Charles T. Wolfe (Ghent): Vitalism: Alive, Dead or Undead?

October 18, 2017 - 11:00 - 12:25
Nador u. 15
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Charles T. Wolfe
Charles T. Wolfe

Charles Wolfe will examine a series of conceptual constructs of Life, some of which we might call "vitalist", in the period roughly going from Descartes, Leibniz and Stahl (the mid to late seventeenth century) to La Mettrie, Diderot and the Montpellier vitalists in the 1740s-1770s. He will argue for a conceptual reconstruction of this ‘family’ of medico-theoretical views in terms of a broad distinction between ‘substance’ and ‘function’ claims in vitalism, i.e., between substantival and functional vitalism (Wolfe 2017). The former articulates claims about life as a substance (soul, vital force, etc.) while the latter, in different strengths and varieties, presents claims about life as a function of organized beings. In addition, he reflects on how these varieties of vitalism intersect with what some commentators (such as Lenoir 1982, Zammito 2016) call ‘vital materialism’ in the period, since one of his observations based upon consideration of the textual corpus is that the two genuinely overlap, sometimes deliberately so (contrary to the rather tired opposition between ‘vital forces’ and ‘mechanistic materialism’: Wolfe 2016). How fruitful and/or reasonable is vitalism thus reconstrued? He concludes with some considerations on how a typology of forms of vitalism might impact our understanding of the emergence of biology as a science.

Charles T. Wolfe is a Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences and Sarton Centre for History of Science, Ghent University, a Senior Fellow at CEU (IAS, 2017-2018) and an associate member of the IHPST (CNRS-UMR 8590, Paris). He works primarily in history and philosophy of the early modern life sciences, with a particular interest in materialism and vitalism. He is the author of Materialism: A Historico-Philosophical Introduction (2016), the forthcoming monograph La philosophie de la biologie: une histoire du vitalisme (Garnier), and has edited volumes including Monsters and Philosophy (2005), The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge (2010, with O. Gal), Vitalism and the scientific image in post-Enlightenment life-science (2013, with S. Normandin), Brain Theory (2014), along with articles in journals including Early Science and Medicine, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Journal of the History of Biology, Perspectives on Science, Science in Context, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and others. He is also the Co-Editor of the Springer series in History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences. Papers and other works available at []