ll ever work out what’s really happening among all these dead men.

For me, this construction of various paratexts (and parafictions [PDF]) is provoked whenever I identify “something there” in these digitized works. Sometimes it’s looming huge, sometimes it’s just a flavor or a small lacuna that wants filling.

By choice (for now) I’ve picked things the public domain. That a work is “in the public domain” often just means people get to preserve it and replicate it, just as it was made, as pictures of print or sometimes as machine-readable transcriptions of those pictures, all replications of some sort.

But by definition, we can use public domain works without cost and for any purpose whatsoever. So we can read them as historical accounts, let them hint at their original tacit contexts, subject them to literary criticisms and historians’ heuristics, and even grind them through our Morettian algorithms and language-munging networks looking for the surprising eyeballs in the resulting generated texts. And so on.

But in all these cases, we aren’t doing anything to them, only with. We read them as they were, and lately we also enjoy snickering at the weird Markovian turns of phrase they can elicit from our machines. In the end they exist only as “training text,” either for students reading reprints, or networks composing novelties and gags.

I feel increasingly that I want to do bad and interesting things to these works. Not just with. Something deeper than annotation or reflection. Because, as I’ve said, there’s something down in there, in them. Maybe it wants to come out.

“Sleep is just one option”

An Inquiry into the Nature of Sleep and Death, with a view to ascertain the more immediate Causes of Death, and the better Regulation of the Means of obviating them; being the concluding part of the Author’s Experimental Inquiry into the Laws of the Vital Functions. (Republished from the Philosophical Transactions.) By A. P. W. Philip, m.d. &c. &c. 8vo. pp. 254.

Our first glance over the title-page of this volume engendered a hope that Dr. Philip had discovered some means of baffling the grim tyrant Death, by depriving him of the weapons by which he cuts down man at all periods of existence. A more close examination, both of the title and the body of the work, has lessened our hopes, and left us in possession of the facts. Those being: that diseases and even disorders of the vital organs and functions carry us off before the age of three score years and ten, and that, even if we are fortunate enough to escape sickness, time itself will moulder us into dust after that epoch!

Who knew? Not we! If ever man deserved immortality, Dr. Philip is that man; for he has studied the “laws of the vital functions,” till, we should imagine, he has them all by heart. But if our worthy and indefatigable author has not been able by any experiments on animals to secure himself from the grave, he has done enough to transmit his name and his fame to posterity—which is all that the most talented can do, or the most ambitious expect. That is, notwithstanding the Ulyssean stratagems of Prout, or the Ajax-like lunges of Earle against the “laws” laid down by Dr. Philip.

As most of the papers in this volume have been long before the public, it is not our intention to notice more than the last two chapters, on sleep and death. Nor shall we go very minutely into these. The former subject is a drowsy one, and the latter melancholy. Most people, indeed, would rather enjoy the refreshment of a sound sleep than listen to the most philosophical discussion on its nature and causes. However, as physicians and philosophers must have many sleepless hours, they may as well amuse themselves with a discussion on this, as on any other subject.

Dr. Philip’s long dissertation on sleep may be brought into a very narrow compass. There is no organ or structure in the body, neither heart, arteries, muscles, or glands, that can carry on uninterrupted action—Dr. Philip to the contrary notwithstanding—and, therefore, the sensorial functions require their period of rest, as well as those of the stomach or any other part. The brain is tired during the day by the reception of sensations and the exertion of reflections, volitions, &c. and at night we sleep.

But Dr. Philip maintains that the arteries are in perpetual action. We deny it, nor would a thousand experiments on frogs or rabbits convince us of this perpetuity. Dr. Philip admits that the heart appears to have a periodical relaxation, and cessation of its proper stimulus, the blood. Now the heart is never free from the presence of blood, as Dr. Philip must know. The ventricle never empties itself entirely. But as the systole occupies only about a third part of the time occupied by the diastole, it follows that the muscular fibres of the heart are sixteen out of the twenty-four hours in a state of inaction. This is about the period of rest which is enjoyed by the voluntary muscles.

The same argument applies to the arteries. If we recollect right, Dr. Philip maintained, in opposition to Dr. Parry, that the arteries contracted and dilated like the heart, though in different rhythms. If this be the case, they have their alternations of labour and repose, like other muscular structures. The muscles of respiration, we need not say, have the same proportions of rest. Even the secreting organs, as the liver and kidneys, which appear to be more perpetually in action than almost any other parts of the human frame have, in reality, alternate labour and repose. Secretion may never, perhaps, entirely cease; but it is periodically in activity and inactivity, comparatively, which answers the same purpose. As to the veins, it will not be said that they are in perpetual action. During the greater part of their time, they are merely passive hydraulic machines, or tubes to convey the blood from one part to another.

Dr. Philip maintains that that part of the brain which supplies nervous energy to the vital organs, as the heart, arteries, &c., is in a state of perpetual or uniform excitement. This may be so; but, if we are correct in shewing that the functions of these organs are in alternate action and repose, we do not see why the brain itself should not be similarly situated? We shall give Dr. Philip’s conclusions, however, in his own words, as containing the pith of the paper.

“From a review of the whole of the facts which have been laid before the Society, it appears,—

  1. That in the brain and spinal marrow alone reside the active parts of the nervous system.
  2. That the law of excitement in the parts of these organs, which are associated with the nerves of sensation and voluntary motion, is uniform excitement followed by proportional exhaustion, which, when it takes place to such a degree as to suspend their usual functions, constitutes sleep; all degrees of exhaustion which do not extend beyond them and the parts associated with them, being consistent with health.
  3. That the law of excitement in those parts of the brain and spinal marrow which are associated with the vital nerves is also uniform excitement, but which is only, when excessive, followed by any degree of exhaustion, no degree of which is consistent with health.
  4. That the vital, in no degree partaking of the exhaustion of the sensitive system in sleep, only appears to do so from the influence of the latter on the function of respiration, the only vital function in which these systems co-operate, in consequence of which its organs, without being in any degree debilitated, are less readily excited.
  5. That the law of excitement of the muscular fibre, with which both the vital and sensitive parts of the brain and spinal marrow are associated, is interrupted excitement, which, like the excitement of the vital parts of these organs, is only, when excessive, followed by any degree of exhaustion. And
  6. That the nature of the muscular fibre is every where the same, the apparent differences in the nature of the muscles of voluntary and involuntary motion depending on the differences of their functions, of their relation co the brain and spinal marrow, and of the circumstances in which they are placed.” 150.

Dr. Philip has appended some observations on dreaming, which have nothing particularly novel in them. Although the sensorial powers of the brain become so exhausted that sleep ensues, it does not follow that they are so completely exhausted as not to receive impressions, though indistinctly. It is these faint impressions, from within or without, that cause dreaming. These causes are chiefly from irritation in the digestive organs, as every one who has eaten a heavy supper—or who has weak powers of digestion—must well know. The silence and quietude that generally prevail during sleep tends, also, to promote the perception of sensations then, which otherwise would pass unheeded even when we are wide awake, and when the mind is employed in the avocations of the day.

The rapidity of the operations of the memory and imagination, during sleep and in the act of dreaming, is most curious and unaccountable, and so are the incongruities which then occur, and which appear perfectly natural and correct to the dreamer. Dr. Philip endeavours to explain these phenomena in the following manner, but with what success we shall not decide.

“It seems greatly to influence the phenomena of dreaming, that in order to favour the occurrence of sleep, and thus as far as we can prevent unnecessary exhaustion, means are always employed at its accustomed times, to prevent, as much as possible, the excitement of the external organs of senses, and consequently those parts of the brain associated with them. This renders us the more sensible to causes of excitement existing within our own bodies, while, by the inactivity of the parts of the brain which are associated with those organs, we are deprived of the usual control over such parts of the mental functions as are thus excited; the effect of which is greatly increased by the rapidity of the operations of the memory and imagination, when not restrained by some of the various means employed for that purpose in our waking hours. These are often objects of the senses, as written language, diagrams, sounds, and sometimes even objects of touch; but the most common is the mere use of words, independently of any object presented to our senses.

Any one may easily perceive how difficult it is to pursue a train of reasoning without this means of detaining his ideas for the purpose of steadily considering them and comparing them together. Now, in sleep, in consequence of the excitement of the brain being so partial, we are deprived of all these means; and our ideas pass with such rapidity as precludes all consideration and comparison. Our conceptions, therefore, are uncorrected by experience, and we are not at all surprised at the greatest incongruities. Why should we be surprised at our moving through the air when we are not aware that we have not always done so? The mind of the dreamer differs from that of the infant in having been variously impressed, and therefore in the capability of having its impressions recalled. But it is only as far as it is excited, that any impression can be recalled. With this exception it is as void of the results of experience as the mind of the infant; and therefore, in its partial excitement, of the means of correcting any particular train of ideas suggested. In general, there is neither time nor means for reflection, and, consequently, there can neither, be doubt nor hesitation.

Such is the rapidity of our thoughts in dreaming, that it is not uncommon for a dream, excited by the noise that awakes us, and which, therefore, must take place in the act of awaking, to occupy, when put into words, more than fifty times the space in the relation. It is a good illustration of what is here said, that when we dream that we are conversing, and thus obliged to employ words, the usual incongruities of dreaming do not occur. The ideas are sufficiently detained to enable us to correct the suggestions of the imagination. No man ever dreamt that he was telling another that he had been flying through the air.

Thus the peculiarities of dreaming arise from the partial operation of the causes of disturbance, and some of the sensitive parts of the brain being capable of excitement without disturbing the others; and thus it is that the more near we are to awaking, the more rational our dreams become, all parts of the brain beginning to partake of the excitement; which has given rise to the adage, that morning dreams are true.” 153.

Nature of Death.

Dr. Philip does not pretend to rend the veil that covers the nature of death in a metaphysical sense of the word. Indeed, there are some expressions in the opening of this paper which we can hardly agree in. Dr. Philip says that all our knowledge is not acquired, through the medium of our senses, after we are born. “We come into the world with knowledge essential to our existence,” he says.

How does our author support this position? Because, says he, “the infant knows as well how to breathe and suck as the adult, and these acts depend as much on mental operations as those which are the result of experience.”

Indeed! the act of breathing depends on mental operations, when that same act goes on in the profoundest sleep, or in deadly apoplexy, when no mental operation goes on at all! Really, we are astonished that the author of a treatise on the vital functions should assert that the breathing of an infant, when first launched into this world, depends on mental operations. If he had said on cerebral operations, there might have been some truth in the assertion; but we maintain that breathing has nothing to do with mental operations—excepting when we are blowing a fire or a flute, which will hardly be called ordinary respiration.

We do not deny that the child is born with a few instincts, chiefly the art of sucking, and that is almost the only one. This instinct or impulse has no analogy to acquired knowledge at all. The instinct cannot be resisted either by infant or animal. It is as much an involuntary action as breathing itself. The child will suck when asleep.

We believe with Locke—and many others, who have not been deficient in human understanding—that the mind, or rather its organ, is a complete blank when we are born, and that all knowledge is written there afterwards by sensation and reflection. This last may combine and multiply knowledge, but all the raw materials must come through the senses. We do not consider the instinctive impulse to sucking as any species of knowledge. The smell of the mother’s milk excites the olfactory and gustatory nerves of the infant, in the same way that dust would excite coughing, or snuff sneezing. There would be no great pretence to knowledge in either of these processes, we calculate.

Dr. Philip gives us another piece of information, which we confess we were quite ignorant of before. Speaking of this same new-born infant, he says: “He perceives his wants, and he knows how to relieve them.”

To this we demur. We believe that the infant feels some few of his wants, as the want of food; but we also believe, and indeed we are certain, that he does not know how to relieve himself—and, therefore, he squalls out most lustily, till his mother or nurse supplies him. When an infant feels cold, does he know how to relieve himself by additional clothing? Really we never heard such loose—not to say erroneous—reasoning from anyone professing to be an “experimental philosopher” as we find in this book.

We find it utterly impossible to give any thing like a connected view of the paper under consideration, since it refers at every page, and almost in every paragraph, to “my inquiry into the Laws of the Vital Functions” or “the Papers which I had the honour of publishing in the Philosophical Transactions”, all or any of which we have neither time nor inclination to peruse (or re-peruse). We are not certain, indeed, that we can always comprehend our author. In such cases we must adopt the language and conduct of Parliamentary reporters, who, when they cannot hear a word of the orator, inform their readers that “they understood him to say,” &c. &c.

We understand Dr. Philip, then, to hold that, in the “more perfect animals” there are three distinct classes of functions: the sensorial, the nervous, and the muscular. These are not directly dependent on each other, but through the influence of their respective organs the destruction of any one class of function soon leads to the destruction of the others.

The sensorial functions, constituting the sensitive system, and connecting man with the external world, fails first in natural death; the nervous and muscular systems continue for a time, but ultimately fail, “in consequence of the failure of respiration, the only vital function to which the co-operation of the sensorial power is necessary.” Which is to say, after all our learning and science, we come back to that familiar old conclusion: that “man dies for want of breath.”

Another conclusion to which the light of Philip’s science can lead us has similarly been come to—across ages, and by many—without any such science at all. Namely, that death is only an everlasting sleep:

“The state which immediately precedes the last act of dying then, according to the common acceptation of the term, and sleep, both depend on a failure of function in the same organs. In what, then, consists the difference of these states? The most evident is, that the one is a temporary, the other a final failure; and it will appear, that in the only death which can strictly be called natural, the state of the sensitive system which immediately precedes death differs from its state in sleep in no respect but in degree.” 163.

Our author asserts—and the assertion is highly consolatory—that “we are not necessarily born to suffering.” Though one does wonder: is this quite consistent with Scripture? “All natural states (says Dr. Philip) with the exception of child-bearing (and, in its most natural state, even this is hardly an exception), are more or less pleasurable.”

We write with difficulty, with our palm against our face: Does the infant cut its teeth, even in the most “natural state”, without some suffering? We apprehend that it does not. Those who dread death on account of the agonies which are usually considered as its attendant, may derive consolation from the following passage.

“The death of old age, therefore, is literally the last sleep, uncharacterized by any peculiarity. The general languor of the functions in the last waking interval is attended with no peculiar suffering, and the last sleep commences with the usual grateful feelings of repose, the last feelings experienced; for with what takes place after them, the feelings, being suspended, have no concern.” 166.

This pleasing picture (and we believe it to be a correct one) of the last scene in man’s “strange eventful history,” is darkened by the reflection that, in civilized life, we rarely see an instance of natural death, as above-described—at least at the natural period of human existence. Dr. Philip informs us that, “of the various instances of death which he has witnessed, there was not one that could be regarded as wholly the effect of age.”

We have seen more than one instance, where death appeared to be the effect of very advanced age, and where there was no cognizable or tangible disease. We think that when a man dies, worn out by 80 or 90 years, he may fairly be said to die the death of nature. The late Sir Gilbert Blane died in his 85th year, and we are not aware that he laboured under any disease. It is, however, very rare to find all the organs so balanced in strength, that no one gives way under the numerous morbific causes to which we are exposed before the threescore years and ten.

Still, even when we are brought to the grave by premature disease, the last scene is the death of nature after all. Look at the individual dying of fever, consumption, apoplexy, &c.; we see him lie for hours in a state of stupor, the sleep of death, unconscious of surrounding friends, and insensible to sufferings if they actually exist. It is long before the act of dying that the individual suffers from the effects of a disease. By the time the malady has brought him to the last act of the drama, those sufferings are over, and he sleeps—or perchance dreams—away the last hours of his existence.

But we must draw our notice of Dr. Philip’s work to a conclusion with the following extract, the observations in which are very rational and correct:

“The approach of death, if we are aware of it, must always be more or less impressive, not only because we are about to undergo an unknown change, but are leaving all that has hitherto interested and been grateful to us. Even here, however, for the most part, the laws of our nature are merciful. Most diseases of continuance (for we shall find there are some exceptions) not only gradually impair our sensibility, but alter our tastes. They not only render us less sensible to all impressions, but less capable of enjoying as far as we are still sensible to them. The sight of a feast to a man who has lost his appetite is disgustful, and a similar change takes place in a greater or less degree with respect to all other means of enjoyment.

These circumstances constitute a great part of the difference of our feelings with respect to what, in common language, is called a violent and a natural death. In the latter, as far as the sensibility is impaired, we are more or less in the state of old age, and, in addition to this change, our tastes are perverted. By these means, the relish for life is in a great degree destroyed before we lose it. Thus in disease, the most timid often meet death with composure, and sometimes, as I have repeatedly witnessed, with pleasure. I have even known the information that the danger was passed, received only with expressions of regret.” 187.

We heartily wish that Dr. Philip would treat us to a good sound dish of original information, instead of hashing up in so many new shapes the fragments of former meals—some of which have got stale, and others not over-wholesome. Let Dr. Philip ponder on what the reviewer of his works, in the last Number of the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, says on this subject:

“In almost every page, the author’s earlier (and peculiar) opinions, physiological and pathological, are inextricably mixed with the more immediate object of the treatise, so that, to enter into any discussion on the subject would be, in fact, to review the author’s former works.”4

We are not, therefore, alone in our saying we are exhausted by the Dr. Philip’s extraordinary self-referential program of authorship. If Dr. P. was an ordinary writer, of the sort incapable of producing original works, there might be some excuse for compilation and recompilation. But he has not this excuse to make—and would not, we apprehend, be very fond of making it, if true.

Which is to say: Dr. Philip fails to satisfy.


  1. italics original, see Fed. Schol. Soc. Notes, Stardate 48317.6 

  2. I keep saying “18th Century” despite this magazine being from the early 19th, because of course these folks were almost certainly all born in the 18th. 

  3. Volume 13, Number 3 (July, 1958) 

  4. Ed. Journal, July, 1834, p. 178