Models of Organic Organization in Montpellier Vitalism


In: Early Science and Medicine

The species of vitalism discussed here is a malleable construct, often with a poisonous reputation (but one which I want to rehabilitate), hovering in between the realms of the philosophy of biology, the history of medicine, and the scientific background of the Radical Enlightenment (case in point, the influence of vitalist medicine on Diderot). This is a more vital vitalism, or at least a more ‘biologistic,’ ‘embodied,’ medicalized vitalism. I distinguish between what I would call ‘substantival’ and ‘functional’ forms of vitalism, as applied to the eighteenth century. Substantival vitalism presupposes the existence of something like a (substantive) vital force which either plays a causal role in the natural world as studied by scientific means, or remains a kind of hovering, extra-causal entity. Functional vitalism tends to operate “post facto,” from the existence of living bodies to the desire to find explanatory models that will do justice to their uniquely ‘vital’ properties in a way that fully mechanistic models (such as Cartesian mechanism) cannot. I discuss some representative figures of the Montpellier school as being functional rather than substantival vitalists, particularly as regards the models of organic organization which they develop, and make some suggestions as to how these relate to the then-nascent science of biology.


  • 7

     Moritz Schlick, “Naturphilosophie,” in Lehrbuch der Philosophie, vol. 2: Die Philosophie in ihren Einzelgebieten, ed. Max Dessoir (Berlin, 1925), 393-492.

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  • 12

     Scott Gilbert and Sahotra Sarkar, “Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century,” Developmental Dynamics, 219 (2000), 1-9, at 1.

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  • 14

     Paul-Joseph Barthez, Nouveaux éléments de la science de l’homme, 2. vols.(2nd ed., Paris, 1806), 1, Chapter III, 82-111

  • 16

     Barthez, Nouveaux éléments de la science de l’homme, 1:27, 107, 83.

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     See Tobias Cheung, “From the Organism of a Body to the Body of an Organism: Occurrence and Meaning of the Word ‘Organism’ from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries,” British Journal for the History of Science, 39:3 (2006), 319-39; Charles T. Wolfe, “The Organism as Ontological Go-Between. Hybridity, Boundaries and Degrees of Reality in its Conceptual History,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48 (2014), 151-61; and on the animal economy as an organism concept, Wolfe and Terada, “Animal Economy.”

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  • 36

     Denise Leduc-Fayette, “La Mettrie et Descartes,” Europe, 56(1978), 37-48, at 45. In his Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment, Peter Hans Reill also opposes vitalism to, in his case, Naturphilosophie, on similar grounds; see the useful discussion in Gaukroger, “‘The Enlightenment Revolt Against Rationalism:’ Critical Notice of Peter Hanns Reill, Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment,” Australian Review of Public Affairs, 26 (2005) , last accessed 01/04/2016; and John Zammito, “From Vital Materialism to Naturphilosophie: The Question of Historical Continuity,” in Life Forms in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Keith Baker and Jenna Gibb (Toronto, 2016), 70-91. In this respect I follow Reill’s opposition between a more metaphysical position (Naturphilosophie) and a more heuristically oriented inquiry into life (vitalism); this maps onto my distinction between substantival and functional vitalism. However, scholars of Romanticism will object that it was quite empirically oriented: see e.g. R. Mitchell’s Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature (Baltimore, 2013). In earlier work on the topic I opposed the Montpellier vitalist notion of organization to other concepts of organism in terms of materialism-friendly perspectives versus ones which appealed to a foundational interiority; here I am simply suggesting that we should distinguish between two approaches to structure and organization, in which the Montpellier vitalist approach, which I have described as structural and relational (one could also say ‘organizational,’ at the risk of sounding tautologous), is less hostile to mechanism and to the power of reductionist explanations of components than we might think.

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  • 37

     Bertalanffy, Modern Theories of Development, 48.

  • 42

     Bordeu, Œuvres, 2:670.

  • 43

     Ménuret, “Ténesme,” Encyclopedie 16:137a.

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