The critical difference between Holism and Vitalism in Cassirer’s Philosophy of Science

M. Chirimuuta*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

This chapter surveys Ernst Cassirer’s responses to the vitalist and holist/organicist movements in biology during the early decades of the twentieth century. I argue that examination of the combination of Cassirer’s enthusiasm for holism, and rejection of vitalism, puts into relief many themes and preoccupations that are consistent across Cassirer’s philosophical career, and aids the interpretation of his philosophy of symbolic forms. I propose that it is useful to read the third volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as a critical response to anti-rationalistic tendencies in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, and other proponents of Lebensphilosophie. Hence the availability of holism, as a purportedly less obscure alternative to vitalism, suits this broader agenda. At the same time, Cassirer’s acceptance of holism depends on a commitment to the autonomy of biology which is at odds with the physicalism of the Vienna Circle, but consistent with Heidegger’s favourable response to holism in comparison with vitalism. Yet, in the end we are left with an interpretative puzzle about how Cassirer proposes to avoid the encroachment of physicalism into theorising in the biological and human sciences while maintaining his view that progress in science is the result of increasing quantification.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHistory, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences
Editors Christopher Donohue, Charles T. Wolfe
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9783031126048
ISBN (Print)9783031126031
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Publication series

NameHistory, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences
ISSN (Print)2211-1948
ISSN (Electronic)2211-1956


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