On the Vitality of Vitalism

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The term ‘vitalism’ is most readily associated with a series of debates among 18th- and 19th-century biologists, and broadly with the claim that the explanation of living phenomena is not compatible with, or is not exhausted by, the principles of basic sciences like physics and chemistry. Scientists and philosophers have continued to address vitalism - mostly in order to reject it - well into the second half of the 20th century, in connection with classic concepts such as mechanism, reductionism, emergence, complexity and artificial intelligence, and in connection with approaches such as information theory and cybernetics. This article problematizes and transforms the claim that vitalism is obsolete by evaluating it diachronically, in the spirit of the historian and philosopher of medicine, Georges Canguilhem. It discusses the contrast between classical vitalism and Canguilhem’s own claim that vitalism is ‘an imperative rather than a method and more of an ethical system, perhaps, than a theory’. At the same time, it argues (against postmodern and post-humanist critics) that Canguilhem’s position cannot be reduced to a ‘polemical vitalism’ devoid of compromising references to reality or ontology. In relation to contemporary forms of engagement between social theory and biotechnoscience, Canguilhem’s vitalism continues to provide the critical corrective that is proper to its ‘vitality’.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTheory Culture and Society
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2005


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