Materialists and Vitalists

on April 23, 2012

Like all newborn visions, the holism vision in the 19th century was almost impossible to express directly. Intimations of it can be glimpsed in art and imaginative fiction, or in off-the-cuff remarks by otherwise conventional scientists, but it was never consciously articulated. Even when it became more visible towards the end of the century, it remained largely ineffable.

The easiest way to trace the emergence of holism is thus through its association with the slightly older chaos vision. Between about 1886 and 1926, these two visions operated in concert to challenge the faltering but still dominant partnership of reason and scientific materialism.

The association of chaos and holism was a natural rival to the existing partnership. Both combined an inner experience-based vision with a scientifically-based vision, and both were intended to reconcile mind with matter and human beings with the cosmos. However, they did so from different starting premises and arrived at very different conclusions.

The pairing of reason and scientific materialism emphasized objective knowledge based on an arms-length relationship between a rationally-constructed material world and a human mind which could stand outside that world and master its secrets.

In stark contrast, the pairing of chaos and holism focused on participatory knowledge of a cosmos that might never be fully comprehended but could be engaged with through empathy and intuition. And the shift from one model to the other defines almost everything that differentiates the early 20th century from the 19th.

Consider, for example, the almost inconceivable gap between the corsets and bustles of the 1880’s (right) and the chemise dress of the 1920’s flapper (below). Each of these styles makes its own philosophical statement, which for the older fashion is something like, “I am a rational mind perched delicately atop a solid and rigidly defined physical body.” That’s reason-and-scientific-materialism in a nutshell.

But the newer fashion shouts defiantly, “I am a free spirit, given to restless and unceasing movement, and my clothing represents the thinness and permeability of the interface between my body and its environment.” And that’s just as clearly an expression of chaos-plus-holism.

So how did such a radical transformation come about so quickly?

The process was complex, and even though I’ve spent months trying to pin down the details, it’s still hard for me to say which aspects were inevitable, which were wild improvisations, and which were merely historical happenstance. Despite the unresolved questions, however, I believe it’s a story worth telling, because it’s the best example I know of the elaborate sequence of influences and reactions that leads to the replacement of one set of visions by another.

The story begins in the mid-1880’s, when the balance within the dominant partnership started breaking down and the scientific materialism vision became increasingly powerful as the reason vision grew weaker.

The most obvious reflection of this breakdown was that it no longer seemed possible to accept human reason as a reliable source of knowledge about the nature of reality. Scientific observation alone was considered credible, and reason was reduced to the secondary role of extracting general principles from observed facts.

I’ve previously mentioned the German physicist Ernst Mach, who argued in 1886 that concepts such as space and time had no inherent reality and that science should be limited to the study of things that could be observed and quantified.

A similar conclusion was suggested the following year by the Michaelson-Morley experiment, which failed to find any evidence for the luminiferous ether — a hypothetical medium extending throughout space that had been thought necessary to account for the propagation of light waves.

And the same change in attitude was obvious even on the level of popular fiction, with the iconic figure of Sherlock Holmes — the ultimate exponent of engaging with life solely through logical deduction from observed facts — being introduced to the world in 1887.

For a dedicated scientific materialist, this downgrading of reason might have appeared to be a triumph. One vision finally stood alone and without challenge. Matter was all, moving mindlessly through the void, and life and mind were its accidental by-products. The great philosophical questions had either been answered or been rendered meaningless, and the moment when it would be possible to describe existence entirely in terms of simple physical and chemical processes was surely close at hand.

Except that of course it wasn’t really that way at all. Associations between visions exist for a very good reason, and for 500 years, the association between reason and scientific materialism had provided people with guidelines for relating their inner sense of self to both their own bodies and the physical universe. When scientific materialism kicked reason to the curb, it destroyed that entire system of orientation.

As Doctor Watson says of Holmes early in the first narrative of their joint adventures, “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know nothing.”

By the 1890’s, it was widely recognized that the failure of the bond between science and inner experience had created a need for an alternative basis of reconciliation — but chaos and holism were not yet sufficiently developed to assume that burden. Instead, attention focused for a time on various occult systems which aimed to restore the balance between reason and scientific materialism by exalting the power of the human mind.

These backwards-looking systems were not solidly enough founded to prevail in the long run, but for some twenty years they fostered a highly speculative intellectual climate that welcomed concepts drawn from chaos and holism and thus served as a kind of nursery for the growth of these two newest visions.

Chaos was further along in its development than holism, and in the 1890’s it was already on the verge of replacing reason as the primary model for understanding the human mind. That was when Sigmund Freud pulled together earlier speculations about the unconscious to create a sweeping theory that would provide a basis for interpreting and legitimizing the whole range of non-rational mental states that were at the heart of chaos.

The holism vision was a lot less advanced. It still consisted of little more than a fascination with certain aspects of the natural world — pattern, complexity, and an elegant coordination of its parts — that both evaded scientific explanation and offered mystical intimations of a larger and more meaningful reality. That was enough to start with, however, especially when contrasted with the random and purposeless cosmos of scientific materialism.

This tentative holistic perception of existence was most clearly expressed in art — particularly in the organic forms and writhing tendrils of Art Nouveau — but it also influenced many biologists and contributed to a final upsurge of interest in vitalism.

Vitalism, like occultism, was another of those last-ditch efforts to hold onto the old Cartesian spirit-matter dualism as a defense against the arrogance of scientific materialism. Throughout the 19th century, vitalists had persistently asserted that there had to be some vital principle in living creatures that science would never be able to duplicate — and mechanistic scientists had just as persistently frustrated them by doing things like synthesizing organic chemicals in the laboratory.

The vitalism of the 1890’s had moved well beyond this relatively simple approach, however. It was still old-fashioned in its willingness to identify the vital principle it sought with traditional religious concepts of the soul, but it was also elaborating new arguments that drew freely upon both chaos and holism.

On the side of chaos, late 19th century vitalists typically identified the soul-stuff they sought not with rational thought — as would have been the case fifty or a hundred years earlier — but with concepts related to the chaos vision, such as consciousness and intuition

And on the side of holism, they confidently expected to find proof of the workings of this soul-stuff in the unknown mechanisms that regulated the development of organisms. The German embryologist Hans Driesch, for example, spent much of the 1890’s industriously chopping up sea urchin embryos and found to his satisfaction that no matter how much he fragmented or rearranged them, they retained the ability to bounce back and develop into healthy, normal adult sea urchins.

In his books, The History and Theory of Vitalism (1905) and The Problem of Individuality (1914), Driesch argued that this adherence to pattern was the consequence of a vital factor, which he at first identified with the soul but later called by the more scientific-sounding term “entelechy” — a Greek word meaning an element inherent in organism that drives them towards self-actualization.

In Driesch’s theories, vitalism had moved as far away from religion and towards materialistic science as it could go. But even this late vitalism was still dualist at heart, and in the 20th century, there would be no turning back from the conclusion that existence must be perceived in terms of monism — all of a piece and all subject to the same laws. Mysterious undetectable forces that shaped living cells and organisms without themselves being accessible to scientific study would no longer be philosophically tenable.

For this and other reasons, by the time Driesch’s books appeared, vitalism was rapidly losing ground. The feverishly romantic and rebellious quality of fin de siècle thought had faded, the Progressive Era of the 1910’s was eager to appear scientific and modern, and a new generation of reductionist biologists was redoubling its efforts to find mechanistic explanations for all natural phenomena

But oddly enough, at precisely the same time, physical science itself had begun to undergo a radical transformation — with both materialism and scientific certainty itself dissolving in light of the strange new discoveries of atomic physics. And those two counterpoised tendencies would propel holism to finally come into its own.

(To be continued)


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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One Response to “Materialists and Vitalists”

  1. allynh says:

    “A similar conclusion was suggested the following year by the Michaelson-Morley experiment, which failed to find any evidence for the luminiferous ether — a hypothetical medium extending throughout space that had been thought necessary to account for the propagation of light waves.”


    Dayton Miller’s Ether-Drift
    Experiments: A Fresh Look

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