Vitalism - A Counter History of Biology

Start - End 
2019 - 2022 (ongoing)



Vitalism is many things to many traditions: a ‘living matter’ theory to historians of philosophy, an empirical claim about vital forces and/or entelechies to biologists and historians of science, and an existential claim about our human perspectival lives to philosophers (like Bergson and Canguilhem). Over the course of the twentieth century, vitalism as a position in debates on the metaphysics, epistemology and science of life, came to be cast as the arch-villain in the history of the development of biology as a proper, mechanist science. Contrary to its reputation as an obstacle to science, however, vitalism played an important positive part in the development of the life sciences. Nevertheless, vitalism’s role in the history of biology is still frequently depicted as that of an obstacle to be overcome, and although we have moved away from old commonplaces found in textbooks of the history of philosophy or the history of science, to greater precision, vitalism is still misconceived as either strictly a mysterious, vital-force doctrine or, in a more sophisticated categorization, a metaphysically mistaken view that just happened to inspire fruitful biological research.

The goal of this research project is twofold: it aims to produce a new, more complete and nuanced history of vitalism, while at the same time deriving from this new history conceptual insights relevant to contemporary debates on the concepts of organism, biological organization and individuality. An adequate history of vitalism, this project submits, is also a counter-history of biology. Such a counter-history is not meant as a defense of vitalism, or a retelling of the emergence and development of biology with vitalism as the main protagonist rather than antagonist. Instead, it aims to understand key moments in the development of biology through the specificity of vitalism so that more clarity can be gained both on the problems that motivated vitalist positions and the concepts that were developed or altered in the debates in which they were proposed, such as animal economy, milieu intérieur, biological individual. In doing so, this project seeks to penetrate some of the mysterious aura that surrounds vitalism, and show how each of its important incarnations address pressing questions of biological individuality (i.e. what makes a biological entity or system one) and biological normativity, specifically the themes of function and health. In order to do so, it will seek to understand vitalism’s specific role and its relationship to the great variety of other positions on the status of “life” with which it is often associated, compared or contrasted. In this manner, the project will also address the recurring question of whether there really can be “third ways” between vitalism and mechanism, i.e. whether such positions are stable, consistent, and can avoid collapsing into either opposite.