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Shmidt, V. (2023). Vitalist Arguments in the Struggle for Human (Im)Perfection: The Debate Between Biologists and Theologians in the 1960s–1980s. In: Donohue, C., Wolfe, C.T. (eds) Vitalism and Its Legacy in Twentieth Century Life Sciences and Philosophy. History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences, vol 29. Springer, Cham.

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-031-12604-8_12
Open access

In this chapter, I explore and offer critical reflections on the widespread practice of attributing negative value to “vital forces” in debates on health and disease, as the direct result of the extensive dissemination of genetics and its implications since the late 1960s. This historical reconstruction focuses on the most heated debates in popular science periodicals and editions, having the longest-lasting public “echo,” which have shaped an intergenerational continuity in the reproduction of vitalist arguments in discursive practices regarding health, disease, and their genetic factors. Mapping attacks on vital forces as various forms of negation addresses three different debates in the historically interrelated repertoire of potentially rival approaches to health, disease, and their genetic components: (1) the attribution of negative value to primal instinct as an obstacle to the progress of human civilization; (2) the normative vitalism mainly associated with French philosophers George Canguilhem, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze; and (3) the movement for the deinstitutionalization of health care within the negative theology presented by Ivan Illich. The reproduction of vitalist arguments in the each of the three realms is seen as a historical continuity of the medical vitalism that appeared in the Enlightenment and that produced a less monolithic and more conceptually coherent continuum of the positions regarding health, diseases, and their causes. In line with the Lakatosian division into internalist and externalist histories of science, I focus on the multiple functions of vitalist arguments: as a main force in the contest among rival theories regarding health and disease (as a part of the internalist narrative); as a signifier of the boundary work delineating science and not-science, whether labeled as theology or as “bad” science aimed at legitimizing science (as a part of externalist history); and as an ideological platform for bridging science and its performance in policies concerning reproduction. © 2023, The Author(s).

Author Keywords
Georges Canguilhem; Internal and external histories of biology; Ivan Illich; Reproduction; Vitalism

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