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Vitalism – some philosophers speak.

This is an adapted extract from my PhD thesis: Evans, S. (2009). Challenge, tension and possibility: and exploration into contemporary Western herbal medicine in Australia. Southern Cross University, Lismore.

Vitalism, traditionally a central philosophical concept of herbal medicine, has more recently become an idea surrounded by controversy, not least because it can appear incompatible with a scientific worldview.  Some, like Smuts (1926) who is credited with coining the concept, suggest that the concept of vitalism is outdated and is usefully replaced by holism. However the French philosopher Georges Canguilhem (Delaporte, 1994) argues vitalism should be understood as a moral position rather than a scientific fact: a position  completely in accordance with traditional herbal practice.

In this article, I provide a brief outline of historical approaches to vitalism before discussing the contribution of Canguilhem to this debate. I will restrict the discussion to concepts and approaches to vitalism in European thought, omitting discussion of similar concepts found in indigenous traditions, or in scholarly approaches to herbal medicine such Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.

The problem

Vitalism can be linked to a commonsense understanding of the world as being interconnected and alive, an idea which was widespread in Europe prior to the scientific revolution of the 17th century  (Larner, 1992; Sheldrake, 1990; Thomas, 1971). Since the early twentieth century, it has been soundly rejected in scientific circles, with scientists arguing that all biological processes can be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Consequently, well-respected chemistry texts suggest that the discrediting of vitalism was necessary to allow for the development of modern organic chemistry (Hart, Craine, Hart, & Hadad, 2007), and Greco (2004, p. 680) states ‘Many biologists today tend to use “vitalism” as a derogatory term associated with lack of intellectual rigor, anti-scientific attitudes, and superstition.’

Within the discipline of herbal medicine, a pre-modern understanding of the world as alive causes discomfort to those who feel it is important for herbalists to adopt the discourse and rhetoric of science. Mills, a leading British herbalist over the last twenty-five years, rejects its religious overtones, stating that ‘the lack of any criterion even to define a vital causal force has meant that vitalism itself has taken retreat into the bunker of modern religion’ (Mills, 1991, p. 120).

Wohlmuth draws attention to the divide between traditional herbalists and those who see herbal medicine as a science.

Many proponents of traditional herbal medicine argue that vitalism and its concept of a ‘vital force’ are fundamental parts of the theoretical and philosophical framework of herbal practice. In contrast, many others, who view herbal medicine as an essentially scientific practice employing medicinal plants as pharmacologically active therapeutic agents, see vitalistic concepts as irrelevant, antiquated and unhelpful to the promotion of herbal medicine as a valuable part of healthcare (Wohlmuth, 2003, pp. 198-199).

However, this emphasis on the science of herbal medicine and rejection of vitalism is not universally accepted. Baer (2004), VanMarie (2002) and Singer and Fisher (2007) draw attention to a developing rift, termed an ‘epistemological bifurcation’ by Singer and Fisher (2007), between those herbal practitioners who consciously support traditional herbal medicine and give centrality to the idea of vitalism, and those, like Mills (1991) and Wohlmuth (2003) above, who reject it.

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