Ghosts in the Machine: Vitalism

  • Lucas John Mix


Questions of organismal unity and purpose remained problematic under the mechanical paradigm. Alternative paradigms emerged. Though wildly different, they all attracted the label vitalism for rejecting aspects of the mechanical philosophy. Animists such as Stahl simply opted for a return to vegetable souls. Van Helmont and other iatrochemists sought life-specific material and efficient causes. Self-identified vitalists proposed vital spirits and forces, including archei, sensibilité, mesmerism, galvanism, élan vital, and entelechy. German Idealists, meanwhile, pushed for more subjectivity and spirituality within the non-human world. They have largely been rejected and labelled “vitalist” because their position do not fit with current ideas of mechanism, but many were important to the later development of biology. A critical distinction hangs on how we use the term “nature.”


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lucas John Mix
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Organismic and Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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