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(Enlightenment) vitalism and mainstream science

Date:01 December 2017
Author:Charles T. Wolfe (Ghent University/IAS, CEU) (guest post)
“Slime Molds” by Maia Valenzuela is licensed under CC BY 2.0; converted to greyscale.
“Slime Molds” by Maia Valenzuela is licensed under CC BY 2.0; converted to greyscale.

In some respects, the history of science is still written by the victors. Even if the categories of actors that we investigate have broadened – from artisans and magi to practitioners of ‘subaltern sciences’, or from Galileo and Descartes to Athanasius Kircher and Joseph Scaliger (Findlen ed., 2004) and from centre to periphery and back again (Cañizares-Esguerra 2006, Delbourgo and Dew, eds., 2008) – the idea of what constitutes scientific method, explanation, laws, and so on in some respects has remained unchanged. Or perhaps better put, while all sorts of challenges to the idea of scientific method have emerged (one thinks of the shift away from the hypothetico-deductivist method), the ‘mathematical’ remains the norm. Thus the eminent historian of medicine Mirko Grmek, working with a conception of science in which the paradigm is the physico-mechanical science of the Scientific Revolution, judges that “the 18th century is much less original than the 17th. The Enlightenment develops the research programs invented by the Scientific Revolution” (Grmek 1982, 323-324).

Equally prominent scholars such as Peter Dear continue to ignore the specificity of a medical, vital or embodied dimension of science in the early modern period, due to a fascination with the mathematical – even when it is historicized, inscribed in broader discursive networks including the theological and/or the social. Sometimes, when confronted with the problem, Dear will rather broadly state that there is “no reason in principle” to “ignore the sciences of life,” since ‘physics’ in the early modern period is conceived as inquiry into nature in general (Dear 1998, 190). In addition – and this is still supporting a ‘winner’s’ narrative, as I hope is clear – when Domenico Bertoloni Meli rather brilliantly responds to Dear’s tendency to erase medicine from the core story of the mathematically driven Scientific Revolution, he further normalizes the issue by stressing the interplay between the mathematical and medical disciplines, so that

when unraveling the intellectual world in the seventeenth-century, we can no longer separate the history of anatomy from the history of science as if anatomists and physicians inhabited a different world from not only mechanical and experimental philosophers, but also mathematicians (Bertoloni Meli  2008, 709).

Life science is squarely part of science per se (or is that simpliciter?).

Thus there is a mathematico-centric narrative, and it either runs into problems faced with emerging life science (Wolfe 2011 and Wolfe 2014a, b), or ‘solves’ those problems by showing the presence of a mathematized life science, e.g. in Malpighi.*

There is of course a third strategy, which is to present the cluster of scientific, medical, medico-theoretic and philosophical ideas called ‘vitalism’ (a term first used to describe the doctrines of the Montpellier Faculty of Medicine in the eighteenth century: Rey 2000), as somehow a different scientific paradigm – a holistic, non-reductionist project, directly opposed to mechanistic explanations (sometimes enhanced philosophically as “mechanistic materialism”). So, for instance, Elizabeth Williams presents vitalism as “markedly at odds with the universalizing discourse of Encyclopedist materialism, with its insistence on the uniformity of nature and the universality of physical laws.”  (Williams 2003, 177), a view partly presented also in Peter Hans Reill’s influential study of Enlightenment vitalism (Reill 2005, see critical discussion in Zammito 2016). One could quibble here with the definition of ‘materialism’ (both historically and conceptually) but our topic is vitalism…

Indeed, vitalism here is being valorized as singular and different, as compared to purportedly mainstream Encyclopedist materialism, the latter being understood with  “mechanistic” overtones, in the sense of Engels’ idea of “mechanistic materialism”:

The materialism of the past century was predominantly mechanistic, because at that time ... only the science of mechanics ... had reached any sort of completion... . For the materialists of the eighteenth century, man was a machine. This exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to processes of a chemical and organic nature ...constitutes the specific (and at that time, inevitable) limitation of classical French materialism (Engels 1888, in Marx & Engels 1982, 278).

I’ve sought to challenge this idea of materialism as always mechanistic elsewhere (Wolfe 2016 ), but here would instead ask the following:

Is it possible to grasp some of the conceptual originality of vitalism without either (a) reducing it to mainstream mathematicocentric models of science (the victors’ narrative) or (b) presenting it as an alternate model of science (a kind of reactive loser’s narrative, or competitive victors’ narrative)? In other words, without either normalizing it or projecting a kind of ‘weak messianic power’ onto its supposed abnormality?** This would be something quite different from vitalism’s popularity in the humanities (especially the versions thereof concerned with ‘Theory’), where it tends to be asserted as a kind of ‘truth’ (as in Jane Bennett’s ‘vitality of trash’) rather than historically problematized.

 I suggest that something we might call ‘the knowledge of Life’ (in the language of Canguilhem 1965 and 2008) emerged in early modern science without being part of the mainstream history of life science. But can one can correlate early modern “knowledge of life” with the emergence of a science called ‘biology’? That is, there is an increasing focus on the specific nature, and ontological status of biological entities, particular higher organisms, in the fifty years leading up to the appearance and agreed-upon concept of ‘biology’ as a science (Caron 1988, Wolfe 2011). But this specific focus is neither necessarily experimental, nor it does lead to scientific accomplishments per se, so that it does not fit easily with concrete ‘research programs’; it is difficult to evaluate its “pursuit-worthiness” (Šešelja and Straßer 2014). As Canguilhem put it,

Vitalism expresses a permanent requirement or demand [both these words translate exigence, CW] of life in living beings, the self-identity of life which is immanent in living beings. This explains why mechanistic biologists and rationalist philosophers criticize vitalism for being nebulous and vague. It is normal, if vitalism is primarily a ‘demand’, that it is difficult to formulate it in a series of determinations. (Canguilhem 1965, 86)

Vitalism here is not subsumed under something like the emergence of biology as a science (as it is in the German context studied in a brand-new book, Gambarotto 2017).

Perhaps, I submit, vitalism (i) should not be judged as a ‘loser’ in favor of mathematico-mechanical paradigms of successful science; (ii) should not, conversely, be turned into a ‘winner’ in the sense of an alternate, holistic paradigm — in the once-popular sense of sciences of complexity, self-organization, and so on*** in which

a curious consensus in analytic history of philosophy, medical anthropology, feminist theory and cultural studies at large coalesces around the image of Descartes as anti-magus, stripping nature and the human body of all powers and activity. An earlier enchanted world, criss-crossed by networks of sympathies and antipathies, embracing analogy and suggestion over representation and intervention, traversed by holist herbalists and natural magicians, coupling early bodily realism with organicist ecologism, was sundered and lost with Descartes’ blind scientistic drive for the mastery, possession and penetration of nature (Sutton 1998, 82; Sutton and Tribble 2011)

Yet vitalism’s ontological dimension may play a role in the (ultimately orthodox) constitution of biology as a science (as I suggest in Wolfe, forthcoming****).

 Acknowledgements: Thanks to Laura Georgescu and Didem Pekün for their suggestions.


* Bertoloni Meli 2008. On the issue of ‘antimathematicism’ in eighteenth-century life science see the forthcoming special issue of Synthese edited by Tamas Demeter and Eric Schliesser, including my paper

** The latter can be specified diversely, with reference to the fascination with monsters and teratology; or Epicureanism-Lucretianism overall as opposed to a nomological picture of nature; or materialism as an axiologically destructive project.

*** Prigogine & Stengers 1984, or the version of this specifically focused on the Scientific Revolution, namely Merchant 1980.

**** In Wolfe, C.T. La philosophie de la biologie avant la biologie : une histoire du vitalisme. Paris : Garnier, coll. ‘Histoire et philosophie des sciences’. (forthcoming)


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