Vitalism, philosophy that living organisms are distinct from nonliving entities by possessing a "vital force." This vital force energizes living organisms in a nonphysical, nonchemical manner. Vitalism is an aspect of the philosophy of idealism, which claims that abstract, non-material forms or processes (ideas) precede and give rise to the material. Although vitalists do not deny the value of biochemical investigations of cells or organisms, they believe that such work can never lead to an understanding of the ultimate nature of life because, by definition, the vital force cannot be comprehended by studying chemical and physical phenomena. See also Dualism; Teleology.

Vitalism is distinguished from traditional religious views of the nature of life because vitalists do not necessarily attribute the vital force to a creator or supernatural being. Vitalism is also distinguished from organicism, or holism–the view that living organisms function as an interconnected whole–which, in contrast to vitalism, neither assumes a vital force nor claims that the properties of the whole organism cannot be understood by rational investigation. See also  Mechanism.

In the early 20th century, embryologist Hans Driesch was a leading exponent of vitalism. Driesch employed the concept of entelechythat is, the concept that vital force accounts not only for the maintenance of life but also for its development–to explain, among other things, the process of embryonic differentiation. Today, few biologists give credence to vitalism in any of its forms, although many acknowledge the importance of the organicist approach.


"Vitalism," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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