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Vitalism is the doctrine that "living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things". Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the "vital spark", "energy" or "élan vital", which some equate with the soul.
Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: most traditional healing practices posited that disease results from some imbalance in vital forces. In the Western tradition founded by Hippocrates, these vital forces were associated with the four temperaments and humours; Eastern traditions posited an imbalance or blocking of qi (or prana).
The Milesian school of ancient Greek philosophy proposed natural explanations (physics theories) deduced from materialism and mechanism. However, by the time of Lucretius, the purely mechanist account was supplemented, (for example, by the clinamen of Epicurus), and in stoic physics, the warm, wet biogenetic breath of life, pneuma, would assume the role of logos... interpenetrating and organizing both the animal psyche, and all matter in the cosmos. Galen believed the lungs draw pneuma from the air, which the blood communicates throughout the body.
Plato's world of eternal and unchanging Forms, imperfectly represented in matter by a divine Artisan, contrasts sharply with the various mechanistic Weltanschauungen, of which atomism was, by the fourth century at least, the most prominent... This debate was to persist throughout the ancient world. Atomistic mechanism got a shot in the arm from Epicurus... while the Stoics adopted a divine teleology... The choice seems simple: either show how a structured, regular world could arise out of undirected processes, or inject intelligence into the system.—R.J.Hankinson, Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought
In Europe, stoic pneuma influenced medieval physics, helping to shape later aether theories and in the 17th century, modern science responded to Newton's action at a distance and the mechanism of Cartesian dualism with vitalist theories: whereas the chemical transformations undergone by non-living substances are reversible, so-called "organic" matter is permanently altered, by cooking, for example. Jöns Jakob Berzelius, one of the early 19th century fathers of modern chemistry, argued that a regulative force must exist within living matter to maintain its functions. Vitalist chemists predicted that organic materials could not be synthesized from inorganic components. However, Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from inorganic components in 1828. However, contemporary accounts do not support the common belief that vitalism died when Wöhler made urea. This Wöhler Myth, as historian of science Peter J. Ramberg called it, originated from a popular history of chemistry published in 1931, which, "ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, turned Wöhler into a crusader who made attempt after attempt to synthesize a natural product that would refute vitalism and lift the veil of ignorance, until 'one afternoon the miracle happened'". Further discoveries continued to obviate the need for a special "vital force".
Vitalism is no longer philosophically and scientifically viable, most often used as a pejorative epithet. Ernst Mayr, co-founder of the modern evolutionary synthesis and a critic of vitalism, wrote:
It would be ahistorical to ridicule vitalists. When one reads the writings of one of the leading vitalists like Driesch one is forced to agree with him that many of the basic problems of biology simply cannot be solved by a philosophy as that of Descartes, in which the organism is simply considered a machine... The logic of the critique of the vitalists was impeccable.
Vitalism has become so disreputable a belief in the last fifty years that no biologist alive today would want to be classified as a vitalist. Still, the remnants of vitalist thinking can be found in the work of Alistair Hardy, Sewall Wright, and Charles Birch, who seem to believe in some sort of nonmaterial principle in organisms.
In fact, science continued to investigate the possibility of vital properties. Louis Pasteur, shortly after his famous rebuttal of spontaneous generation, performed several experiments that he felt supported the vitalism. According to Bechtel, Pasteur "fitted fermentation into a more general programme describing special reactions that only occur in living organisms. These are irreducibly vital phenomena." In 1858, Pasteur showed that fermentation only occurs when living cells are present and, that fermentation only occurs in the absence of oxygen; he was thus led to describe fermentation as "life without air". Rejecting the claims of Berzelius, Liebig, Traube and others that fermentation resulted from chemical agents or catalysts within cells, he concluded that fermentation was a "vital action".
Other vitalists include English anatomist Francis Glisson (1597–1677) and the Italian doctor Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694). Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733–1794) is considered to be the father of epigenetic descriptive embryology, that is, he marks the point when embryonic development began to be described in terms of the proliferation of cells rather than the incarnation of a preformed soul. In his Theoria Generationis (1759), he endeavored to explain the emergence of the organism by the actions of a "vis essentialis", an organizing, formative force, and declared "All believers in epigenesis are Vitalists." Carl Reichenbach later developed the theory of Odic force, a form of life-energy that permeates living things.
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach established epigenesis as the model of thought in the life sciences in 1781 with his publication of Über den Bildungstrieb und das Zeugungsgeschäfte. Blumenbach cut up freshwater polyps and established that the removed parts would regenerate. He inferred the presence of a "formative drive" (Bildungstrieb) in living matter. But he pointed out that this name, "like names applied to every other kind of vital power, of itself, explains nothing: it serves merely to designate a peculiar power formed by the combination of the mechanical principle with that which is susceptible of modification". In the early 18th century, the physicians Marie François Xavier Bichat and John Hunter recognized a "living principle" in addition to mechanics.
Between 1833 and 1844, Johannes Peter Müller wrote a book on physiology called Handbuch der Physiologie, which became the leading textbook in the field for much of the nineteenth century. The book showed Müller's commitments to vitalism; he questioned why organic matter differs from inorganic, then proceeded to chemical analyses of the blood and lymph. He describes in detail the circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, endocrine, nervous, and sensory systems in a wide variety of animals but explains that the presence of a soul makes each organism an indivisible whole. He also claimed the behavior of light and sound waves showed that living organisms possessed a life-energy for which physical laws could never fully account.
Hans Driesch (1867–1941) interpreted his experiments as showing that life is not run by physicochemical laws. His main argument was that when one cuts up a embryo after its first division or two, each part grows into a complete adult. Driesch's reputation as an experimental biologist deteriorated as a result of his vitalistic theories.
Other vitalists included Johannes Reinke and Oscar Hertwig. Reinke used the word neovitalism to describe his work, he claimed that it would be eventually verified through experimentation and wanted an improvement over the other vitalistic theories. The work of Reinke was an influence for Carl Jung.
John Scott Haldane adopted an anti-mechanist approach to biology and an idealist philosophy early on in his career. Haldane saw his work as a vindication of his belief that teleology was an essential concept in biology. His views became widely known with his first book Mechanism, life and personality in 1913. Haldane borrowed arguments from the vitalists to use against mechanism; however, he was not a vitalist. Haldane treated the organism as fundamental to biology: "we perceive the organism as a self-regulating entity", "every effort to analyze it into components that can be reduced to a mechanical explanation violates this central experience". The work of Haldane was an influence on organicism.
Haldane also stated that a purely mechanist interpretation can not account for the characteristics of life. Haldane wrote a number of books in which he attempted to show the invalidity of both vitalism and mechanist approaches to science. Haldane explained:
We must find a different theoretical basis of biology, based on the observation that all the phenomena concerned tend towards being so coordinated that they express what is normal for an adult organism.—
By 1931, "Biologists have almost unanimously abandoned vitalism as an acknowledged belief."
Relationship to emergentism
Some aspects of contemporary science make reference to emergent processes; those in which the properties of a system cannot be fully described in terms of the properties of the constituents. This may be because the properties of the constituents are not fully understood, or because the interactions between the individual constituents are also important for the behavior of the system.
On the one hand, many scientists and philosophers regard emergence as having only a pseudo-scientific status. On the other hand, new developments in physics, biology, psychology, and cross-disciplinary fields such as cognitive science, artificial life, and the study of non-linear dynamical systems have focused strongly on the high level 'collective behaviour' of complex systems, which is often said to be truly emergent, and the term is increasingly used to characterize such systems.—
Emmeche et al. (1998) state that "there is a very important difference between the vitalists and the emergentists: the vitalist's creative forces were relevant only in organic substances, not in inorganic matter. Emergence hence is creation of new properties regardless of the substance involved." "The assumption of an extra-physical vitalis (vital force, entelechy, élan vital, etc.), as formulated in most forms (old or new) of vitalism, is usually without any genuine explanatory power. It has served altogether too often as an intellectual tranquilizer or verbal sedative—stifling scientific inquiry rather than encouraging it to proceed in new directions."
A popular vitalist theory of the 18th century was "animal magnetism", in the theories of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). However, the use of the (conventional) English term animal magnetism to translate Mesmer's magnétisme animal can be misleading for three reasons:
- Mesmer chose his term to clearly distinguish his variant of magnetic force from those referred to, at that time, as mineral magnetism, cosmic magnetism and planetary magnetism.
- Mesmer felt that this particular force/power only resided in the bodies of humans and animals.
- Mesmer chose the word "animal", for its root meaning (from Latin animus = "breath") specifically to identify his force/power as a quality that belonged to all creatures with breath; viz., the animate beings: humans and animals.
Mesmer's ideas became so influential that King Louis XVI of France appointed two commissions to investigate mesmerism; one was led by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the other, led by Benjamin Franklin, included Bailly and Lavoisier. The commissioners learned about Mesmeric theory, and saw its patients fall into fits and trances. In Franklin's garden, a patient was led to each of five trees, one of which had been "mesmerized"; he hugged each in turn to receive the "vital fluid", but fainted at the foot of a 'wrong' one. At Lavoisier's house, four normal cups of water were held before a "sensitive" woman; the fourth produced convulsions, but she calmly swallowed the mesmerized contents of a fifth, believing it to be plain water. The commissioners concluded that "the fluid without imagination is powerless, whereas imagination without the fluid can produce the effects of the fluid". It is sometimes claimed
Complementary and alternative medicine
- alternative medical systems, or complete systems of therapy and practice;
- mind-body interventions, or techniques designed to facilitate the mind's effect on bodily functions and symptoms;
- biologically based systems, including herbalism;
- manipulative and body-based methods, such as chiropractic and massage therapy; and
- energy therapy.
The therapies that continue to be most intimately associated with vitalism are bioenergetic medicines, in the category of energy therapies. This field may be further divided into bioelectromagnetic medicines (BEM) and biofield therapies (BT). Compared with bioenergetic medicines, biofield therapies have a stronger identity with vitalism. Examples of biofield therapies include therapeutic touch, Reiki, external qi, chakra healing and SHEN therapy. Biofield therapies are medical treatments in which the "subtle energy" field of a patient is manipulated by a biofield practitioner. The subtle energy is held to exist beyond the electromagnetic (EM) energy that is produced by the heart and brain. Beverly Rubik describes the biofield as a "complex, dynamic, extremely weak EM field within and around the human body...."
The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, promoted an immaterial, vitalistic view of disease: "...they are solely spirit-like (dynamic) derangements of the spirit-like power (the vital principle) that animates the human body." As practised by some homeopaths today, homeopathy simply rests on the premise of treating sick persons with extremely diluted agents that – in undiluted doses – are deemed to produce similar symptoms in a healthy individual. Nevertheless, it remains equally true that the view of disease as a dynamic disturbance of the immaterial and dynamic vital force is taught in many homeopathic colleges and constitutes a fundamental principle for many contemporary practising homeopaths.
Vitalism has sometimes been criticized as begging the question by inventing a name. Molière had famously parodied this fallacy in Le Malade imaginaire, where a quack "answers" the question of "Why does opium cause sleep?" with "Because of its soporific power." Thomas Henry Huxley compared vitalism to stating that water is the way it is because of its "aquosity". His grandson Julian Huxley in 1926 compared "vital force" or élan vital to explaining a railroad locomotive's operation by its élan locomotif ("locomotive force").
|Wikiversity has learning materials about Vitalism|
- BECHTEL, WILLIAM and ROBERT C. RICHARDSON (1998). Vitalism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Vitalism
- Jidenu, Paulin (1996) African Philosophy, 2nd Ed. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-21096-8, p.16.
- Zarrilli PB (1989). "Three bodies of practice in a traditional South Indian martial art". Soc Sci Med 28 (12): 1289–309. PMID 2660283.
- Noll R (1989). "What has really been learned about shamanism?". J Psychoactive Drugs 21 (1): 47–50. PMID 2656952.
- Merchant J (2006). "The developmental/emergent model of archetype, its implications and its application to shamanism". J Anal Psychol 51: 125–44. doi:10.1111/j.1465-5922.2006.576_1.x. PMID 16451325.
- Charles Birch, John B. Cobb, The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, 1985, p. 75
- Hankinson, R. J. (1997). Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought. Oxford University Press. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-19-924656-4.
- Andrew Ede (2007), The Rise and Decline of Colloid Science in North America, 1900–1935: The Neglected Dimension, p. 23
- Vitalism and Synthesis of Urea
- The Real Death of Vitalism: Implications of the Wöhler Myth
- cited by Schummer J, op cit
- n 1845, Adolph Kolbe succeeded in making acetic acid from inorganic compounds, and in the 1850s, Marcellin Berthelot repeated this feat for numerous organic compounds. In retrospect, Wöhler's work was the beginning of the end of Berzelius's vitalist hypothesis, but only in retrospect, as Ramberg had shown.
- "Other writers (eg, Peterfreund, 1971) simply use the term vitalism as a pejorative label." in Galatzer-Levy, RM (1976) Psychic Energy, A Historical Perspective Ann Psychoanal 4:41–61 
- Mayr E (2002) The Walter Arndt Lecture: The Autonomy of Biology, adapted for the internet, on 
- Ernst Mayr Toward a new philosophy of biology: observations of an evolutionist 1988, p. 13
- Vitalism. Bechtel W, Richardson RC (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. E. Craig (Ed.), London: Routledge.
- Charles Birch, John B. Cobb, The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, 1985, pp. 76–78
- Developmental Biology 8e Online: A Selective History of Induction
- Jung's Concept of Die Dominanten (The Dominants) Online
- Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain, 2001, pp. 168–169
- Mark A. Bedau, Carol E. Cleland, The Nature of Life: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives from Philosophy and Science, 2010, p. 95
- Schultz, SG (1998). "A century of (epithelial) transport physiology: from vitalism to molecular cloning". The American journal of physiology 274 (1 Pt 1): C13–23. PMID 9458708.
- Gilbert, SF; Sarkar, S (2000). "Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century". Developmental Dynamics 219 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999<::AID-DVDY1036>3.0.CO;2-A. PMID 10974666.
- see "Emergent Properties" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. online at Stanford University for explicit discussion; briefly, some philosophers see emergentism as midway between traditional spiritual vitalism and mechanistic reductionism; others argue that, structurally, emergentism is equivalent to vitalism. See also Emmeche C (2001) Does a robot have an Umwelt? Semiotica 134: 653–693 
- Emmeche C (1997) Explaining Emergence: towards an ontology of levels. Journal for General Philosophy of Science available online
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas
- Best, M; Neuhauser, D; Slavin, L (2003). "Evaluating Mesmerism, Paris, 1784: the controversy over the blinded placebo controlled trials has not stopped". Quality & safety in health care 12 (3): 232–3. doi:10.1136/qhc.12.3.232. PMC 1743715. PMID 12792017.
- "Complementary and Alternative Medicine – U.S. National Library of Medicine Collection Development Manual". Retrieved 2008-03-31.
- Rubik, Bioenergetic Medicines, American Medical Student Association Foundation, viewed 28 November 2006, 
- Mihi a docto doctore / Demandatur causam et rationem quare / Opium facit dormire. / A quoi respondeo, / Quia est in eo / Vertus dormitiva, / Cujus est natura / Sensus assoupire. Le Malade imaginaire, (French Wikisource)
- The Physical Basis of Life, Pall Mall Gazette, 1869
- Preserving Our Vitalistic Philosophy – Joseph B. Strauss, DC. Straight chiropractic philosophy
- Vitalism at the Skeptic's Dictionary
- Vitalism vs. Scientific Materialism – diametrically opposed worldview themes from Project Worldview