The discreet charm of eighteenth-century vitalism and its avatars

Publication Year:
Usage 277
Downloads 277
Repository URL:
Wolfe, Charles T.
conference paper description
The species of vitalism discussed here, to immediately rule out two possible misconceptions, is neither the feverish cosa mentale found in ruminations on ‘biopolitics’ and fascism – where it alternates quickly between being a form of evil and a form of resistance, with hardly any textual or conceptual material to discuss – nor the opaque, and less-known form in which it exists in the worlds of ‘Theory’ in the humanities, perhaps closely related to the cognate, ‘materiality’. Rather, vitalism here is a malleable construct, often with a poisonous reputation (but which I want to rehabilitate), hovering in the realms of the philosophy of biology, the history of medicine, and the scientific background of the Radical Enlightenment (case in point, the influence of vitalist medicine on Diderot). This is a more vital vitalism, or at least a more ‘biologistic’, ‘embodied’, medicalized vitalism. I first distinguish between what I would call ‘substantival’ and ‘functional’ forms of vitalism, as applied to the eighteenth century. Substantival vitalism presupposes the existence of something like a (substantive) vital force which either plays a causal role in the natural world as studied by scientific means, or remains a kind of hovering, extra-causal entity. Functional vitalism tends to operate ‘post facto’, from the existence of living bodies to the desire to find explanatory models that will do justice to their uniquely ‘vital’ properties in a way that fully mechanistic models (one thinks e.g. of Cartesian mechanism) cannot. I discuss some representative figures of the Montpellier school as being functional rather than substantival vitalists. A second point concerns the reprisal of vitalism(s) in ‘late modernity’; from Hans Driesch to Georges Canguilhem (who was perhaps the first in the post-war years to provocatively call himself a vitalist, when this was still a ‘bad word’). I suggest that in addition to the substantival and functional varieties, we then encounter a third, more existential form of vitalism, articulated by Canguilhem, in which vitalism is a kind of attitude towards Life. All of this, I hope, argues for a form of vitalism which is neither tedious scientism nor dangerous political rhetoric of health and sickness; instead, a vitalism with its own discreet charm.