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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q109-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2023, from

Article Summary

Vitalists hold 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. In its simplest form, vitalism holds that living entities contain some fluid, or a distinctive ‘spirit’. In more sophisticated forms, the vital spirit becomes a substance infusing bodies and giving life to them; or vitalism becomes the view that there is a distinctive organization among living things. Vitalist positions can be traced back to antiquity. Aristotle’s explanations of biological phenomena are sometimes thought of as vitalistic, though this is problematic. In the third century bc, the Greek anatomist Galen held that vital spirits are necessary for life. Vitalism is best understood, however, in the context of the emergence of modern science during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena were extended to biological systems by Descartes and his successors. Descartes maintained that animals, and the human body, are ‘automata’, mechanical devices differing from artificial devices only in their degree of complexity. Vitalism developed as a contrast to this mechanistic view. Over the next three centuries, numerous figures opposed the extension of Cartesian mechanism to biology, arguing that matter could not explain movement, perception, development or life. Vitalism has fallen out of favour, though it had advocates even into the twentieth century. The most notable is Hans Driesch (1867–1941), an eminent embryologist, who explained the life of an organism in terms of the presence of an entelechy, a substantial entity controlling organic processes. Likewise, the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1874–1948) posited an élan vital to overcome the resistance of inert matter in the formation of living bodies.

Citing this article:
Bechtel, William and Robert C. Richardson. Vitalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q109-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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