Vitalism Versus Emergent Materialism

  • Brian Garrett
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 2)


During the nineteenth century vitalist theories of life were contrasted with mechanistic and materialist hypotheses regarding the nature of life. Religious, philosophical and empirical reasons were offered for vitalism by numerous thinkers. Mechanistic theories of life appeared problematic, despite their steady empirical success. Emergent evolutionism was thought by some (mostly English-speaking thinkers) to be a compromise position between vitalism and materialism, taking mechanism from the materialists and nonreductionism from the vitalists. The debate was interrupted by World War II and largely forgotten after the discovery of the double helix. In this chapter I introduce some of the thinkers involved and articulate the fundamental tenets and aspirations of vitalists and emergent evolutionists, explaining the philosophical debate (and confusion) over the concepts invoked by each side. I draw on philosophers and biologists from 1900 to 1930 in this study.


Emergence Emergent materialism Reductionism Vitalism 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.McMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada

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