What is vitalism?

The French word vitalisme came to Castilian as vitalismo. The term is used to refer to the doctrine that, to give an explanation of biological phenomena, goes beyond matter and uses a force typical of living beings.

According to vitalism, living organisms possess an immaterial life force that allows them to differentiate themselves from inanimate objects. This force is not the energy that physics recognizes, but a different impulse that makes life possible. For vitalism, therefore, the essence of the living being does not reside in matter. The element that makes the difference is what the French philosopher and writer Henri Bergson called élan vital: vital force. This impulse cannot be explained by chemistry or physics.

The vital force postulated by vitalism can be associated with concepts such as spirit or soul and is what differentiates the living from the inert. In that sense, when a person dies, he basically loses his life force. The origins of vitalism can be traced back to the 19th century, although it began to expand in the second part of that century and consolidated in the early 20th century. In the field of biology, vitalism meant transcending physico-chemical phenomena and maintaining that the main difference between a living being and an inorganic element is vital force, an irreducible principle. Already in philosophy, vitalism appears as a tendency that claims that life lacks a foundation external to it. In this way, the value of life is located in life itself. The list of scholars who have represented vitalism throughout history is very broad. The name that stands out is that of John Jacob Berzelius, a chemist born in Sweden in 1779, considered the main promoter of the current. But we cannot fail to mention physicians Georg Ernst Stahl and Téophile de Bordeu , physicians Samuel Hahnemann and Xavier Bichat or, more recently, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich . Reich related the concept of the vital impulse to another of his own, orgone. It is a type of esoteric energy that he proposed in the 1930s and that his disciple Charles Kelley continued to develop after his death in 1957. It was considered a ubiquitous substance devoid of mass, similar to luminiferous aether, though closer to the luminiferous aether. vital energy than inert matter.

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Other recognized personalities who devoted part of their research work to vitalism was Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most relevant figures in Western philosophy. He is precisely framed in this movement according to which life is a fundamental value. Nietzsche was opposed to the ideas of Greek philosophy that despised earthly things as belonging to the apparent world and also to the emphasis on the rationality of our species. His version of vitalism understands life as the only thing that has its own value and considers that the other elements serve life. This value is emotional and biological, with a special focus on the body, instincts, feelings and impulses. These ideas place him on the list of the so-called irrationalist philosophers, along with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, because all three criticize rationality, distrust reason in favor of the plane of emotions. He is also framed in the philosophers of suspicion with Freud and Marx, for “suspecting” that consciousness is not what unites us beyond our differences.

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