Theophilis Borden’s vitalism concept is strongly reminscent of the Oriental philosophy first documented by western European missionaries sometime during the late Renaissance Period.  In particular, Dutch renderings of these travels published around 1666 detailed the experiences of missionaries making their way through what is now China, and their interpretation of the observations being made.  The cross between eastern and western medical philosophies involved the meaning of fire.  To western philosophers, fire was one of the four elements, and when the missionaries wrote about the notion of chi for the first time in their recounts of expeditions, the chi concept was interpreted by western philosophers as fire. 

Western Alchemy, Oriental Medicine, Galenism, Bordenism

Aside from Chi, the notion of acupuncture based healing also made its way into these writings, but interestingly, with auricular acupuncture and moxibustion becoming better known than the more traditional needle-based acupuncture treatments of modern-day oriental medicine.   This is probably due to the fact that moxibustion requires fire in order to be performed; this process of exciting the chi in the body makes use of a smoldering artemisia stick placed over specific points on the body’s surface in order to transfer the important energy of fire into the body.   This extracorporeal concept of the body’s life force very much reflected upon similar philosophies existing in the past such as Paracelsus’ entia, and the equivalent to it, the ens veneris (the Christian Alchemical equivalent to the Philosopher’s Stone), brought back into the natural philosophical writings in 1651 by George Starkey of Harvard University and promoted by chemist Robert Boyle (reviewed extensively elsewhere regarding Dr. Osborn’s use of this philosophy).  It is these writings that first documented the practice of moxibustion that enabled the later republished and popularized use of acupuncture sites to become a recurring part of the medical literature from about 1810 (reintroduced to Western European philosophy by a Dutch-Belgian physician) to 1825 (popularized by Dr. Wm. Churchill of London).  

It is also these Dutch and French missionary writings that more completely described the yin and yang philosophy as this relates to health and the body.  In terms of natural philosophy, one could easily equate these concepts to the positive and negative changes or forces defined by Benjamin Franklin, a result of the natural forms of electricity that exist throughout the universe.  Such a transformation of philosophy or belief was not at all unusual to the popular culture for the time, and for some writers, to the profession of medicine as well.  Whereas Chinese tradition consisted of 5 elements, the addition of essence by Paracelsus as the fifth element, and for some the description of the entia, enabled scholars to understand the possibility of this fifth element.   In Chinese tradition, this fifth element is wood, and is unique from the other four elements paired by western-eastern traditions (water=water, earth=earth, fire=fire, air= [missing]; related to wood +/- metal?).  Wood serves as the fuel for the fire, and is an added requirement for fire to be produced using air, versus the less pyrophilic earthen element.  Metal is a refined element with many properties distinguishing it from earth; metal reacts to air.

Quoted from Dennis A. Chu’s “Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Reiki “ (Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am, 15 (2004) 773–781) in G Maciocia’s The foundation of Chinese medicine (New York: Churchill Livingstone; 1996) pp. 39–48:

At the time of birth, an infant inherits Qi from his or her parents. This Qi is called preheaven Qi, or original Qi (Yuan Qi).  When the infant grows up, it requires foods to produce energy. The Qi that comes from foods is called food Qi (Gu Qi). The Gu Qi ascends up to the lung and is associated with air to become gathering Qi (Zhong Qi). The Zhong Qi is transformed to true Qi (Zhen Qi), which spreads out over the body to nourish each organ and channel. True Qi or Zhen Qi assumes two different forms: nutritive Qi (Ying Qi) and defense Qi (Wei Qi). Qi Gong and Tai Chi are special exercises designed to increase Qi in the body.

Chi [Qi] and Vitalism

Much of the literature so far reviewed suggest that Dutch and French writers were the primary reason many of the Oriental traditions came to be known by Western European scholars, whose writings in turn impacted medicine and science.  The most important concepts of Oriental philosophy that relate to Western European practice and philosophy pertain to the Chi [Qi] concept. 

 The Chi of the body is a metaphysical concept used to describe the life processes a body engages in.  The Chi is developed in several steps that are obviously important to life, no matter which culture the philosophy of life is evolved from.  The importance of the heart is noted by most cultures, along with the brain, the lungs and the heart.  In Oriental tradition, each of these organs is assigned some role in the development of the life force and its chi-related subcomponents.  The flow of food into the stomach forms the gu-chi, which moves to the liver and become more concentrated to form a version of the chi that is then transmitted through the blood ultimately producing wei-chi.  This chi then receives an important “energizing” or “vitalizing” component, in theory, from the lungs, becoming zhong-chi.  All of these are finely filtered to produce a very concentrated form of chi in the opposing organ for the “kidneys” in Oriental philosophy (known as “triple burner”, this produces a finely filters and concentrated substance referred to as zhen-chi.  Today this concept is often linked to the hormones produced by the adrenocortical glands above the kidney–its partner organ, a concept also very common to Oriental tradition–i.e. the yin and yang of this part of the life process.

It is probably no coincidence that Borden’s philosophy of the flow of vital force through the body is based on 3 of these 4 organs noted by Oriental physicians as being most important to the living process–the “tripod of life” formed by the stomach, heart and brain.   Oriental philosophy does not incorporate the central nervous system as much into the chi and true chi or zhen qi as much as colonial or modern galenic philosophy.   But the overlap in philosophies regarding the vital force are obvious, and meaningful.  Like in recent years and decades, the vital force concept has always had periods of popular culture support accompanied by professional medical claims labeling such a belief as some form of “quackery” for the time, accomapnied by others who try to transform each of the western and eastern disciplines into a common hybridized discipline, in which western society’s medical claims are used to explain why the Oriental claims could possibly be “true.”   Western medicine has been through at least 5 periods in which modern teachings were used to explain why chinese traditions were possibly true, i.e. “the Great Nerve theory”-1650, the electric cure discipline-early 1700s, 1800-1840, galvanic theory-1790-1870, autonomic theory-ca. 1900-1920, endocrine theory-ca. 1930, stress (adrenaline/noradrenaline) theory-1940, psychosomatic theory-1950s, natural opiates (endorphins) theory-1980-1990, psychosomatic/psychoneurological theory-1990-200o, and the current psychoneuroimmunological and quantum theories. 

In time Bordenism got transformed into a number of other traditions.  During the early 1800s, it was often linked to the common theory of disease based on Irritability, another philosophy common to late 18th century physicians.   Theophilus Borden applied this idea that irritation could be related to the theory of secretions. In his treatise on the position of the glands and their functions, Theophilus rejects the chemical and mechanical explanations popular for the time, and attributes diseases to an irritation of specific parts of the body, a process which can occur in sequence and be transported from one organ to the next.  In this way the brain influences the stomach and vice versa, or the brain and stomach influence the heart, and through the fairly primitive understanding out there about respiration and the function of the lungs in regards to the blood and chyle of the body, in turn influencing the other organs and body parts ranging from the liver to the intestines.  Should there be a transfer of these influences into a more energetic or vital force form, for which Borden assigned his own terminology to, we can see the possibility that these problems could then result in other systems related diseases, including diseases of the matrix (uterus and ovaries).

The following provide more insights into how Borden’s philosophy could be transformed and related to later disease concepts.

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