Metaphysics, Function and the Engineering of Life: the Problem of Vitalism

Open access


Vitalism was long viewed as the most grotesque view in biological theory: appeals to a mysterious life-force, Romantic insistence on the autonomy of life, or worse, a metaphysics of an entirely living universe. In the early twentieth century, attempts were made to present a revised, lighter version that was not weighted down by revisionary metaphysics: “organicism”. And mainstream philosophers of science criticized Driesch and Bergson’s “neovitalism” as a too-strong ontological commitment to the existence of certain entities or “forces”, over and above the system of causal relations studied by mechanistic science, rejecting the weaker form, organicism, as well. But there has been some significant scholarly “push-back” against this orthodox attitude, notably pointing to the 18th-century Montpellier vitalists to show that there are different historical forms of vitalism, including how they relate to mainstream scientific practice (Wolfe and Normandin, eds. 2013). Additionally, some trends in recent biology that run counter to genetic reductionism and the informational model of the gene present themselves as organicist (Gilbert and Sarkar 2000, Moreno and Mossio 2015). Here, we examine some cases of vitalism in the twentieth century and today, not just as a historical form but as a significant metaphysical and scientific model. We argue for vitalism’s conceptual originality without either reducing it to mainstream models of science or presenting it as an alternate model of science, by focusing on historical forms of vitalism, logical empiricist critiques thereof and the impact of synthetic biology on current (re-)theorizing of vitalism.

Bachelard, G., 1938/2004, La formation de l’esprit scientifique, Paris: Vrin.

Bakhtin, M., 1992, Contemporary Vitalism (1926), translation in F. Burwick & P. Douglass, eds., The crisis in modernism. Bergson and the vitalist controversy, 76–97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bechtel, W. & Richardson, R.C., 1998, Vitalism. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 639–643. London: Routledge.

Bedau, M.A., 2010, An Aristotelian account of minimal chemical life. Astrobiology, 10(10), 1011–1020.

Bernard, C., 1878, Leçons sur les phénomènes de la vie communs aux végétaux et aux animaux, Paris, Baillière.

Von Bertalanffy, L., 1933, Modern Theories of Development. An Introduction to Theoretical Biology, trans. J.H. Woodger. London.

Berthelot, M., 1860, Chimie organique fondée sur la synthèse. Paris: Mallet-Bachelier.

Berzelius, J., 1845, Traité de chimie minérale, végétale et animale. Édité par Friedrich Esslinger et Ferdinand Hoefer. 2nd French edition. Paris: Firmin-Didot frères.

Bichat, X., 1800, Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort. Paris: Béchet.

Blackburn, S., 2003, Metaphysics, In Nicholas Bunnin, E. P. Tsui-James (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition (1st edition 1996), 61–89. London: Blackwell.

Brooke, J.H.,1968, Wöhler’s Urea and its Vital Force – A Verdict from the Chemists. Ambix, 15, 84–114.

Bruylants, G., Bartik, K., Reisse, J., 2010, Is it useful to have a clear-cut definition of life? on the use of fuzzy logic in prebiotic chemistry. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 40(2), 137–143.

Cleland, C.E. 2012, Life without definitions, Synthese, 185(1), 125–144.

Cleland, C.E., & Chyba, C.F., 2002, Defining life, Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 32(4), 387–393.

Crick, F.,1966, Of Molecules and Men. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Driesch, H., 2012, Der Vitalismus als Geschichte und als Lehre (Leipzig, 1905). Reprint, Bremen.

Duchesneau, F., Cimino, G., eds., 1997, Vitalisms: from Haller to the cell theory. Firenze: Olschki.

Dupré, J., 2012, Processes of life: essays in the philosophy of biology, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Endy, D., 2005, Foundations for engineering biology. Nature, 438(7067), 449–453.

Feigl, H., 1953, The scientific outlook: Naturalism and humanism (1949). In H. Feigl & M. Brodbeck (eds.), Readings in the philosophy of science, 8–18. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, INC.

Feigl, H., 1981, Some Crucial Issues of Mind-Body Monism (1971). In R. Cohen (ed.), Inquiries and Provocations, 351–365. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Foucault, M., 1976, Les Mots et les choses. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, M. 1991. Introduction, in G. Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, ed. Robert S. Cohen, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett, 7–24. New York: Zone Books.

Frank, P., 1941, The Law of Causality and Experience (1908). In Between Physics and Philosophy, 17–28. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frank, P., 1949, Modern Science and its Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frank, P., 1998, The Law of Causality and Its Limits (1932) (M. Neurath and R. Cohen, trans., R. Cohen, ed.). Dordrecht: Springer.

Gambarotto, A., 2018, Vital Forces, Teleology and Organization. Philosophy of Nature and the Rise of Biology in Germany. Dordrecht: Springer.

Gayon, J., 2004, De la biologie comme science historique. Sens public.

Gayon, J., 2008, De la biologie à la philosophie de la biologie, In F. Monnoyeur (Ed.), Questions vitales: vie biologique, vie psychique, 83–95. Paris: Kimé.

Gayon, J., 2010, Defining life: synthesis and conclusions. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 40(2), 231–244.

Gayon, J., 2011, Defining life: philosophical or scientific issue?, Leopoldina Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften (ms.)

Gayon, J., 2013, Biologie de synthèse ou biotechnologie synthétique?, Forum “La biologie de synthèse existe-t-elle?”, CNAM, April 25.

Gibson, D.G. et al., 2010, Creation of a Bacterial Cell controlled by a synthesized genome. Science, 329(5987), 52–56.

Gilbert, S. and Sarkar, S., 2000, Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century. Developmental Dynamics, 219, 1–9.

Gurwitsch, A., 1915, On Practical Vitalism, American Naturalist, 49, 763–770.

Hempel, C., 1966, Philosophy of Natural Science, Englewood Cliffs (NJ): Prentice Hall.

Hull, D., 1981, Philosophy and biology. In G. Fløistad (ed.), Contemporary philosophy: a new survey, 281–316. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Jacob, F., 1971, La logique du vivant : une histoire de l’hérédité, Paris, Gallimard.

Kirschner, M., Gerhart, J., Mitchison, T., 2000, Molecular “vitalism”, Cell, 100, 79–88.S.A.

Langton, CG., 1989, “Artificial life” in CG. Langton (ed.) Artificial life I (Proceedings of the first conference on artificial life, Los Alamos, September, 1987). Addison-Wesley, Redwood City.

Lazebnik, Y., 2002, Can a biologist fix a radio?—Or, what I learned while studying apoptosis, Cancer Cell, 2 (3), 179–82.

Luisi, P.L., 1998, About various definitions of life, Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 28(4–6), 613–622.

Machery, E., 2012, Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life... and why you should as well, Synthese, 185(1), 145–164.

Marlière, P., 2002., The farther, the safer: a manifesto for securely navigating synthetic species away from the old living world, Syst Synth Biol., 3(1–4), 77–84.

Mayr, E.,1988, Toward a new philosophy of biology: Observations of an evolutionist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ménuret de Chambaud, J.J., 1765, “Observation(Gram. Physiq. Méd.),” in D. Diderot & J. le Rond D’Alembert (eds.), Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, XI, 313–321. Paris: Briasson.

Morange, M., 2003, La vie expliquée ? 50 ans après la double hélice, Paris: Odile Jacob.

Morange, M., 2010, The resurrection of life, Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 40(2), 179–182.

Moreno, A., Mossio, M., 2015, Biological autonomy. A Philosophical and theoretical enquiry. Dordrecht: Springer.

Müller, J., 1834, Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen für Vorlesungen. Coblenz: Hölscher.

Nagel, E., 1961, The structure of science. Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation, London, Routledge-Kegan Paul.

Ney, A. 2008, Defining Physicalism, Philosophy Compass, 3(5), 1033–1048.

Normandin, S., Wolfe., C.T., eds., 2013, Vitalism and the scientific image in the Post-Enlightenment Life science, 1800–2010. Dordrecht: Springer.

O’Malley MA, Powell A, Davies JF, and Calvert J, 2008, Knowledge-making distinctions in synthetic biology, BioEssays, 30(1), 57–65.

Pascal, B., 1964–1992, OEuvres complétes, Texte établi, présenté et annoté par Jean Mesnard, édition du Tricentenaire, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, Bibliothèque européenne.

Peterson, E.L., 2010, Holism and Evolution in Biology and Anthropology: the Challenge of Gregory Bateson and C. H. Waddington to Biological Orthodoxy, 1924–1980. PhD Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, Program in History and Philosophy of Science.

Peterson, E.L., 2017, The Life Organic: The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Pleiss, J., 2006, The promise of synthetic biology, Applied microbiology and biotechnology, 73(4), 735–739.

Ramberg, P.J. 2000, The death of vitalism and the birth of organic chemistry: Wöhler’s urea synthesis and the disciplinary identity of organic chemistry. Ambix, 47(3), 170–195.

Rasmussen, S., Bedau, M.A, Chen, L., Deamer, D., Krakauer, D.C., Packard, N.H., Stadler, P.F., 2009, Protocells, Bridging Nonliving And Living Matter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, R.J., 2000, Kant and Blumenbach on the Bildungstrieb: A Historical Misunderstanding. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C, 31(1), 11–32.

Ruiz-Mirazo, K., Moreno, A., 2013, Synthetic Biology: Challenging Life in order to grasp, use or extend it, Biological Theory, 7(4), 376–382.

Schlick, M., 1953 [1925], Philosophy of Organic Life, in H. Feigl and M. Brodbeck (eds.), Readings in the Philosophy of Science, 523–536. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Smolke, D.C., 2009, Building outside of the box: iGEM and the BioBricks Foundation. Nat. Biotechnol., 27, 1099–1102.

Strawson, P.F., 1959, Individuals. London: Methuen.

Tomic, S., 2012, Les origines de la chimie organique au-delà du mythe fondateur Comptes Rendus Chimie, 15(7), 553–568.

Varela, F., 1979, Principles of biological autonomy. New York: Elsevier.

Waddington, C., 1967, No vitalism for Crick, Nature, 216, 202–203.

Watson, J., 2004, The secret of life, New York: Alfred A. Knopff.

Wolfe, C.T., 2011, From substantival to functional vitalism and beyond: animas, organisms and attitudes, Eidos, 14, 212–235.

Wolfe, C.T., 2014, Holism, organicism and the risk of biochauvinism, Verifiche, 43(1–3), 41–60.

Wolfe, C.T., 2015, Il fascino discreto del vitalismo settecentesco e le sue riproposizioni, in P. Pecere, ed., Il libro della natura, vol. 1: Scienze e filosofia da Copernico a Darwin, 273–299. Rome: Carocci.

Wolfe, C.T., 2016, Materialism: A Historico-Philosophical Introduction, Dordrecht: Springer.

Wolfe, C.T. and Terada, M., 2008, The animal economy as object and program in Montpellier Vitalism, Science in Context, 21(4), 537–579.

Wolfe, C.T. & Wong, A. 2014, The Return of Vitalism: Canguilhem, Bergson and the Project of Biophilosophy. In G. Bianco, M. de Beistegui & M. Gracieuse (eds.), The Care of Life: Transdisciplinary Perspectives in Bioethics and Biopolitics, 63–75. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Wong, A., 2016, Critical Life: Bergson, Canguilhem and the Critical Investigation of Life and the Living, PhD, Department of Philosophy, Université de Liège.

Zammito, J., 2012, The Lenoir Thesis Revisited: Blumenbach and Kant, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43(1), 120–32.

Journal Information


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 796 449 36
PDF Downloads 344 222 11