The Galvani-Volta debate on animal electricity: The roles of complexity, causality and reductionism

Dipartimento di Fisica "A. Volta" and Museo per la Storia dell'Università di Pavia, Pavia, Italy
fregonese AT

The Galvani-Volta debate on animal electricity is one of the most complex episodes in the history of science. Through various intricate phases, the debate led to polarised positions, with Volta denying Galvani's animal electricity and Galvani denying the role Volta ascribed to contact electricity in muscular contraction. Each of them was convinced to be right and that the opponent was wrong. This situation points to the difficult status of the notion of truth in scientific research and is therefore very interesting.

An effort will be made in this paper to identify the basic elements upon which Galvani and Volta established their own truths. It will be shown how their different pictures resulted from a complex interplay between conceptual representation and experimental inquiry. Stress will be put on the extraordinary complexity of the phenomenological domain and on the way this often led both investigators to focus selectively on smaller empirical areas on the basis of theoretical preconception. Interpretation of how Galvani and Volta constructed their respective systems will be provided by taking into account the positions they took with regard to central issues like causality, reduction of phenomena to hidden structures and the relationship between physiology and physics. Some new perspectives on the Galvani-Volta debate will be provided on such grounds and a comparison offered with the views put forth by other authors.

Session IX.  Italian Heritage and the Galvani-Volta Controversy
Saturday, 24 June 2006, 2.25 - 2.50 pm

11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Pavia, Italy, 2006