From vital forces to models of organism. Reassessing and reconstructing Enlightenment vitalism

Start - End 
2015 - 2018 (ongoing)



The status of Life – the place of living beings in the universe, the question of how philosophy and natural science should approach these beings – has preoccupied philosophers from Aristotle to Leibniz through to Kant, Bergson and Hans Jonas. This has also had the effect that biology itself has never been entirely separate from certain fundamental philosophical questions and conversely, metaphysics has frequently appealed to biology for paradigm cases of what constitutes a substance, an individual, and so forth. Vitalism is a mysterious conceptual entity – the term appears in the late 18th century to describe the doctrines of the Medical Faculty at Montpellier, and is subsequently used quite loosely to describe a variety of philosophical and scientific views usually presented as disobeying some basic scientific precepts. By focusing on this French Enlightenment ‘school’ of vitalist thought I aim to get rid of this mysterious aura and show how it addressed some of the fundamental questions mentioned above.

In recent years, the brand of medico-philosophical thought we now know as ‘Montpellier vitalism’ has received renewed attention in the history and philosophy of science (Rey 1987/2000, Williams 1994, 2003, Cimino & Duchesneau, eds., 1997, Boury 2004, Wolfe, ed., 2008). These studies have attempted to locate this intellectual and scientific episode at the heart of debates on the nature of living being – le vivant, das Lebendige – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as a corrective to the disfavour in which ‘vitalism’ fell over the course of the twentieth century, due to two factors. The first, positive factor is the negative interpretation of any form of vitalism put forth by a dominant, mechanistic and reductionist vision of science and its history (Loeb 1912, Schiller 1978); the second, negative factor is the excesses of Hans Driesch’s “neo-vitalism,” with its claims regarding the existence of substantival and especially ‘extra-causal’ vital forces (Driesch 1914). Much of contemporary arguments against ‘mysterian vitalism’ derive from the Vienna Circle reaction to Driesch’s odd attempt to revive Aristotelian entelechies in his ‘metaphysics of generation’. Thus vitalism continues to be presented as a very extreme, almost mystical view in current biological and philosophical discourse: in a recent review essay on the status of theoretical biology, we are told that “in vitalism, living matter is ontologically greater than the sum of its parts because of some life force (“entelechy,” “élan vital,” “vis essentialis,” etc.) which is added to or infused into the chemical parts” (Gilbert and Sarkar 2000, p. 1). We can see that both philosophically and historically something is badly mistaken when it comes to vitalism.

I have recently edited a special issue of Science in Context on a much broader set of related topics (from early modern medical debates on sensibility and irritability to nineteenth-century German theories of organic form), and am also editing the proceedings of a conference I organized on empiricism and the body in early modern science (Wolfe et al., eds. 2010). Distinct from these but building on them, in the present project I shall produce a monograph and several scholarly articles on eighteenth-century vitalism. This will achieve two aims, historical and philosophical.

In terms of the history of science – here, of the biomedical sciences broadly conceived – this means giving a definitive account of the conceptual bases of Montpellier vitalism: its models of organic life (including general programmatic discussions of what ‘physiology’ or ‘the animal economy’ should be), and its critiques both of mechanism (iatromechanism, Descartes, Boerhaave etc.) and of unscientific animism (Stahl). Such an account would also include the Newtonian-inspired physiology of Albrecht von Haller, who despite his belonging to a different tradition (the ‘Göttingen school’, see Steinke 2005) had enormous impact on the crystallization of vitalist theory and practice.

To give a historically precise definition of what ‘vitalism’ meant in this context would also demonstrate the difference between this episode and the target of the criticisms of the Vienna Circle (which of course has a philosophical dimension, to which I return below). Notably, there is a complex interplay between the mix of medical and theoretical positions known as ‘vitalism’ in France in the second half of the eighteenth century, and the philosophical doctrine of ‘materialism’ that emerges in its modern form in the same time and place. This interplay has led some rare commentators to speak of a “vitalist materialism” (Wahl 1962, Kaitaro 1997, Thomson 2001), and is manifest also in the presence of numerous vitalists amongst the authors of the medical articles of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. To be clear, the mainstream view found in current reference works of history of science is still that “materialists explain everything in terms of matter and motion; vitalists, in terms of the soul or vital force” (Wellman 2003); it is here that careful historic-philosophical scholarship can correct some basic interpretive mistakes. This is why I oppose the common notion of ‘vital forces’ with what I called ‘organic economies’ in the title, namely, what we would today call ‘organisms’ (the term only entered into active use in the 1800s) and what the 18th century and specifically vitalist theory called the ‘animal economy’. The animal economy is basically a name for everything about living beings (organisms) which the model of the machine does not fully capture.

Montpellier vitalism was not opposed to philosophical materialism but existed in a complex interplay with this cluster of ideas, proto-scientific theories and ontological claims. After all, it was a medically motivated set of claims about living matter; and conversely, materialism at this time was strongly influenced by the emerging biological sciences (Roger 1997, Wolfe, ed., 2000, 2008 and Wolfe 2009a, 2009b). An intriguing instance of this is that Théophile de Bordeu, a leading Montpellier vitalist, also appears as a fictional character in Diderot’s philosophical novel D’Alembert’s Dream, precisely as a spokesperson for a kind of medically motivated yet speculative materialism. This historical specificity is also a sign of the conceptual novelty we are dealing with, since after the Vienna Circle’s refutations of Driesch in the early 20th century it became inconceivable in contemporary philosophy that ‘materialism’ and ‘vitalism’ could go together. Using historical material, I want to show that they can. The philosophical implications here extend from problems of causality (to what extent are mechanical explanations and causally closed models suitable to embodied agents?) and the individuality of organisms, to recent debates in the philosophy of biology – for an immediate reaction one might have to this work is to view this newly ‘respectable’ vitalism as providing intellectual foundations or at least ammunition for recent trends such as systems biology, developmental systems theory, and other ‘holistically’ motivated projects. Instead, I will argue that the contribution of Montpellier vitalism is not necessarily a renewal or revival of holistic theories (à la Goldstein, Jonas et al.), but rather the emergence of what one might call (following Canguilhem 1965) an ‘attitudinal vitalism’, i.e., vitalism as an attitude towards Life and matter rather than an ontological commitment.

Focusing on certain key conceptual features of the vitalist ‘school’ in the eighteenth century – particularly its opposition between mechanism and organism, its organizational concepts, and its approach to the question of organic uniqueness or biological autonomy – I aim, then, to revise some commonly held views about reduction, mechanism and the life sciences in the Enlightenment, and, after forty-odd years of ferment in the philosophy of science, to resume an inquiry into the conceptual problems of ‘life’ in the manner of Canguilhem.

Concretely, I will produce an analysis of the ideas of Ménuret (in the Encyclopédie), Bordeu, Fouquet and Barthez on life, matter, organization, the role of medicine and the role of philosophy, including materialist philosophies of Life in that period; this analysis of the texts will also use the best interpretive tools deriving from 20th and 21st-century philosophy of biology (as in the Ghent researchers Van Speybroeck et al.’s [2002] successful analysis of early theories of epigenesis in relation to contemporary theories of ‘epigenetics’). The latter will include my articulation of vitalism in a form adequate to late modernity, namely, vitalism as an ‘attitude’, a heuristic approach to the phenomena of Life rather than an ontological claim about the uniqueness of Life versus the rest of the natural world. From the Montpellier vitalists to Canguilhem, I suggest that an argument develops for what I’ve called ‘attitudinal vitalism’, an account of how both we as ‘knowers’ and living beings in general need to adopt a certain kind of attitude towards Life – living agents, organisms – in order to grasp it adequately. By elaborating on and reconstructing this argument, this project should significantly change our understanding of what materialism and vitalism were, how they related to one another, with implications both for our picture of the Enlightenment, the philosophy of medicine and the life sciences overall.