Vitalism: A Counter-History of Biology

01 January 2019 → 31 December 2022
Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO)
Research disciplines
  • Humanities
    • Philosophy not elsewhere classified
Project description

This project aims to produce a ‘counter-history’ of biology in which the focal point is vitalism in its
successive incarnations and definitions. Vitalism has classically been taken to be the most extreme,
supernaturalist position regarding the uniqueness of biological entities, beyond the pale for
mainstream biological science. But careful historical scholarship reveals the existence of different
forms of vitalism, some of which are deeply interwoven with positive developments in medicine,
physiology and experimental biology overall. This project will integrate different recent
developments in philosophy of science and in history of philosophy and of science to investigate
how vitalism is actively present in four key episodes in the development of biology: 1) the
emergence of the concept of organism in the early Enlightenment; 2) the late eighteenth-century
emergence of biology as a science; 3) the development of (experimental) physiology in nineteenthcentury
France and Germany; 4) the shift to a more “philosophical” and “theoretical” form of
vitalism in the twentieth century. Such historical work yields a new vision of biology as a science and
prospects for the theoretical disciplines in biology, given renewed interest in questions such as
‘what is a biological individual?’ and ‘what is life?’ in a post-genomic era.