A non-metaphysical evaluation of vitalism in the early twentieth century

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 40 (3):50 (2018)
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Abstract

In biology the term “vitalism” is usually associated with Hans Driesch’s doctrine of the entelechy: entelechies were nonmaterial, bio-specific agents responsible for governing a few peculiar biological phenomena. Since vitalism defined as such violates metaphysical materialism, the received view refutes the doctrine of the entelechy as a metaphysical heresy. But in the early twentieth century, a different, non-metaphysical evaluation of vitalism was endorsed by some biologists and philosophers, which finally led to a logical refutation of the doctrine of the entelechy. In this non-metaphysical evaluation, first, vitalism was not treated as a metaphysical heresy but a legitimate response to the inadequacy of mechanistic explanations in biology. Second, the refutation of vitalism was logically rather than metaphysically supported by contemporary biological knowledge. The entelechy was not a valid concept, because vitalists could neither formulate vital laws, nor offer convincing examples of experimental indeterminism.

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