Eighteenth-century uses of vitalism in constructing the human sciences

Peter Hanns Reill

in Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print May 2010 | ISBN: 9780226608402
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226608426 | DOI:
Eighteenth-century uses of vitalism in constructing the human sciences

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In the period of the high and late Enlightenment, the human sciences were reformed based on ideas, methods, and assumptions drawn from the life sciences. The goal was to improve the human sciences by naturalizing them, injecting them with the spirit that animated the search for the principles of life in biology. Many Enlightenment thinkers took interest in the agenda set by a loose group of natural philosophers known as vitalists, which included Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Paul Barthez, Charles Bonnet, Alexander von Humboldt, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, and Toberg Olaf Bergman. These vitalists sought to reformulate the concept of matter and proposed theories that resurrected the Renaissance and classical biological ideas rejected by the mechanists. This chapter explores how biological vitalism was utilized by Enlightenment thinkers to formulate strikingly modern concepts of the human sciences, focusing on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Johann Gottfried Herder's Ideen. In particular, it explores how Enlightenment vitalism inspired the two men's conception of a science of humanity, that is, their use of analogy, semiotics, and the epistemology that supported it.

Keywords: biology; vitalism; Enlightenment; human sciences; Adam Smith; Johann Gottfried Herder; Wealth of Nations; Ideen; semiotics; analogy

Chapter.  10594 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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