AskDefine | Define vitalism

Dictionary Definition

vitalism n : (philosophy) a doctrine that life is a vital principle distinct from physics and chemistry

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the doctrine that life involves some immaterial "vital force", and cannot be explained scientifically

Extensive Definition

Vitalism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is
  1. a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from physicochemical forces
  2. a doctrine that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life is in some part self-determining''
Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the "vital spark," "energy" or "élan vital," which some equate with the "soul."
Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: most traditional healing practices posited that disease was the result of some imbalance in the vital energies which distinguish living from non-living matter. In the Western tradition founded by Hippocrates, these vital forces were associated with the four temperaments and humours; Eastern traditions posited similar forces such as qi and prana. Vitalistic thinking has also been identified in the naive biological theories of children.


The notion that bodily functions are due to a vitalistic principle existing in all living creatures has roots going back at least to ancient Egypt. While vitalist ideas have been commonplace in traditional medicine, attempts to construct workable scientific models date from the 1600s, when it was argued that matter existed in two radically different forms, observable by their behavior with regard to heat. These two forms of matter were termed organic and inorganic. Inorganic matter could be melted, but could also be restored to its former condition by removing the heat. Organic compounds "cooked" when heated, transforming into new forms that could not be restored to the original. It was argued that the essential difference between the two forms of matter was the "vital force", present only in organic material.
Aided by the development of the microscope in the Netherlands in the early 1600s, the germ theory of disease eventually challenged the role of the four humours in Western medicine, while the cellular composition of the organs of human anatomy and the ensuing molecular analysis of the maintenance of life slowly became better understood, reducing the need to explain things in terms of mystical "vital forces".
Nevertheless, various quasi-vitalist concepts were still employed by many scientists to explain many matters of human life, development and mind. Jöns Jakob Berzelius, one of the early 19th century "fathers" of modern chemistry, though he rejected mystical explanations of vitalism, nevertheless argued that a regulative force must exist within living matter to maintain its functions. Carl Reichenbach later developed the theory of Odic force, a form of life-energy that permeated living things; this concept never gained much support despite Reichenbach's prestige. Vitalism is now considered an obsolete term in the philosophy of science, most often used as a pejorative epithet. Still, Ernst Mayr, co-founder of the modern evolutionary synthesis and a critic of both vitalism and reductionism, writing in 2002 after the mathematical development of theories underlying emergent behavior, stated:
It would be ahistorical to ridicule vitalists. When one reads the writings of one of the leading vitalists like Driesch one is forced to agree with him that many of the basic problems of biology simply cannot be solved by a philosophy as that of Descartes, in which the organism is simply considered a machine…..The logic of the critique of the vitalists was impeccable. But all their efforts to find a scientific answer to all the so-called vitalistic phenomena were failures.… rejecting the philosophy of reductionism is not an attack on analysis. No complex system can be understood except through careful analysis. However the interactions of the components must be considered as much as the properties of the isolated components.

Foundations of chemistry

Vitalism played a pivotal role in the history of chemistry since it gave rise to the basic distinction between organic and inorganic substances, following Aristotle's distinction between the mineral kingdom and the animal and vegetative kingdoms. The basic premise was that organic materials differed from inorganic materials fundamentally; accordingly, vitalist chemists predicted that organic materials could not be synthesized from inorganic components. However, as chemical techniques advanced, Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from inorganic components in 1828 and subsequently wrote to Berzelius, that he had witnessed "The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." The "beautiful hypothesis" was vitalism; the ugly fact was a dish of urea crystals.
Further discoveries continued to marginalise need for a "vital force" explanation as more and more life processes came to be described in chemical or physical terms. However, contemporary accounts do not support the claim that vitalism died when Wöhler made urea. This Wöhler Myth, as historian of science Peter J. Ramberg called it, originated from a popular history of chemistry published in 1931 which, "ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, turned Wöhler into a crusader who made attempt after attempt to synthesize a natural product that would refute vitalism and lift the veil of ignorance, until 'one afternoon the miracle happened'."
In fact some of the greatest scientific minds of the time continued to investigate the possibility of vital properties. Louis Pasteur, shortly after his famous rebuttal of spontaneous generation, made several experiments that he felt supported the vital concepts of life. According to Bechtel, Pasteur "fitted fermentation into a more general programme describing special reactions that only occur in living organisms. These are irreducibly vital phenomena." In 1858, Pasteur showed that fermentation only occurs when living cells are present and, that fermentation only occurs in the absence of oxygen; he was thus led to describe fermentation as ‘life without air’. Rejecting the claims of Berzelius, Liebig, Traube and others that fermentation resulted from chemical agents or catalysts within cells, he concluded that fermentation was a "vital action". In 1894, after publishing papers on his experiments on sea urchin eggs, Driesch wrote a theoretical essay entitled Analytische Theorie der organischen Entwicklung, in which he declared that his studies in developmental biology pointed to a "blueprint" or teleology, an Aristotlean entelechy, a scientific demonstration of Immanuel Kant's notion that the organism develops as if it has a purposeful intelligence;
"Development starts with a few ordered manifoldnesses; but the manifoldnesses create, by interactions, new manifoldnesses, and these are able, by acting back on the original ones, to provoke new differences, and so on. With each new response, a new cause is immediately provided, and a new specific reactivity for further specific responses. We derive a complex structure from a simple one given in the egg."
Driesch's reputation as an experimental biologist deteriorated as a result of his vitalistic theories. When individual chemical processes form interconnected feedback cycles which produce products perpetuating these cycles rather than unconnected products, they can form systems with properties that the reactions, taken individually, lack.
Whether emergent system properties should be characterized with traditional vitalist concepts is a matter of semantic controversy. In a light-hearted millennial vein, Kirshner and Michison call research into integrated cell and organismal physiology “molecular vitalism.”
According to Emmeche et. al. (1997):
"On the one hand, many scientists and philosophers regard emergence as having only a pseudo-scientific status. On the other hand, new developments in physics, biology, psychology, and crossdisciplinary fields such as cognitive science, artificial life, and the study of non-linear dynamical systems have focused strongly on the high level 'collective behaviour' of complex systems which is often said to be truly emergent, and the term is increasingly used to characterize such systems."
Emmeche et. al. (1998) state that "there is a very important difference between the vitalists and the emergentists: the vitalist's creative forces were relevant only in organic substances, not in inorganic matter. Emergence hence is creation of new properties regardless of the substance involved." "The assumption of an extra-physical vitalis (vital force, entelechy, élan vital, etc.), as formulated in most forms (old or new) of vitalism, is usually without any genuine explanatory power. It has served altogether too often as an intellectual tranquilizer or verbal sedative—stifling scientific inquiry rather than encouraging it to proceed in new directions."


A popular vitalist theory of the eighteenth century was "animal magnetism", in the theories of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). However, the use of the (conventional) English term animal magnetism to translate Mesmer's magnétisme animal is extremely misleading for three reasons:
  • Mesmer chose his term to clearly distinguish his variant of magnetic force from those which were referred to, at that time, as mineral magnetism, cosmic magnetism and planetary magnetism.
  • Mesmer felt that this particular force/power only resided in the bodies of humans and animals.
  • Mesmer chose the word "animal", for its root meaning (from Latin animus = "breath") specifically to identify his force/power as a quality that belonged to all creatures with breath; viz., the animate beings: humans and animals.
  • In Mesmer's time the word "animal" had not the same mental associations that today are linked with it. Specifically there were practitioners of the technique that said of a mesmerized person "the person is back animal" meaning "the person is back in a natural mental state where she/he recovers his/her most primitive part of the mind".
So popular did Mesmer's ideas become that King Louis XVI of France appointed two commissions to investigate mesmerism; one was led by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the other, led by Benjamin Franklin, included Bailly and Lavoisier. The commissioners learned about Mesmeric theory, and saw its patients fall into fits and trances. In Franklin’s garden, a patient was led to each of five trees, one of which had been "mesmerized"; he hugged each in turn to receive the "vital fluid", but fainted at the foot of a 'wrong' one. At Lavoisier’s house, four normal cups of water were held before a "sensitive" woman; the fourth produced convulsions, but she calmly swallowed the mesmerized contents of a fifth, believing it to be plain water. The commissioners concluded that "the fluid without imagination is powerless, whereas imagination without the fluid can produce the effects of the fluid." This was an important example of the power of reason and controlled experiment to falsify theories. It is sometimes claimed that vitalist ideas are unscientific because they are not testable; here at least is an example of a vitalist theory that was not merely testable but actually falsified.


Perhaps more than any other area of science, psychology has been rich in vitalist concepts, particularly through the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud was a student of the notable anti-vitalist Hermann von Helmholtz, and initially struggled to express his concepts in strictly neurological terms. Abandoning this effort as fruitless, he became famous for his theory that behaviour is determined by an unconscious mind, of which the waking mind is unaware. In 1923, in The Ego and the Id, he developed the concept of "psychic energy" as the energy by which the work of the personality is performed.
Although Freud and Jung remain hugely influential, psychology has made a determined effort to rid itself of the most mystical of these concepts in an attempt to appear more like the "hard" sciences of chemistry and physics. Although research within cognitive neuroscience has made substantial progress in explaining mental processes such as perception, memory and motivational states such as anger and fear, larger concepts such as mind and intelligence, remain essentially higher level constructs, with observable neural correlates distributed throughout the brain. The neuroscientist Roger Sperry, in his Nobel Prize lecture in 1981, described modern scientific concepts of the nature of consciousness and its relation to brain processing as follows: The events of inner experience, as emergent properties">Emergence#Emergent properties & processesemergent properties of brain processes, become themselves explanatory causal constructs in their own right, interacting at their own level with their own laws and dynamics. The whole world of inner experience (the world of the humanities) long rejected by 20th century scientific materialism, thus becomes recognized and included within the domain of science."
Anti-reductionism has been identified as a problem in psychology. Thomas (2001) states that "It is now generally considered that biology had to rid itself of vitalism to enable significant progress to occur. It is suggested that psychology will develop as a science only after it rids itself of anti-reductionistic, 'emergentism'."

Alternative and Complementary Medicine

While contemporary conventional medicine has distanced itself from the less reductionistic and more vitalistic approach of traditional medicine, some areas of complementary medicine continue to espouse various guises of vitalistic concepts and worldview. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) classifies CAM therapies into five categories or domains:
  • alternative medical systems, or complete systems of therapy and practice;
  • mind-body interventions, or techniques designed to facilitate the mind's effect on bodily functions and symptoms;
  • biologically based systems, including herbalism;
  • manipulative and body-based methods, such as chiropractic and massage therapy; and
  • energy therapy.
The therapies that continue to be most intimately associated with vitalism are bioenergetic medicines, in the category of energy therapies. This field may be further divided into bioelectromagnetic medicines (BEM) and biofield therapies (BT). Compared with bioenergetic medicines, biofield therapies have a stronger identity with vitalism. Examples of biofield therapies include therapeutic touch, Reiki, external qi, chakra healing and SHEN therapy. Biofield therapies are medical treatments in which the "subtle energy" field of a patient is manipulated by a biofield practitioner. The subtle energy is held to exist beyond the electromagnetic (EM) energy that is produced by the heart and brain. Beverly Rubik describes the biofield as a "complex, dynamic, extremely weak EM field within and around the human body..."
The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, promoted an immaterial, vitalistic view of disease: "...they are solely spirit-like (dynamic) derangements of the spirit-like power (the vital principle) that animates the human body." As practised by some homeopaths today, homeopathy simply rests on the premise of treating sick persons with extremely diluted agents that - in undiluted doses - are deemed to produce similar symptoms in a healthy individual. Nevertheless, it remains equally true that the view of disease as a dynamic disturbance of the immaterial and dynamic vital force is taught in many homeopathic colleges and constitutes a fundamental principle for many contemporary practising homeopaths.

Critical opinions

Bechtel and Richardson
While many vitalistic theories have in fact been falsified, notably Mesmerism and the phlogiston theory (see above), the pseudoscientific retention of untested and untestable theories continues to this day. Alan Sokal published an analysis of the wide acceptance among professional nurses of "scientific theories" of spiritual healing. (Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?). Use of a technique called therapeutic touch was especially reviewed by Sokal, who concluded, “nearly all the pseudoscientific systems to be examined in this essay are based philosophically on vitalism” and added that "Mainstream science has rejected vitalism since at least the 1930s, for a plethora of good reasons that have only become stronger with time.”
Joseph C. Keating, Jr., PhD, discusses vitalism's past and present roles in chiropractic and calls vitalism "a form of bio-theology." He further explains that:
Keating views vitalism as incompatible with scientific thinking:
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