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A non-metaphysical evaluation of vitalism in the early twentieth century

Abstract

In biology the term “vitalism” is usually associated with Hans Driesch’s doctrine of the entelechy: entelechies were nonmaterial, bio-specific agents responsible for governing a few peculiar biological phenomena. Since vitalism defined as such violates metaphysical materialism (or physicalism), the received view refutes the doctrine of the entelechy as a metaphysical heresy. But in the early twentieth century, a different, non-metaphysical evaluation of vitalism was endorsed by some biologists and philosophers, which finally led to a logical refutation of the doctrine of the entelechy. In this non-metaphysical evaluation, first, vitalism was not treated as a metaphysical heresy but a legitimate response to the inadequacy of mechanistic explanations in biology. Second, the refutation of vitalism was logically rather than metaphysically supported by contemporary biological knowledge. The entelechy was not a valid concept, because vitalists could neither formulate vital laws (to attribute determinate consequences to the entelechy), nor offer convincing examples of experimental indeterminism (to confirm the perpetual inadequacy of mechanistic explanations).

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Notes

  1. As regards their metaphysical presuppositions, biologists might be more accustomed to materialist formulations (“each particular biological system (e.g., an organism) is constituted by nothing but molecules and their interactions”: Brigandt and Love 2017, p. 2). In contrast, since materialism appears incompatible with some concepts in physics (such as force, fields, and energy), philosophers seek precision and opt for physicalist formulations (“there are no nonphysical events, states, or processes, and so biological events, states, and processes are ‘nothing but’ physical ones”: Rosenberg 2006, p. 25). However, this terminological difference has little impact on the metaphysical evaluation of vitalism. In the case of physicalism, for instance, Peter Godfrey-Smith in his Philosophy of Biology textbook still claims that vitalism is odd because it goes against the physicalist interpretation of life (2014, p. 10).

  2. Apart from organicism, several other doctrines such as emergentism (higher-level properties are irreducible to lower-level properties) and dialectical materialism (matter interacts with each other and its environment), are also presented as offering a middle road between reductive mechanism and vitalism. On emergentism, see Symons (2018) for both philosophical and historical resources (back to the British Emergentists in the early twentieth century). For dialectical materialism, see Levins and Lewontin (1985) for a philosophical introduction, and Haldane (1938/2016, pp. 93–127) for historical resources. Thanks are given to an anonymous reviewer for the source on emergentism.

  3. See Reill (2005), Huneman (2008), Normandin and Wolfe (eds.) (2013), Demarest and Wolfe (2017), Wolfe (2008, 2011, 2013a, b, 2014, 2015, 2017a, b), Wolfe and Terada (2008), and Wolfe and Wong (2015). For earlier resources on vitalism, see Wheeler (1939), Toulmin and Goodfield (1982, pp. 322–330), Schubert-Soldern (1962), Hein (1968, 1969, 1971, 1972), Canguilhem (1967/2008), and Benton (1974). For general introductions to vitalism, see Morgan (1899), Myers (1900), Scoles (1912), Merz (1904, pp. 368–464), Ginsberg (1933), Beckner (1967), De Klerk (1979), and Bechtel and Richardson (1998). In addition, the term “vitalism” was often associated with political and cultural meanings, which are nevertheless beyond the concern of the present paper (Harrington 1996; Packham 2012; Mitchell 2013).

  4. Note that the meaning of the term “logic” as used by Driesch is close to what we mean by “methodological principles or presuppositions of science” today. In the early twentieth century “logic” did not exclusively signify what we mean by “formal logic” today, it could also include “transcendental logic” (in the Kantian or Neo-Kantian tradition) as principles or presuppositions of sciences. I thank the editor for pointing this out.

  5. I am regrettably unacquainted with the German literature on energetics, but see Ostwald (1907) for the notion of energetics as a worldview and Bensaude-Vincent (2005) for a general introduction. In addition, it is also important to note that some other scientists (e.g., the famous Alfred Lotka) presented energetics as a research topic (organisms as energy-capturing devices) rather than a worldview (Lotka 1922; Kingsland 2015).

  6. Rignano’s energetic vitalism did receive some scholarly attention, see Anable (1947, p. 14) and Lovejoy (1911, p. 613). For similar formulations of energetic vitalism, see Spaulding (1903, p. 606) and Haldi (1925).

  7. However, Elkus’ definition of mechanism was slightly misleading since he identified mechanism with determinism [other examples include Spaulding (1903) and Warren (1918)]. Though a definition was never wrong in itself and at best a matter of the author’s choice, Elkus’ definition of mechanism, if insufficiently clarified, would lead to a contradiction. Assuming that the concept of vital energy was valid, it would then become an indispensable causal factor having determinate consequences. This energetic vitalism did not contradict determinism but went against mechanism in the traditional sense (as purely physico-chemical mechanisms). Admittedly, vital energy certainly did not contradict the mechanism redefined (as determinism). As the philosopher Edward Spaulding remarked, for instance, vital energies “could not contradict or be contrary to mechanism, but only to mechanical (kinetic) and the other energies” (1903, p. 606).

  8. Also see Hoernlé (1918) and Warren (1918). Some scientists and philosophers even traced indeterminism in biology back to that in statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics. On statistical mechanics, for example, see Johnstone (1914), Lillie (1927), Swann (1928) and Van Strien (2015), on quantum mechanics see Beyler’s dissertation (1994).

  9. According to Allen (2005), the mechanist Jacques Loeb argued that “the only way to proceed with knowledge that would lead to control over nature was through the Mechanistic approach” (p. 274). However, as Allen has shown, Loeb also supported metaphysical mechanism, so he failed to distinguish between metaphysical and logical/methodological issues.

  10. As the biologist Francis Sumner excellently summarized, “the weakness of vitalism lies in its failure to offer anything but a formal or verbal solution of the difficulties which it raises [no vital laws], and in its insistence on indeterminism, a doctrine which, if applied consistently, would stifle experimental research in biology” (Sumner, 1916, p. 103).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Charles Wolfe and Philip Sloan very helpful suggestions on earlier drafts. Gratitude is also expressed to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the first submission. Thank China Scholarship Council for research fund (201608040017).

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Chen, B. A non-metaphysical evaluation of vitalism in the early twentieth century. HPLS 40, 50 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-018-0221-2

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Keywords

  • Vitalism
  • Mechanism
  • Logic
  • Metaphysics
  • Driesch
  • Rignano