Vitalism and the resistance to experimentation on life in the eighteenth century

Journal of the History of Biology 46 (2):255-282 (2013)
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There is a familiar opposition between a ‘Scientific Revolution’ ethos and practice of experimentation, including experimentation on life, and a ‘vitalist’ reaction to this outlook. The former is often allied with different forms of mechanism – if all of Nature obeys mechanical laws, including living bodies, ‘iatromechanism’ should encounter no obstructions in investigating the particularities of animal-machines – or with more chimiatric theories of life and matter, as in the ‘Oxford Physiologists’. The latter reaction also comes in different, perhaps irreducibly heterogeneous forms, ranging from metaphysical and ethical objections to the destruction of life, as in Margaret Cavendish, to more epistemological objections against the usage of instruments, the ‘anatomical’ outlook and experimentation, e.g. in Locke and Sydenham. But I will mainly focus on a third anti-interventionist argument, which I call ‘vitalist’ since it is often articulated in the writings of the so-called Montpellier Vitalists, including their medical articles for the Encyclopédie. The vitalist argument against experimentation on life is subtly different from the metaphysical, ethical and epistemological arguments, although at times it may borrow from any of them. It expresses a Hippocratic sensibility – understood as an artifact of early modernity, not as some atemporal trait of medical thought – in which Life resists the experimenter, or conversely, for the experimenter to grasp something about Life, it will have to be without torturing or radically intervening in it. I suggest that this view does not have to imply that Nature is something mysterious or sacred; nor does the vitalist have to attack experimentation on life in the name of some ‘vital force’ – which makes it less surprising to find a vivisectionist like Claude Bernard sounding so close to the vitalists



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Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès