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Loeb, Jacques

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Summary Article: Loeb, Jacques from Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers

German-American, b: 17 April 1859, Mayen, Germany, d: 11 February 1924, Hamilton, Bermuda. Cat: Philosopher of biology; experimental biologist. Ints: Nature of the will; mechanistic theory of life. Educ: Universities of Munich and Strasburg. Infls: Literary influences: Schopenhauer, E.von Hartmann and Mendel. Personal: Julius Sachs. Appts: 1886–91, Assistant in Physiology, University of Würzburg, then (1888–90) University of Strasburg and (1889) Naples Marine Biological Station; 1891–1910, Professor in Physiology, Bryn Mawr College, then (1892) University of Chicago, then (1902) University of California, Berkeley; 1910–24, Member of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

Main publications:
  • (1890) Der Heliotropismus der Thiere, und seine Übereinstimmung mit dem Heliotropismus der Planzen, G.Hertz Würzburg. .
  • (1906) Vorlesungen über die Dynamik der Lebenserscheinungen, Barth Leipzig (English translation, The Dynamics of Living Matter, New York: Macmillan, 1906). .
  • (1911) Das Leben, Barth Leipzig (English translation, The Mechanistic Theory of Life, New York: Macmillan, 1912). .
  • (1916) The Organism as a Whole, Hodder & Stoughton London. .
  • Secondary literature:
  • Nordenskiold, Erik (1929) The History of Biology, Knopf New York, chapter 18, pp. 605ff. .
  • Uexküll, Baron von J. (1930) Die Lebenslehre, Müller & Kiepenheuer Potsdam, pp. 133ff. .

  • Loeb was a philosophically inclined physiologist and biologist noted chiefly for his experimental work on parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization) and for his staunch defence of biological mechanism. Popular interest, attended by some controversy, was aroused by Loeb’s pioneering experiments, beginning in 1899, when he successfully brought about the development of sea-urchin larvae from unfertilized eggs by exposing them to controlled changes in their environment.

    From his scientific researches, which were designed to lay the foundations for a common dynamic of all vital phenomena and to illuminate the nature of volition, Loeb drew wide-ranging philosophical conclusions. He contended that not only vital phenomena, but human phenomena too, realized themselves in a purely mechanical way and were explicable solely in terms of physical and chemical concepts. Thus Loeb believed that we have only to improve our understanding of hereditary conditions in order to grasp the source and condition of all human activity. For him, even moral behaviour was no less the forced or automatic reaction of the organism as a whole than was the movement of a plant. Loeb’s rigorous application of his pan-mechanistic or ‘tropistic’ thesis led him to an extreme, reductive philosophical monism. Nevertheless, his views had considerable influence, for example on Thorstein Veblen.

    Sources: Edwards; DFN; EF.


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