Charles Wolfe - Varieties of Vital Materialism
Varieties of Vital Materialism
In seeking to reconstruct the conceptual world of early modern materialism we are too often tempted to follow the division between a more contemporary understanding of materiality and embodiment, and an older 'mechanistic materialism'. The latter is understood as presenting a passive picture of matter, quantifiable and ultimately perhaps mathematizable. In fact, matter in this period was often thought of as dynamic and plastic, as in John Toland's assertion in his Letters to Serena (1704) that “Activity ought to enter into the Definition of Matter, it ought likewise to express the Essence thereof.” In addition, matter also becomes vitalized, in the sense that it possesses irreducibly vital properties. Indeed, the overlap between medical vitalism and philosophical materialism in the mid-eighteenth century in France is a significant phenomenon, one which requires that we do justice to the specific nature of vital materialism, as in the case of Diderot. This is my central focus - what is the content of a vital materialism? I suggest that it embraces a reductionist dimension, in its medicalized approach to body:soul relations, even if it is not a reduction to physics (again in mechanistic terms). Matter is active, but not spiritualized.