Forthcoming: C. Donohue, C.T. Wolfe (eds.), Vitalism and its Legacy in 20th-Century Life Science and Philosophy



We publish here a preview of the this forthcoming volume. The pdf version of the introduction, including table of contents, is available here. The book will be available Open Access starting January 2023.

Vitalism has spent most of the twentieth century being perhaps the most misunderstood and reviled philosophy of life, with organicism being a close second (on the latter see (Martindale 1998), although some theorists seek to drive a wedge between the two in favor of a ‘reasonable’, less ‘metaphysical’ position often associated with organicism (Gilbert and Sarkar 2000).  As a number of the essays in this collection point out (see especially the contributions by Donohue and Moir) vitalism has been conjoined to fascism and the Nazi horrors, and has been reduced to a series of ahistorical propositions.  As both Moir and Donohue emphasize, such associations require more study but at the same time are fundamentally misleading.  Nonetheless, the traditional association of vitalism and fascism as well as vitalism and pseudoscience (or anti-science, as Shmidt underscores) has been remarkably pervasive and still operates.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that vitalism has been accused of both everything and nothing at the same time (regarding its associations with fascism and irrationality.) Gilbert and Sarkar observe that vitalism’s association with organicism has led to the latter’s being associated with “fascism, communism, and New Age spirituality” which they observe “should be enough to bring down any philosophy.” (Gilbert and Sarkar 2000, 5)

Similarly, philosophers since the Vienna Circle (particularly Schlick, Frank and later Nagel), have addressed (and oftentimes) castigated vitalism in various ways. Carnap himself was open to at least questioning the reducibility of biology to physics and chemistry.  He noted that “The philosophical problems of the foundations of biology (italics his) refer above all to the relation between biology and physics. “If yes” (he seemed undecided) all elements of biology can be reduced to physical occurrences.” Carnap also described (in a neutral way) that the core of the “ vitalism-problem” was whether “the laws of biology be derived from the laws of the physics of the inorganic.”  He was much more dismissive of various ways to reduce psychology to physics (Carnap 1934, 18-19). Schlick, on the other hand, described the “psycho-vitalism” of Driesch as “wild speculations” (Schlick, 1968, 79)

Phillip Frank is a bit more forgiving than Schlick (for more discussion of differing Vienna Circle attitudes towards Driesch and vitalism, see Chen 2019).  Frank noted how both philosophers and scientists must be indebted to Driesch because he was the first to provide “a clear and unprejudiced formulation of the problem” of not only vitalism versus mechanism but also whether “must we, in order to satisfy the law of causality in the domain of life, ascribe to the body besides the properties….of physics and chemistry, also other, qualitatively different properties?”  On Driesch’s account of the entelechy, Frank noted that it was “not entirely convincing,” as it was not entirely impossible that scientists had not discovered a combination of inorganic elements which could account for the particular characteristics of life (Frank 1949, 59-60) Nagel opined that “…vitalism has not proved to be a fruitful notion, and it no longer seems to present a live issue in the philosophy of biology” (Nagel 1979, 264).  Nonetheless, Nagel underscored elsewhere that “the historically influential Cartesian conception of biology as simply a chapter of physics continues to meet resistance. Many outstanding biologists who find no merit in vitalism are equally dubious about the validity of the Cartesian program….” (Nagel 1961, 429)  

Morris R. Cohen in his Reason and Nature took much of the same stance as Nagel (which is understandable considering that Cohen was Nagel’s advisor and had a profound influence on him, see (Nagel 1957)).  For Cohen, vitalists maintained that there was a “radical discontinuity between vital and non-vital phenomenon”; that biological laws were “different in character from the laws of the inorganic world” insofar as biological laws “add the fundamental category of purpose”; and that “the method of biology must differ essentially from that of physical science” (Cohen 1959, 248-9). While sympathetic to vitalism in some sense (Cohen observed that “In general we may conclude that while the obvious and important differences between organic and non-organic….) nonetheless he contended that there did not exist a “logical proof that physics and chemistry will never be able to explain the phenomenon of life.” 

Cohen broke with the geneticist J.B.S Haldane when he further observed “that atoms, crystals” and other systems “do maintain their own structure” where “the maintenance of a certain form together with the splitting off of a part which forms the copy of an original is physically illustrated in the phenomena of vortex rings.”  It was also not clear for Cohen “where the progress of mechanical explanations will stop” (Cohen 1959, 269)  Nor, according to Cohen, was it clear whether vitalists could decisively prove that “biological phenomena” resist all “physical analogies” (Cohen, ibid).

Likewise, Mikhail Bakhtin, appropriating the work of Nikolay Lossky, critiqued the ‘neovitalism’ of Driesch and Bergson as a too-strong ontological commitment to the existence of certain entities or ‘forces’ (Bakhtin 1992), over and above the system of causal relations studied and modeled by mechanistic science, which itself seeks to express these entities or the relations between them in mathematical terms.  Lossky himself observed that “The greatest difficulty for vitalism is to understand how this undoubtably immaterial factor, according to Driesch’s research, interferes with the course of material-mechanical processes, ordering them” (Losskii 1928, 84) (emphasis Losskii’s, my translation)

These comments concerning vitalism represent a common view of the subject, whether it is presented in positive terms, as a kind of commendable backlash against the de-humanizing, alienating trend inaugurated by the Scientific Revolution, which seeks to ‘revitalize the world’ or in negative terms, as a kind of anti-scientific or ‘para-scientific’ trend which needs to be refuted (as in Francis Crick’s rather confident pronouncement: “To those of you who may be vitalists, I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow” (Crick 1966, 99). And there is plenty of historical evidence that such a position existed (see Burwick & Douglass, eds., 1992). For sustained criticism of Crick’s account of vitalism see (Waddington 1967) and Peterson (this volume).  

But there has some significant scholarly ‘pushback’ against this orthodox attitude, notably pointing to the Montpellier vitalists of the 18th century (which is where the word ‘vitalism’ is first used), associated with figures like Diderot and the Encyclopédie, as has been shown in recent scholarship (Williams 2003, Reill 2005, Wolfe ed. 2008, Wolfe and Normandin eds. 2013, Wolfe 2019), but also, work on Driesch (Chen 2018, 2019 and this volume, Bolduc, this volume) has shown that even his ‘neovitalism’ is in need of reevaluation. So, there are different historical forms of vitalism, including in their relation to the mainstream practice of science (the topic of Wolfe and Normandin, eds. 2013, focusing however on the post-Enlightenment era  andfunctioning in several respects as a predecessor volume to this one). Faced with this plurality, some adopt the strategy of presenting Enlightenment vitalism as somehow a different scientific paradigm – a holistic, non-reductionist project, directly opposed to mechanistic explanations which is sometimes enhanced philosophically as “mechanistic materialism” (Williams, 2003, 177) – with echoes of Carolyn Merchant’s ‘Death of Nature’ narrative (Merchant 1980).  A rather similar view is presented in P.H. Reill’s work: “Relation, rapport, Verwandschaft [affinity], and interconnection replaced mechanical aggregation as one of the defining principles of matter. By emphasizing the centrality of interconnection, Enlightenment vitalists modified the concept of cause and effect. In the world of living nature, each part of an “organized body” was both cause and effect of the other parts” (Reill 2010, 66; see also Reill 2005). A more nuanced picture, concerning the vitalist approach to reductionist scientific practices such as pathological anatomy, is presented in Wolfe (2013), as well as more broadly regarding the fruitful interplay between mechanistic and vitalistic models in early modern and Enlightenment science, and the emergence of biology (Wolfe forthcoming a, b).

But another option has so far been left out: what happens if we return to the challenge of the anti-vitalist arguments formulated by the Vienna Circle and its successors, and look at vitalism and its connections to biology, genetics, philosophy and medicine in the twentieth century and today, not just as a historical form but as a significant metaphysical and/or scientific model for workingbiology and medicine? Is it possible to grasp some of the conceptual originality of vitalism without either (a) reducing it to mainstream mathematicocentric models of science (in a kind of “victors’ narrative”) or (b) just presenting it as an alternate model of science? In other words, without either normalizing it or projecting a kind of ‘weak messianic power’ onto its supposed abnormality?

This volume seeks to promote dialogue and discussion about the historical and philosophical importance of vitalism and other non-mechanistic conceptions of life in the context of ancient philosophy to the late twentieth century. As such, these essays consistently move against the idea that the 20th century biological sciences must be genetic and must be deterministic .  The idea that mechanism and materialism are essential to the development of the modern life-sciences has furthermore become a mantra, which frequently drives out understanding of holistic, organistic and more system-based approaches.  As importantly, the contributions not only detail a broad engagement with a variety of nineteenth- and twentieth-century vitalisms and conceptions of life, but with important threads in the history of concepts in the United States and Europe, including charting new reception histories in eastern and south-eastern Europe. Most importantly, all of the contributions to this volume work against a reduced and monolithic account of vitalism. As several contributions make clear, even when vitalism is rejected or ‘refuted’ such refutations and questionings often promote fruitful engagements which show the workings of vitalist ideas in a kind of negative reception (or a kind of ‘negative’ vitalism and its influence). Last, this collection brings together the perspectives of scholars from across disciplines in the history and philosophy of biology, bridging critical lacunae in our understanding of key nineteenth and twentieth century figures, without reducing any of them to caricatures.  This volume, drawing upon an already robust and transformative scholarship, not only illustrates the contemporary relevance of vitalism, organicism and holism to recent biology and medicine, but begins the characterization of these rich and complex perspectives on life.

The essays in the volume follow a roughly chronological order. We begin with Tano Posteraro’s contribution.   Posteraro, drawing on the significant progress of scholarship on Bergson, does much work on clarifying exactly what kind of vitalist Bergson is: his vitalism is certainly not that of Driesch and may even be argued as contra-Driesch. Next, Ghyslain Bolduc narrates how Driesch’s vitalism was key to the progress of embryology in the 20th century, often advancing concepts in order to refute Driesch’s arguments.   Bohang Chen argues that Driesch’s vitalism should not be rejected due to its metaphysics, but rather because it produced no vital laws. Nonetheless, Driesch’s account of the entelechy provides insights into both physics and theories of evolution.

Next Christopher Donohue argues that if there is indeed a receptivity towards vitalism in eastern and southeastern Europe, that this was the result of virulently anti-materialist polemic in Czech-speaking and Slovenian-speaking lands in the 19th and early 20th century. Mazviita Chirimuuta contends that Cassirer’s rejection of vitalism and his embrace of holism in his critique of Bergson tells us a great deal about many of his central philosophical and ethical commitments, placing him in conflict with logical empiricism and the Vienna Circle. Then Brooke Holmes demonstrates how Canguilhem appropriated an image of Greek philosophy as part of his discussion of vitalism.  Holmes argues that Greek texts, rather than being static entities, function as texts which are consistently read and reread, becoming an essential structure in 20th century accounts of the life sciences.

Arantza Etxeberria and Charles Wolfe examine Canguilhem’s Kantian account of the living individual vis-a-vis vitalism.  Regarding the naturalistic perspective of the logic of the living individual articulated by Maturana and Varela, both authors find instructive divergences with Canguilhem especially regarding the connection to vitalism. Sebastjan Vörös begins his contribution by noting that both Canguilhem and Merleau-Ponty independently developed a critique of the mechanical-behaviorist view of the life sciences which generated for both an account of the organism that is not indifferent. Both authors filiations with vitalism (and in the case of Merleau-Ponty really in spite of himself) pave the way for what Vörös calls “ouroboric thought” which underscores that we are constituters of nature (or cognizers) live lives that are decisively changed through these acts of constitution.

Cécilia Bognon-Küss shows how what she calls the historical “crisis of the concept of metabolism,” through a fresh interrogation of historical vitalism, allows for solutions to the corresponding “crisis” of biological identity and the limits of “autonomy” in the context of biological entities.  Drawing from a deep discussion of the issues of “distinction” and “persistence” and matter and form as foundational problems of the organism, Bognon’s contribution underscores the necessity of “ecologicizing” biology to account for life as a series of dynamic systems in flux and in openness with the world.

Moving into the realm of genetics, Erik Peterson underscores that Crick’s (in)famous critique of vitalism targeted individuals who were often not vitalists at all.  Rather Peterson underscores that many of the objects of Crick’s ire were proponents of “bioexceptionalism” (or the idea that biology was irreducible to the laws of chemistry and physics).  Although Crick was misinformed his status cemented a reductionistic account of vitalism in the life sciences for decades.  Victoria Shmidt argues that the critique of vitalism was key to the demarcation of health and disease and anti-vitalist polemic was rhetorical resource in the post-war life sciences for ensuring the dominance of genetics, and its consequent reductionism and essentialism of the human person. Shmidt contends further that epistemologies influenced by vitalism encourage the humanistic dissolution of these dichotomies.

Last, Cat Moir critically examines whether vitalism does indeed have politics and whether that politics can be mapped to any kind of ideological framework.  A closer look shows that vitalism is often confused with other frameworks (such as holism) and that any account of the political consequences of vitalism need to begin with a far narrower view of vitalism than has been usually admitted, which is nonetheless consistent with the historical and philosophical tenants of vitalism as it has developed.

Taken as a whole, whether or not these essays testify to the ‘vitality of vitalism’, we hope that they offer scholars from different domains and perspectives, some novel and challenging material – sources, arguments, connections between discourses and problématiques – that may contrast with, or simply complement, both earlier, somewhat flat history-of-science narratives and distinctively (feverishly?) enthusiastic ‘life-philosophy’ ontologies and ontophanies.  


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