The Critical Difference Between Holism and Vitalism in Cassirer’s Philosophy of Science

In Christopher Donohue & Charles T. Wolfe (eds.), Vitalism and Its Legacy in Twentieth Century Life Sciences and Philosophy. Springer Verlag. pp. 85-105 (2022)
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This chapter surveys Ernst CassirerCassirer, Ernst’s responses to the vitalist and holist/organicist movements in biology during the early decades of the twentieth century. I argue that examination of the combination of CassirerCassirer, Ernst’s enthusiasm for holism, and rejection of vitalism, puts into relief many themes and preoccupations that are consistent across CassirerCassirer, Ernst’s philosophical career, and aids the interpretation of his philosophy of symbolic forms. I propose that it is useful to read the third volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as a critical response to anti-rationalistic tendencies in the philosophy of Henri BergsonBergson, Henri, and other proponents of Lebensphilosophie. Hence the availability of holism, as a purportedly less obscure alternative to vitalism, suits this broader agenda. At the same time, CassirerCassirer, Ernst’s acceptance of holism depends on a commitment to the autonomy of biology which is at odds with the physicalism of the Vienna Circle, but consistent with HeideggerHeidegger, Martin’s favourable response to holism in comparison with vitalism. Yet, in the end we are left with an interpretative puzzle about how CassirerCassirer, Ernst proposes to avoid the encroachment of physicalism into theorising in the biological and human sciences while maintaining his view that progress in science is the result of increasing quantification.



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Mazviita Chirimuuta
University of Pittsburgh

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