mechanism/vitalism

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"In travelling from one end to the other of the scale of life, we are taught one lesson, that living nature is not a mechanism but a poem; not a mere rough engine-house for the due keeping of pleasure and pain machines, but a palace whose foundations, indeed, are laid on the strictest and safest mechanical principles, but whose superstructure is a manifestation of the highest and noblest art." --T.H. Huxley, "on Natural History as Knowledge, Discipline, and Power."

The prestige of mechanistic physics after Newton led to an extended confrontation between the norms of physics and other areas of science such as biology and psychology. Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy stood as a classical prototype, or canon, by which to judge all subsequent science. Newton's great achievement was to have produced a mathematical theory of nature that provided general solutions based on a rational system of deduction and mathematical inference, coupled with experiment and critical observation. Newtonian mechanics established "universal laws" that explained the movements of the planets, the tides, and whose predictive powers were given an overwhelming demonstration with the appearance of Halley's comet, just as predicted, in 1758, long after both Halley and Newton were dead. Even today, the exploration of space is a straightforward application of classical gravitational mechanics.

Mechanistic explanations seek to reduce principles to the least possible number, to explain in terms of the least common denominator, of parts rather than wholes, conditions rather than reasons. They seek to place all explanations at one level. A mechanistic explanation must be both logically simple and automatic. (Marjorie Grene)

At the heart of scientific theories are models or representations that describe a mechanism by which a cause, be it event or state or potent thing or substance, brings about the effect, event, or state. (Rom Harré)In mechanistic interpretations, there is no concept of agency or identity which are characteristics of organisms. (Kant introduces the idea of "technique" to introduce the idea of purpose in natural objects and to differentiate them from pure products of mechanical causation.) For Dijksterhuis, the "mechanization of the world-picture" leads to the conception of God as a retired engineer, to the rejection of Aristotelian concepts of internal principles of change, which, if they are not actually interpreted as a symptom of life, are at least felt to be related to it.

Systematic social philosophy, from the Physiocrats to the Positivists, looked to Newtonian science as its model .
So did the sciences of life. In 1812, Georges Cuvier asked why "should not natural history also one day have its Newton?" Yet, despite Newton's success, mechanistic causal explanations continued to seem unsatisfactory for understanding of purposelike things in the world, and for the forms of life that did not seem to be a mere assembly of parts. Above all the mechanistic seemed inappropriate to the investigation of organisms. How could the reductive approach of mechanism explain things like wholes?

see organicism (cf emergence)

Part of the battle over mechanism has been over the legacy of Aristotle. Biology itself was founded on the classificatory insights of Aristotle, who was both a morphologist and systematist, although the name "biology" was invented by Lamarck around 1800. Aristotle's physics was teleological. He established the distinction between form and matter. The tendency towards vitalism has also been ascribed to him. (see immanent / transcendent.) While Aristotelian physics has for the most part been discarded, the apparent purposiveness, or teleology, of ordered growth and development of organic form has posed a challenge to even the most committed mechanists. According to Giorgio Agamben, Aristotle's definitions of bare life are a fundamental event in the history of Western Science. For Aristotle, the principle of life, its undifferentiated ground, is called nutritive life (or vegetative life, as it was called by ancient commentators, referring to the particular status of plants in Aristotle as obscurely and absolutely separated from logos.

Vitalism in its widest sense holds that living things are specific forms of being, and that biology is an autonomous science concerned with a domain of being that has its own laws -- a world of process-things. Generally, Vitalism has held to a notion that life was an extra "something" necessary over and above the detailed organization of a material organism. For vitalists, a "vital force" was the equivalent of gravitation for Newton: a central, yet unexplained fact which could be used to give systematic consistency to observable phenomena.

Leibniz had accused Newton of introducing a scholastic qualitas occulta into science, to which he protested that their causes might be occult although the qualities themselves were manifest. Newton refused to define the nature of his fundamental force. He emphasized its heuristic importance and the possibililty of mathematizing it. On the other hand, his alchemical speculations appeared to invite the amplification and translation of his concept of force into the realm of living things. Could magnetism and electricity, he asked, fulfill the same role for living beings that gravitation did for inanimate matter? Whether as quasi-mechanical attraction of molecules (as suggested by Buffon and Maupertius) or eventually as formative force (as suggested by the epigenetists) the Newtonian concept of force supplied the debate about generation with a new energy in the eighteenth century.

The vitalism of the late eighteenth century stipulated that life could not be reduced to the fundamental properties of matter postulated by mechanics. Vitalists such as Xavier Bichat believed that life consisted of a tourbillon, a vital movement distinct from the forces of physics and chemistry. Bichat defined life as "the set of functions that resist death." In Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort, Bichat distinguished between "animal life," which is defined by its relation to an external world, "l'animal existant au-dehors ", from "organic life," "l'animal existant au dedans," which is nothing more than a "habitual succession of assimilation and excretion."

Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733 - 1794) is usually looked upon as the father of epigenetic descriptive embryology. In his Theoria Generationis, (1759) Wolff promised to explain the emergence of the organism not as a gradual unfolding (or evolution) of preformed germs, but as an actual production of something new. In his History of Vitalism, Hans Driesch emphasized the vitalistic aspect of Wolff's theories, particularly the construction of a vital force which Wolff calls vis essentialis , an organizing, formative, and therefore ultimately spiritual force. For Wolff, this force directs the epigenesis of the embryo as well as directing the conservation of the mat ure body. Driesch points to the the need for such a force to buttress his contention that "All believers in epigenesis are Vitalists." Hans Driesch, History of Vitalism, p.39)

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a former student of Haller's established epigenesis as the undisputed model of thought in the life sciences. In 1781, he published Über den Bildungstrieb and das Zeugungsgeschäfte (The Formative Drive and its relation to the business of Procreation.) Blumenbach cut up freshwater polyps and established that they would strive to replace the removed parts by themselves, but significantly in a smaller size than before their unfortunate encounter with the natural scientist. This regeneration, as well as the healing process of human injuries demonstrated to Blumenbach that an organic force strove to develop all available organic material into its original form and functional ability. Blumenbach called this "Bildungstrieb ," or formative drive. (It is important to note the enormous connotative dimension of the word Bildung in German, which, starting with Luther's translation of the bible, was understood as the process of formation of a national language) But like Newton, Blumenbach was willing to accept the "occult quality" of the term and not to try to define it. The formative drive, he pointed out, "like names applied to every other kind of vital power, of itself, explains nothing: it serves merely to designate a peculiar power formed by the combination of the mechanical principle with that which is susceptible of modification." Blumenbach's theories directly influenced Immanuel Kant, and his attitude closely resembles Kant's "regulative principles." (see critique of judgement) Kant adopted Blumenbach's Bildungtrieb as a scientific analogue to his concept of purposive organization, or Zweckmässigkeit , to account for the expression of potential that would account for this passage. The theoretical tradition created by Blumenbach and Kant has been called teleomechanism, or "vital materialism" placing it in a midpoint between the opposing concepts of mechanism and vitalism. (see Timoth Lenoir, The Strategy of Life.)

Kant distinguished between machines and organisms as follows: He described a mechanism as a functional unity in which the parts exist for one another in the performance of a particular function. (what might today be called the operational principles of a machine) An organism, on the other hand, is a functional and a structural unity in which the parts exist for and by means of one another in the expression of a particular nature. Thus the emergence of parts in an organism is a result of internal interactions instead of an assembly of preexisting parts, as in a mechanism or machine. For Kant, a machine has only motive force, while an organized being has within it formative force, (Bildungstrieb ) which mechanism cannot explain. (sect. 65) (see also form / matter)

"When we study nature in terms of its mechanism, we keep to what we can observe or experiment on in such a way that we could produce it as nature does, at least in terms of similar laws." " but organization, as an intrinsic purpose of nature, infinitely surpasses all our ability to exhibit anything similar through art." Kant Critique of Judgement, sect. 68.

This link between mechanistic understanding and (artificial) production is crucial. As the biologist Jacques Loeb declared in The Mechanistic Conception of Life (1912) "We must either succeed in producing living matter artificially , or we must find the reasons why this is impossible." (quoted in Evelyn Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life, p.18) The ambition of mechanistic interpretation seems inseparable from the methods and objectives of manipulation. For experimental morphologists at the beginning of the twentieth century like G. Klebs, knowledge of living forms would only be achieved when we had them "entirely in hand" and could create them at will. "Whereas until now developmental phenomena have always been regarded as necessariy dependent on the innermost nature of the organism," wrote Klebs, "it will be shown in the future how variously the organism can be modified and often completely changed. Research must set itself the task of becoming master of every living formation through the knowledge of its conditions. Just as the chemist must understand the properties of a substance so well that he can demonstrate them at any time, the botanist must endeavor the manipulate plants with perfect certainty. This mastery of plant life will, I hope, characterize the botany of the future." (quoted in Ernst Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge, p. 206)

The proponents of artificial life argue that things have changed, that we are now able to synthesize life, or gain a "synthetic understanding."

Critics of contemporary genetic explanations see them as a new form of mechanism. Richard Lewontin, for example, asserts that "If we had the complete DNA sequence of an organism and unlimited computational power, we could not compute the organism, because the organism does not compute itself from its genes." (The Triple Helix, p. 17) For Marjorie Grene the major task of philosophy in the twentieth century is "To finally put to rest our Newtonian delusions, to renew our conception of nature as living, and to see ourselves once more as living beings in a world of living beings.

The most famous (metaphysical) proponent of vitalism was Henri Bergson, who conceived of a life force (élan ), radically distinct from inert matter, but passing through it and forcing it to become organized. For "psycho-vitalists" the principle is simply "soul," (Geist) a central concept of German Romanticism. Giorgio Agamben describes the tradition which views life as "spirit" as part of a "historical semantics" of contiguity linking pneuma - spiritus - esprit - Geist (Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History, p. 21) Agamben describes how Neoplatonic Hermetic mysticism bridged the Aristotelian separation between nous and psyche and the Platonic difference between the one and the many, with an emanationist system of continuous hierarchy which became the basis for experimental science. (the psyche became the anima of the medieval tradition.) Plotinus' basic figure of creation was as emanation, in which the one and the good were described as an overflowing fountain of light.

By the late nineteenth century, vitalism seemed to be on the wane. The hope in the existence of a "vital substance" disappeared when Wöhler succeeded in synthesizing urea from inorganic compounds in 1828, showing that the chemistries of the living and the nonliving were not forever separated. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the embryologist Wilhelm had Roux proposed a "developmental mechanics" (Entwicklungsmechanik ) to account for origin and maintenance of organisms through a causal morphology that would reduce them to a "movement of parts," and would prove that biology and physics were completely one with each other. Roux sought to transform biology from a purely historical into a causal discipline through analytic thought and experiment. His "mosaic theory" described development as the self-differentiation of hereditary potentialities with the irreversible functional differentiation among cells. For Roux, developing organisms are, in substance, "self-contained complexes of activities that are determining and productive of form." (quoted in Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge, p. 187) This hypothesis was supported in part by Roux's own experiments at the marine biological station in Naples. When he killed one of the first two cleavage cells in a frog's egg, the surviving cell, as he expected, gave rise to only half of a normal embryo.

But in the early twentieth century, scientific vitalism found its major proponent in Hans Driesch. (The Science and Philosophy of the Organism, (1908) and The Theory and History of Vitalism (1914)) In 1891, while working at the Naples station with a different organism, Hans Driesch obtained radically different results from Roux's. In one experiment, Driesch pinched a two-celled frog embryo in half. To his utter astonishment, each cell developed into a fully normal frog, rather than a half-frog. Driesch proposed an Aristotelian entelechy to explain morphogenetic regulation, the ability of the embryo to develop normally even when some portions are removed or rearranged. Driesch believed that there were "harmonious equipotential systems" with a potential for differentiation. He contrasted these from "determined equipotential systems." (Roux's "mosaic" with its positional information and determination.) In the latter, potential was divided among the parts of the system, while in the former it was not. For Driesch, the existence of "harmonious equipotential systems" was proof of "dynamic teleology" in nature. (see morphic fields.) Stirred up by Driesch's interpretations, the Vitalistic controversy increased progressively in intensity. At the turn of the century it dominated virtually all biological thinking, and both philosophy and specialized research became more and more deeply drawn into its circle.

Vitalism was not the only alternative to reductive mechanism. As Ernst Cassirer points out, by the beginning of the twentieth century, modern physics itself had freed itself of the chains imposed on it by the mechanistic point of view and developed a new physics of " fields." The Field appears as a whole that is not merely put together from the separate parts, the electrons, but rather forms the very condition for their existence. The relationship between physics and biology now appeared in a new light. In biology new synthetic organicism emerged, in which mechanism and vitalism were, as it were, subsumed under a principle of organization and integration. J. S. Haldane called this point of view "holism" or "organicism," and Ludwig von Bertalanffy described it as the organismic approach, which stressed the importance of "wholes" without the anthropomorphic dimension of teleology. Alfred North Whitehead was one of the most influential proponents of the organismic point of view in philosophy. In Psychology, The theories of Gestalt psychology, rejected "machine theory" in the name of a radically reformed conception of scientific psychology that would do justice to the intrinsic meaning and value of human experience. Thus, by the 1930's mechanism and vitalism could be thought of as "worthy o ld ideologies with nothing more to teach those who pursue them." (Adolf Meyer, quoted in Ernst Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge, p.212)

In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi takes up Driesch's concept of "harmonious equipotential systems" as having generalized creative powers. He links the powers of morphogenetic integration with the powers of comprehension as described by Gestalt psychologists. Polanyi quotes Hans Speemann, the great master of experimental embryology, who in his Silliman lectures of 1938 expressed his conviction that "the suitable reaction of a germ fragment, endowed with the most diverse potencies, in an embryonic "field"...is not a common chemical reaction, but that these processes are comparable, in the way they are connected, to nothing we know in such a degree as those vital processes of which we have the most intimate knowledge, viz. the mental ones." (pp 338-9, note.)

The fact that behaviours and performances do not seem to depend on specific neural pathways is an example of these creative powers. Mutilated rats that had learned a maze often continue to find their way through it, though the neural paths used in learning had been cut. With advancing age Renoir painted with a brush fixed to his forearm, when he had lost the use of both his feet and his hands. These processes of spontaneous adaptive reorganization indicate that alternative combinations may be equipotential in achieving predetermined ends. (Personal Knowledge, p.337)


In her study of Ross Harrison, Joseph Needham, and Paul Weiss, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields, Donna Haraway outlined the paradigm shift in biology in which the age-old dichotomy between mechanism and vitalism was reworked. According to Haraway, Vitalism was now seen as part of the mechanistic paradigm rather than opposed to it because both were limited by the same images a nd metaphors.

Vitalist conceptions of the machine assimilate it to living beings, unless living beings are assimilated to the machine. This latter path was taken by Norbert Wiener as he opened up the cybernetic perspective. But are simple machines the models of mechanism? Or do they have too few variables? According to Georges Canguilhem, (see Zone 6) In the study of machines, mechanistic conceptions rob it of any emergent properties that can differentiate it from simple construction partes extra partes.

see also natural form