Folding into being: early embryology and the epistemology of rhythm

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Historians have often described embryology and concepts of development in the period around 1800 in terms of “temporalization” or “dynamization”. This paper, in contrast, argues that a central epistemological category in the period was “rhythm”, which played a major role in the establishment of the emerging discipline of biology. I show that Caspar Friedrich Wolff’s epigenetic theory of development was based on a rhythmical notion, namely the hypothesis that organic development occurs as a series of ordered rhythmical repetitions and variations. Presenting Christian Heinrich Pander’s and Karl Ernst von Baer’s theory of germ layers, I argue that Pander and Baer regarded folding as an organizing principle of ontogenesis, and that the principle’s explanatory power stems from their understanding of folding as a rhythmical figuration. In a brief discussion of the notion of rhythm in contemporary music theory, I identify an underlying physiological epistemology in the new musical concept of rhythm around 1800. The paper closes with a more general discussion of the relationship between the rhythmic episteme, conceptions of life, and aesthetic theory at the end of the eighteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)17-33
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 01.03.2015

Bibliographical note

Online ISSN

    Research areas

  • Philosophy
  • History
  • Development, Embryology, Folding, Rhythm, Rhythmic episteme