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Enlightenment vitalism and the metaphysics of life

When:We 30-10-2019 15:15 - 17:00
Where:Room Omega

Colloquium lecture by Charles T. Wolfe (Ca'Foscari University Venice), organized by the Department of the History of Philosophy

I examine a series of definitions and ways of locating, defending or rejecting ‘vitalism’ in early modern thought, roughly from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries. This yields a broad distinction between more or less metaphysically committed forms of vitalism, which partly (but not wholly) overlaps with a distinction I had suggested in earlier work, between ‘substantival’ and ‘functional’ vitalism, in which the former is indeed a form of metaphysical vitalism. Given the plurivocity, indeed, the slipperiness of the term, I suggest that we restrict the term ‘vitalist’ as applying only to thinkers who are actively concerned with the distinction between life and non-life (whether or not they substantialize this distinction), with special reference to the case of eighteenth-century Montpellier vitalism – where the term was first explicitly used. Further, I discuss the ways in which the association of vitalism with a (potentially problematic) metaphysics of life is partly a polemical construct – and one which is internal to the process of definition of projects and programs in life science, where at times one vitally oriented author will, with a slight air of desperation, seek to brand a predecessor or a rival as a vitalist in order to legitimize his or her own apparently more ‘experimental’ brand of organicism and/or biochauvinism.