Vitalism and the Problem of Individuation: Another Look at Bergson’s Élan Vital

In Christopher Donohue & Charles T. Wolfe (eds.), Vitalism and Its Legacy in Twentieth Century Life Sciences and Philosophy. Springer Verlag. pp. 9-25 (2022)
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Abstract

Mikhail Bakhtin’s 1926 essay, “Contemporary Vitalism,” includes Bergson alongside Driesch in a short list of “the most published representatives of vitalism in Western Europe,” and, indeed, Bakhtin’s critique of Driesch is intended to undermine what he calls the “conceptual framework” of “contemporary vitalism” as a whole (The crisis of modernism: Bergson and the vitalist controversy. Eds. Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1992, p 81). The conceptual framework that Driesch and Bergson are supposed to have shared in common consists at bottom, for Bakhtin, in the ontological commitment to the autonomy of life, “its independence, its disconnectedness from physical-chemical phenomena” (81). This has long been understood as the defining mark of vitalism, at least in the mind of its critics: the contention that matter and the mechanical models that track it are insufficient to the reality of biological forms, and that the explanation of life therefore requires the postulation of a non-mechanical, possibly immaterial, uniquely vital principle, force, substance, or property. Recent scholarship has made considerable headway in complicating these pictures by attending to earlier and subtler forms of materialism, and by distinguishing between different types of vitalism and drawing out the heuristic or scientific utility of some of them (Wolfe, Eidos 14: 212–235, 2011, Antropol Exp 17(13): 215–224, 2017; cf. Wolfe and Normandin, Vitalism and the scientific image in post-enlightenment life science, 1800–2010. Springer, Dordrecht, 2013). The focus of some of this work has been on the critical revaluation of Driesch himself (Bognon et al., Kairos J Philos Sci 20(1): 113–140, 2018). Yet the status of Bergson’s commitment to the existence of a vital principle remains underdeveloped. In the midst of what some are calling a “Bergson renaissance,” I think that it calls for the same kind of critical reappraisal (Ansell-Pearson, Bergson: thinking beyond the human condition. Bloomsbury, New York, 2018: 1; cf. Lundy, Deleuze’s Bergsonism. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, p 5, 2018). The aim of this paper is to attempt the outline of an answer to that call. I begin with a brief summary of Driesch’s vitalism, then I reconstruct Bergson’s underappreciated critique of internal finality, or what Kant called inner purposiveness, and locate in it a subterranean criticism of vital principles of the Drieschian variety as well. Two consequences follow: first, if Bergson is to be considered a vitalist, it cannot be in the Drieschian sense and we are therefore wrong to associate the two; and second, if Bergson is to be considered a vitalist, then his vitalism has to be understood—somewhat counterintuitively, and certainly contra Driesch—on the basis of a principle external to the ostensible individuality of biological forms.

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