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The doctrine of vitalism asserts that the functioning of a living organism cannot result from physical and chemical forces alone. Where vitalism explicitly invokes an immaterial 'vital' principle or force, it sometimes refers to that element as the 'vital spark', 'vital flame', 'energy' or 'élan vital', which some equate with the 'soul', or in Latin, 'anima'.

Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: most traditional healing practices propose that disease reflects some imbalance in those vital energies that distinguish living from non-living matter. In the Western tradition, these vital forces were identified as the humours; eastern traditions proposed similar forces, such as qi in acupuncture and prana in Yoga.

Development of vitalism

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation, while Plato points to the heavens, showing his belief in the ultimate truth.

Vitalist ideas have been common in traditional medicine and share much with other approaches and theories of Alternative Medicine. [1]. The notion that life depends upon some 'vital spark' that is present in all living creatures dates back to at least the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle[2] and Empedocles in the fourth century BCE. Attempts to construct workable scientific models date from the 1600s, when it was argued that matter existed in two radically different forms. These two forms of matter were termed organic and inorganic: inorganic matter could be melted, but could be restored to its former condition by removing the heat. By contrast, organic compounds 'cooked' when heated, transforming into new forms that could not be restored to the original. It was argued that the essential difference between the two forms of matter was the 'vital force', that was present only in organic material. This fundamental division remains apparent in the continuing separation between 'organic chemistry' and 'inorganic chemistry,' even though the vitalistic concepts have long been superseded.

Aided by the invention of the microscope in the 16th century, the germ theory of disease challenged the role of vitalism in Western medicine, and the roles of the organs of the human anatomy in the maintenance of life became better understood, reducing the need to explain things in terms of mystical "vital forces". Nevertheless, vitalist ideas were still thought necessary by many scientists to explain how organisms maintained life.

The phlogiston theory, developed by J. J. Becher and Georg Stahl late in the 17th century held that all flammable materials contain phlogiston, a substance without color, odor, taste, or weight that is liberated in burning. Once burned, the 'dephlogisticated' substance was held to be in its 'true' form, the calx. This vitalist theory led to the prediction that substances should lose weight after burning; it was tested and falsified by the experimental demonstration that, when combustion took place in a closed, sealed system, no weight was lost or gained.

In the early 19th century, Jöns Jakob Berzelius, known as one of the 'fathers' of modern chemistry, rejected mystical vitalism, but nevertheless argued that there must be some regulative force within living matter that maintains its functions. The geologist Carl Reichenbach, who is considered to be one of the top 1,000 scientists of all time, later developed the theory of Odic force, a form of life-energy that permeated living things; this concept never gained much support despite Reichenbach's prestige.

Vitalism came to be seen as a mystical and supernatural form of explanation that was in conflict with rational materialistic 'reductionist' explanations. However, the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr wrote: "It would be ahistorical to ridicule vitalists. When one reads the writings of one of the leading vitalists like Driesch one is forced to agree with him that many of the basic problems of biology simply cannot be solved by a philosophy as that of Descartes, in which the organism is simply considered a machine…..The logic of the critique of the vitalists was impeccable. But all their efforts to find a scientific answer to all the so-called vitalistic phenomena were failures.… rejecting the philosophy of reductionism is not an attack on analysis. No complex system can be understood except through careful analysis. However the interactions of the components must be considered as much as the properties of the isolated components". [3]


A popular vitalist theory of the eighteenth century was 'animal magnetism', in the theories of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). So popular did Mesmer's ideas become that King Louis XVI of France appointed two commissions to investigate mesmerism; one was led by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the other, led by Benjamin Franklin, included Bailly and Lavoisier. The commissioners learned about Mesmeric theory, and saw its patients fall into fits and trances. In Franklin’s garden, a patient was led to each of five trees, one of which had been 'mesmerized'; he hugged each in turn to receive the "vital fluid", but fainted at the foot of a 'wrong' one. At Lavoisier’s house, four normal cups of water were held before a "sensitive" woman; the fourth produced convulsions, but she calmly swallowed the mesmerized contents of a fifth, believing it to be plain water. The commissioners concluded that "the fluid without imagination is powerless, whereas imagination without the fluid can produce the effects of the fluid." This was an important example of the power of reason and controlled experiment to falsify theories. [4] It is sometimes claimed that vitalist ideas are unscientific because they are not testable; here at least is an example of a vitalist theory that was not merely testable but actually falsified.

Vitalism in the foundations of chemistry

In the history of chemistry, vitalism played a pivotal role, giving rise to the basic distinction between organic and inorganic substances, following Aristotle's distinction between the mineral kingdom and the animal and vegetative kingdoms. [5]. The basic premise of these notions was that organic materials differed from inorganic materials in possessing a 'vital force', accordingly, vitalist theory predicted that organic materials could not be synthesized from inorganic components. However, as chemical techniques advanced, in 1828 Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from inorganic components [17]. Wohler wrote to Berzelius, saying that he had witnessed "The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." The 'beautiful hypothesis' was vitalism; the 'ugly fact' was a dish of urea crystals. [6]

According to the conventional view of the subsequent progress of chemistry, further discoveries pushed aside the 'vital force' explanation, as more and more life processes came to be described in chemical or physical terms. However, contemporary accounts do not support the claim that vitalism died when Wöhler made urea: The Wöhler Myth, as it was called by historian of science Peter Ramberg, originates from a history of chemistry published in 1931 which, "Ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, turned Wöhler into a crusader who made attempt after attempt to synthesize a natural product that would refute vitalism and lift the veil of ignorance, until "one afternoon the miracle happened"." [7]

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, painting by A. Edelfeldt in 1885.

Some of the greatest scientific minds of the time continued to investigate these vital properties. Louis Pasteur, shortly after his famous rebuttal of spontaneous generation, made several experiments that he felt supported the vital concepts of life. According to Bechtel, Pasteur "fitted fermentation into a more general programme describing special reactions that only occur in living organisms. These are irreducibly vital phenomena." In 1858, Pasteur showed that fermentation only occurs when living cells are present and, that fermentation only occurs in the absence of oxygen; he was thus led to describe fermentation as ‘life without air’. He found no support for the claims of Berzelius, Liebig, Traube and others that fermentation resulted from chemical agents or catalysts within cells, and so he concluded that fermentation was a 'vital action.'

Vitalism in Psychology

Group photo 1909 in front of Clark University. Front row from left: Sigmund Freud, Granville Stanley Hall, Carl Jung. Back row from left: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi.

Perhaps more than any other area of science, psychology has been rich in vitalist concepts, particularly through the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud was a student of the notable anti-vitalist Herman von Helmhotz, and initially struggled to express his concepts in strictly neurological terms. Abandoning this effort as fruitless, he became famous for his theory that behaviour is determined by an unconscious mind, of which the waking mind is unaware. In 1923, in The Ego and the Id, he developed the concept of 'psychic energy' as the energy by which the work of the personality is performed.

Although Freud and Jung remain hugely influential, psychology has made a determined effort to rid itself of the most mystical of these concepts in an attempt to appear more like the "hard" sciences of chemistry and physics[8]. However, concepts for instance of mind, or of intelligence, and of motivational states such as anger, fear, anxiety and stress, remain essentially higher level constructs, with observable correlates, but with no adequate low-level description of underlying mechanisms or processes. Whether low-level descriptions are either possible or desirable is controversial. Some psychologists believe that further change is needed in psychology to eliminate all concepts which have no defined physico-chemical substrates [18] Conversely, the neuroscientist Roger Sperry, in his Nobel prize lecture in 1981, argued that such reductionism is not appropriate: he described scientific concepts of the nature of consciousness and its relation to brain processing as follows:

The events of inner experience, as emergent properties of brain processes, become themselves explanatory causal constructs in their own right, interacting at their own level with their own laws and dynamics. The whole world of inner experience (the world of the humanities) long rejected by 20th century scientific materialism, thus becomes recognized and included within the domain of science. [9]

Vitalism in Developmental Biology

Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733-1794) is considered to be the father of epigenetic descriptive embryology. In his Theoria Generationis (1759), he tried to explain the emergence of the organism by the actions of a 'vis essentialis', an organizing, formative force, and declared that "All believers in epigenesis are Vitalists." However, even early vitalists were aware that the vital forces that they proposed were to be understood metaphorically not literally. For example, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, established epigenesis as the model of thought in the life sciences in 1781, with his publication of Über den Bildungstrieb and das Zeugungsgeschäfte. Blumenbach cut up freshwater polyps and established that the removed parts would regenerate; he inferred the presence of a 'formative drive'. an organic force, which he called 'Bildungstrieb'. He pointed out that this, "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."

Vitalism was also important in the thinking of Hans Driesch (1867-1941) [19] In 1894, Driesch wrote a theoretical essay entitled Analytische Theorie der organischen Entwicklung where he declared that

Development starts with a few ordered manifoldnesses; but the manifoldnesses create, by interactions, new manifoldnesses, and these are able, by acting back on the original ones, to provoke new differences, and so on. With each new response, a new cause is immediately provided, and a new specific reactivity for further specific responses. We derive a complex structure from a simple one given in the egg.

This insight, which can be seen as anticipating modern developmental biology, came from his experiments on sea urchin eggs; he observed that if an egg was divided in two, it nevertheless gave rise to a perfect, though small embryo. Driesch, already a famous biologist, thus became an avowed vitalist. He moved to Heidelberg and became a Professor of Natural Philosophy, seeing his vitalism an extension of Immanual Kant's notion that the organism develops as if it had a purposeful intelligence.

Vitalist notions in the foundations of complementary medicine

Some systems of complementary and alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and chiropractic, emphasize a holistic approach to the cause and treatment of disease (see main articles on these subjects). They retain some concepts that were originally mystical, vitalist concepts, although in some cases they now use these metaphorically rather than as literally implying an animate essence. For example, 'Innate Intelligence' in chiropractic was introduced as an overtly religious sense of an internal guiding force; now it is also used to represent the physiological mechanisms of self-repair, including in particular the regulation of the immune system by the nervous system[20].

The founder of homeopathy, Hahnemann, promoted an immaterial, vitalistic view of disease: "...they are solely spirit-like (dynamic) derangements of the spirit-like power (the vital principle) that animates the human body." However, as practised today, homeopathy simply rests on the premise of treating sick persons with extremely diluted agents that - in undiluted doses - are deemed to produce similar symptoms in a healthy individual. Thus modern expressions of homeopathy have largely excluded early vitalistic concepts, though whether they have gained any credibility as a result is debatable. Homeopathy considers the 'vital force' to be the power that maintains good health and/or promotes healing.

Vitalism in "New Age" mysticism

A naive or mystical vitalism is an aspect of many 'New Age' theories which have little or no credibility amongst conventional scientists today. Examples include Rupert Sheldrake's concept of "morphic resonance" - the idea of telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species[21], and revivals of Reichenbach's Odic force, which is sometimes used to explain colored auras.[10]Anthroposophy, founded by Rudolf Steiner, is a spiritual philosophy whose teachings, in Steiner's words, lead "from the spirit in the human being to the spirit in the universe." [11] Steiner believed that all living things were sustained by an etheric body, and that human beings have a spirit and soul in addition to physical bodies.[12]

Modern versions of vitalism in science

All organised bodies are composed of parts, similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an inorganic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents. To whatever degree we might imagine our knowledge of the properties of the several ingredients of a living body to be extended and perfected, it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself. (John Stuart Mill, the founder of 'emergentism', quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Although scientific understanding of the biochemical processes which distinguish living from non-living matter has become increasingly sophisticated, so has the realization that these fundamental processes are incredibly complicated; no complete, reductionist theory has yet been proposed which coordinates all of the actions which occur in a single cell (let alone a higher organism). Indeed, contemporary molecular biology recognises that complex functions and behaviours of organisms may often not be reducible to a convenient explanation in terms of component parts, but are features of "irreducibly complex" non-linear systems (see articles on Systems Biology and emergent behaviour). Thus, in terms of the biology of the cell, a type of 'vitalism' can be recognized in, for example in the proposal that some high level features of organisms, perhaps including even life itself, are examples of emergent processes which cannot be accurately described simply by understanding each of the chemical processes which occur in the cell in isolation from all the others [13]; When individual chemical processes form interconnected feedback cycles which produce products perpetuating these cycles rather than unconnected products, they can form systems with properties that the reactions, taken individually, lack [14]. Such emergent processes have been recognised as, for example, contributing to subcellular morphology [15], developmental biology [16], metabolic networks [17], proteomics [18] and indeed in purely physical systems as well as biological systems [19]. At a higher level, emergent processes are a widespread concept in cellular neuroscience [20] and in cognitive science [21]. At a still higher level, emergent properties are recognised for example in the behaviour of ant colonies and the concept of swarm intelligence,[22]; they have been simulated in artificial systems [23], and parallels have been drawn with human societies [24].

Whether emergent system properties should be characterized with traditional vitalist concepts is a matter of semantic controversy; some philosophers see emergentism as midway between traditional spiritual vitalism and mechanistic reductionism; others argue that, structurally, emergentism is equivalent to vitalism.[25] In a provocative vein, Kirshner and Michison call research into integrated cell and organismal physiology 'molecular vitalism.' [26]

Vitalism; its status in science

Whether particular vitalistic concepts are scientific or not is a subjective judgement, one largely passed by the winners of a debate after the debate has been resolved: many vitalistic theories now abandoned were considered as mainstream theories in their time. The replacement of vitalistic theories might thus be seen as a progressive refinement of scientific understanding, as the underlying mechanisms of complex phenomena are revealed.

Most of the proponents of avowedly vitalistic theories described in this article were not 'fringe' scientists but mainstream scientists of their time; their theories similarly were mainstream theories; Aristotle, Empedocles, Driesch, Lamarck, Pasteur, Reichenbach, and Berzelius are all listed among the "top 1,000 scientists of all time". While many of the older theories described here have been refuted or superseded, this, in time is the fate of most scientific theories.

The philosopher of science Karl Popper attacked Freud's psychoanalytical theories vehemently, but he did so because of their lack of falsifiability, not for their vitalist content per se. Vitalism is not intrinsically unfalsifiable: not only were many vitalistic theories falsifiable, many were in fact falsified, notably Mesmerism and the phlogiston theory. The perverse retention of falsified theories might be considered unscientific; but this is the case whether the perversely retained theories are vitalistic or not.

Nevertheless, for many scientists, vitalist theories are unsatisfactorily "holding positions" on the pathway to mechanistic understanding. In 1967, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, stated “And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow” [27].


  1. e.g. Zarrilli PB. (1989) Three bodies of practice in a traditional South Indian martial art. Social Science and Medicine 28:1289-309. PMID 2660283.
    • Excerpts:
    • Martial practice, like meditation, begins by taming and purifying the external, physical body as superstructure, but is understood to both quiet and balance the three humors and eventually lead to discovery of the subtle body most often identified with Kundalini/ Tantric yoga.
    • The subtle body here refers to the idealization construct used by many South Indians to identify and articulate psycho-spiritual experiences of the yogi, martial artist, and the pilgrim/devotee [citation given]. It provides a map of an experiential landscape especially for those who practice disciplines (sadhana).
    • The subtle body has been defined by others as "mystical physiology" [citation given], "theoretical anatomy" [Figure and citation given], and an "invisible mandala formed by a combination of symbolic (but also very real) geometric figures ... [it is] a structure of reference, an image, a yantra" [citation given].
    • The subtle body is often depicted as a microcosm of the universe, as noted in one classic text, the Siva Samhita: "All the beings that exist in the three worlds are also to be found in the [subtle] body" [citation given9].
    • The subtle body is also called the seat/vehicle of the soul (atman) [citation given].
    • The practice of postures and exercises in hatha yoga or kalarippayattu, purify and unclog the channels, and gain further control of the vital energy or breath.  
    Noll R (1989) What has really been learned about shamanism? J Psychoactive Drugs 21:47-50 PMID 2656952.
    • Abstract: Within anthropology, investigations of shamans and their altered states of consciousness have followed some of the prescriptive problems inherited from the discipline of psychology, coloring the assumptions and perspectives of students of shamanism. These inherited problems include the following: conscious/volitional versus unconscious/involuntary mentalisms; contentual objectivism versus contentual subjectivism; environmentalism versus nativism; monopsychism versus polypsychism; mechanism versus vitalism; and quantitativism versus qualitativism. Although the polemics of anthropological studies of shamanism have reflected these prescriptive perspectives, this has not inhibited the acquisition of new knowledge about shamanism. Nonetheless, a resolution of these problems is lacking due to insufficient data. [emphasis added]
    Merchant J (2006) [10.1111/j.1465-5922.2006.576_1.x The developmental/emergent model of archetype, its implications and its application to shamanism.] J Anal Psychol 51:125-44 PMID 16451325.
    • Excerpt: What this material from the ethnographic record suggests is that a developmental perspective on Siberian shamanism is supported. This provides corroborative evidence for Ducey's (1976) thesis that the shamanic complex is laid down in early infancy through ruptures in the mother-infant dyad. I would propose that it is from this developmental zone that bio-structures become embedded, which lead to later emergent imagery which is experienced shamanically and which would align with the kind of classical archetypal interpretation of Siberian shamanism with which analytical psychology is familiar. I believe it possible for Siberian shamanism to be understood in terms of an emergent/developmental model of archetype like that proposed by Knox (2004).
  2. Aristotle. (350 BCE) On the Soul. Translated by J. A. Smith. Provided by The Internet Classics Archive.
    • Excerpts: (Editor note: For Aristotle, the ‘vital spark’ of life was the 'soul'.)
    • The knowledge of the soul admittedly contributes greatly to the advance of truth in general, and, above all, to our understanding of Nature, for the soul is in some sense the principle of animal life
    • We have now given an answer to the question, What is soul?-an answer which applies to it in its full extent. It is substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing's essence. That means that it is 'the essential whatness' of a body of the character just assigned.
    • We resume our inquiry from a fresh starting-point by calling attention to the fact that what has soul in it differs from what has not, in that the former displays life.
    • The soul is the cause or source of the living body. The terms cause and source have many senses. But the soul is the cause of its body alike in all three senses which we explicitly recognize. It is (a) the source or origin of movement, it is (b) the end, it is (c) the essence of the whole living body.
  3. Mayr E (2002) The Walter Arndt Lecture: The Autonomy of Biology, adapted for the internet, on [1]
  4. (Best M, Neuhauser D, Slavin L (2003) Evaluating Mesmerism, Paris, 1784: the controversy over the blinded placebo controlled trials has not stopped. Qual Saf Health Care 12:232-3 PMID 12792017 [2]
  5. see Schummerr J (2003) The notion of nature in chemistry. Stud Hist Phil Sci 34:705-736 for this account within an extensive review on vitalist notions in the foundations of chemistry [3]
  6. cited by Schummerr J, op cit, [4]
  7. [5]
  8. see Warren HC (1918) Mechanism Versus Vitalism, in the Domain of Psychology Phil Rev27:597-615 [6] and Elkus SA (1911) Mechanism and Vitalism J Phil Psych Sci Meth 8: 355-8 [7] for examples of this debate within psychology
  9. Sperry RW (1981) Some Effects of Disconnecting the Cerebral Hemispheres
  10. United States Patent 6016450, "Method and apparatus for stimulating the healing of living tissue using aura therapy" [8]
  11. The Anthroposophical Society in America; website [9]
  12. Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy, Anthroposophic Press: 1971 [10]
  13. Berg EL et al (2005) Biological complexity and drug discovery: a practical systems biology approach Syst Biol 152:201-6 PMID 16986261 and see [11] for an explicit discussion of both historical and contemporary 'vitalist' concepts in current epithelial cell physiology
  14. Gilbert SF, Sarkar S (2000) Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century Dev Dyn 219:1-9 PMID 10974666
  15. Tabony J (2006) Microtubules viewed as molecular ant colonies Biol Cell 98:603-17 PMID 16968217
  16. e.g. Theise ND, d'Inverno M (2004) Understanding cell lineages as complex adaptive systems Blood Cells Mol Dis 32:17-20 PMID 14757407 and Ruiz i Altaba A, et al (2003) The emergent design of the neural tube: prepattern, SHH morphogen and GLI code Curr Opin Genet Dev 13:513-21 PMID 14550418
  17. Jeong H et al(2000) The large scale organisation of metabolic networks Nature 407:651-4 [12]
  18. e.g. Grindrod P, Kibble M (2004) Review of uses of network and graph theory concepts within proteomics Expert Rev Proteomics 1:229-38 PMID 15966817 and Ye X, Chu J, Zhuang Y, Zhang S (2005) Multi-scale methodology: a key to deciphering systems biology Front Biosci 10:961-5 PMID 15569634
  19. Cho YS et al (2005) Self-organization of bidisperse colloids in water droplets J Am Chem Soc 127:15968-75 PMID 16277541
  20. see e.g. Burak Y, Fiete I (2006) Do we understand the emergent dynamics of grid cell activity? J Neurosci 26:9352-4 PMID 16977716
  21. e.g. Courtney SM (2004) Attention and cognitive control as emergent properties of information representation in working memory Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 4:501-16 PMID 15849893
  22. Theraulaz G et al (2002) Spatial patterns in ant colonies Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 99:9645-9 PMID 12114538
  23. Theraulaz G, Bonabeau E (1999)A brief history of stigmergy Artif Life 5:97-116 PMID 10633572
  24. Bonabeau E, Meyer C (2001) Swarm intelligence. A whole new way to think about business Harv Bus Rev 79:106-14 PMID 11345907
  25. see 'Emergent Properties' in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online at [13] for explicit discussion; See also Emmeche C (2001) Does a robot have an Umwelt? Semiotica 134: 653-693 [14]
  26. Kirschner M, Gerhart J, Mitchison T (2000) Molecular "vitalism" Cell 100:79-88 PMID 10647933
  27. Crick F (1967) Of Molecules and Men; Great Minds Series Prometheus Books 2004, reviewed in [15]. Crick's remark is discussed in Hein H (2004) Molecular biology vs organicism: The enduring dispute between mechanism and vitalism Synthese 20:238-253, who describes Crick's remark as "raising spectral red herrings" [16]