Vitalism and the Modernist Search for Meaning: Subjectivity, Social Order, and the Philosophy of Life in the Progressive Era

Dissertation, The University of Rochester (2001)
This dissertation explores the encounter between American intellectual culture and vitalist theories of mind and metaphysics in the 1910s. The exercise is an attempt to shed new light first, on the consolidation of "scientific" psychotherapeutics in the United States; and second, on the nature and derivation of radical progressivism. The energetic popular response to vitalism and the avid adoption of its key tenets by leading analysts of the American self and society also facilitates a deeper inquiry into the psychic, spiritual, and moral dynamic of modernity at a signal point in its evolution. Exemplary of the process of disruption and remediation that animated the modern sensibility, vitalism subverted ethical, ontological, and metaphysical stabilities even as it extended the prospect of compensatory psychic regeneration via a new essentialism of the flux of life. Vitalism's constitutive duality was the source of its powerful efficacy for those disordered modern selves seeking their own, and comprehensive social, regeneration. Perhaps the most prominent and influential of these were James Jackson Putnam , and the radical progressive social critics Randolph Bourne, Walter Lippmann, and Herbert Croly. The dissertation traces the mixed motives and consequences of these figure's participation in 'the vitalist insurgency.' In doing so it begins a necessary historical reconsideration of a much maligned but little understood current of modern thought, and invites new deliberation on its contemporary possibilities
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