A Historico-Logical Study of Vitalism: Life and Matter

Start - End 
2016 - 2020 (ongoing)
Department of Philosophy and moral sciences
Research Focus 
Research Region 
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This project attempts to offer a philosophical critique of vitalism from the standpoints of both the history of science and the logic of science (the logic of science endorses logical analysis, a method embraced in the early twentieth century by logical empiricists, pragmatists, neo-Kantians, and some phenomenologists). Vitalism today is generally viewed as a heresy going against dominate metaphysical positions of materialism and physicalism (or naturalism, as often claimed). In other words, the received view insists that vitalism should be rejected as an outdated metaphysical doctrine. But my project takes issues with the received view from two perspectives. First, I show that in the history of science vitalism was a serious topic, with intimate connections to issues in biological evolution and physics. Regarding biological evolution, both before and after Darwin there were serious endeavors to articulate a theory of vital evolutionism (biological evolution is governed, in part, by the principle of life); regarding physics, almost in every conceptual innovation in physics after the late eighteenth century some physicists and philosophers would use those new physical concepts to “solve” the mystery of life. Second, I claim that it is unfair to reject vitalism as a metaphysical heresy, and that vitalism should be examined from the logical standpoint. The results of the logical examination consist of two parts. On the one hand, I claim that vitalism should receive a logical (rather than metaphysical) refutation, as vitalists fail to provide any vital laws; on the other hand, popular doctrines in philosophy of biology (anti-reductionism, organicism, evolution, and teleology) might all be suspicious of having made vitalistic commitments when they are claimed to have addressed the nature of life. I conclude that the failure of vitalism ultimately alludes to the gloomy fact that even in science today we know very little about the nature of life.