Charles Wolfe - Varieties of Vital Materialism

Charles Wolfe HOS Colloquium on 2/17
Event date: 
February 17, 2016 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Charles Wolfe
Ghent University
Seminar Series: 
History of Science Colloquium
Princeton University
History Department

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.

Area of Interest: 
Book History
Cultural History
Intellectual History
Material Culture
Medicine & Health
17th & 18th Centuries