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The theory that the activities of a living organism are under the guidance of an agency which has none of the attributes of matter or energy.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an idealistic current in biology which posits the existence of a special nonmaterial life force in organisms. Vitalism originated in primitive animism, the idea that all bodies of nature have a conscious life. Elements of vitalism are revealed in the ideas of the greatest thinkers of classical Greece, in Plato’s concept of immortal soul (psyche) and in Aristotle’s concept of a particular nonmaterial force, entelechy, which controls the phenomena of living nature. After the Renaissance the idea of the animation of nonliving bodies gave way to a mechanistic interpretation of inorganic, as well as organic, phenomena. In the 17th century a dualistic doctrine arose which drew a sharp boundary between nonliving bodies in nature and living things. J. B. van Hel-mont established the doctrine of archei, spiritual principles that regulate the activity of body organs. This vitalistic concept was developed in more detail in the beginning of the 18th century by the German doctor G. Stahl, who believed that the soul directs the life of organisms and also ensures their complete structure. In the beginning of the 19th century there was a renaissance of vitalistic ideas as a reaction against the oversimplified mechanistic ideas of such 18th-century French materialists as D. Diderot and J. La Mettrie. The nonmaterial life principle was called formative striving by the German anatomist J. F. Blumenbach; the German naturalist G. R. Treviranus called it a life force (vis vitalis)—from which the name of the whole movement was derived. The vitalistic views of the German physiologist J. Müller were regarded by Lenin as physiological idealism. Müller attributed to living things a creative force that determined unity and harmony. In the second half of the 19th century, oversimplified and distorted mechanistic materialism was again supplanted by a wave of vitalism, called at that time neovitalism. It was inspired by the German biologist H. Driesch, who believed that the essence of living phenomena consists of so-called entelechy (that which contains or realizes its own end), which functions outside time and space and is unknowable. The existence of unknowable life factors was also acknowledged by other vitalists, who called them “life energy,” “life surges,” and “dominant idea.”

In refusing to explain living phenomena, vitalism demonstrates the weakness of idealism in resolving the question of the essence of life and of its origin and development. The source of the vitalistic views that reappear from time to time is the vitalists’ dissatisfaction with mechanistic explanations of living phenomena and their inability to apply the methodology of dialectical materialism to these explanations. Vitalism criticizes the shortcomings of mechanistic materialism’s interpretations of the essence of life and of the main properties of living things; vitalism itself, however, does not transcend the bounds of metaphysical mechanistic methodology. While asserting that life cannot be reduced to the sum total of chemical, physical, and mechanical phenomena, vitalism regards as an absolute the qualitative uniqueness of living phenomena and draws upon invented nonmaterial factors to explain this unique quality. A characteristic of vitalism is its disregard of historical method, first in rejection of C. Darwin’s theory by H. Driesch and his fol-lowers and, later, in the teleological interpretation of evolution by contemporary idealists. Vitalists have always based their position on the fact that certain problems have not been solved, for example, on the supposed impossibility of synthesis of organic substances outside of the organism. As soon as a particular characteristic of life received a scientific, materialist explanation, vitalism appealed to other, still un-studied areas. Vitalism interpreted from an idealistic stand-point not only the nature of living organisms in general but also the nature of consciousness. After the victory of evolutionary ideas in biology, vitalism penetrated into this area in the form of various anti-Darwinian concepts of evolution, such as psycholamarckism and the creative evolution propounded by, among others, the French philosopher H. Bergson.


Engels, F. “Dialektika prirody.” In K. Marks and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Materializm i empiriokrititsizm.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18.
Timiriazev, K. A. “Vitalizmi nauka.” Soch., vol. 5. Moscow, 1938.
Driesch, H. Vitalizm: Ego istoriia i sistema. Moscow, 1915.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. Fenomen cheloveka. Moscow, 1965. (Translated from French.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The fact that such a mysterious relation must somehow be established is thereby a necessary consequence of the vitalist refutation of the concept of mechanismically fully determined living (especially: human) bodies.
Lawrence's restatement of the Fall myth in terms of a vitalist, sexual energy; Lawrence was influenced by his Congregationalist pastor, a devotee of R.J.
Davy was a vitalist who argued that the force of life was related to electricity, which he also believed was the underlying force of chemistry.
Prior to this problem, we explored also certain convergences between these two authors' vitalist metaphysics.
Using the language of their mechanistic predecessors, although substituting dynamic definitions for the words they appropriated, vitalists posited the existence of living matter that became animated through active forces.
Despite these expressions of vitalism, Prout's application of chemistry to biology brought him criticism from vitalists.
Most physiologists were vitalists, as were many of the leading animal chemists, including Liebig.
He was also one of the foremost vitalists of his time, providing what to the eighteenth-century mind was strong evidence that the nerves are hollow fibres filled with a subtle fluid (the nervous fluid or vital spirits) rather than solid, vibrating 'strings'.
Unwilling to accept what he saw as the atomism of Rene Descartes, Hale more strongly agreed with the views of John Baptist van Helmot as a "middle way" between the extremes of mechanists like Descartes and vitalists; like Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist.
For religious vitalists, a separate managed care system paying to keep alive all fractions of life at all costs will surely test depth of conviction.
Prout was a powerful advocate of the value of chemistry in physiology (32), but his repeated calls for physiologists to become chemists were met with strong objections by vitalists who could see no place for chemistry in the study of the vital functions.
At one extreme are the vitalists, who believe that all human life is fully valuable, regardless of its quality.[5] On the other side are the "qualitists" (for lack of a better term), who believe that there are some conditions under which a life is no longer of value to the person who has it--that such a person would be better off, or at least no worse off, dead.