Vitalism is typically presented as the belief – scientific, metaphysical, poetic and other – in the uniqueness of Life, presented as a ‘substance’, ‘force’, or ‘principle’. As such it is a frequently criticized theory, often in caricatural forms, where a model of the living being (notably of organism), embryo development, or forms of non-mechanical causality is called ‘vitalist’ – a label applied to various theories which have little in common with each other, with entirely different empirical bases and/or metaphysical commitments. In fact, the historical and conceptual significance of the category of vitalism for biological thought lies in its perpetual challenge, either to ‘reductionism’ (although this is a loose category without strict historical demarcation), or at least to the pretensions of a reductionist biology. As Georges Canguilhem suggested, vitalism is less a specific empirical claim (easily refuted or refutable) than a kind of heuristic project (or challenge, in a different vocabulary) concerning the nature of living entities.
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