Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor: Dr. Barbara J. Becker
Week 8. Living Machines
Mechanism vs. Vitalism
Mechanical philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
viewed the world as a magnificent clockwork--anything could be understood
if taken apart, exposing all its inner workings. For others, however,
the mechanical philosophy was a source of deep despair:
For one thing, there was the inability to know anything with any certainty.
One could only describe outward appearances--the "what" of things, but not
In the early nineteenth century, the prevailing metaphor for natural phenomena
began to change from machine to organism. The method of analysis
gave way to intuition and experiment became viewed as a futile investigative
procedure: Because it forces nature to act abnormally, experiment
reveals only what the apparatus is designed to show.
For another, there are many instances in which the whole is greater than
the sum of its parts. Taking a thing apart destroys what it was when
it was whole. Understanding the individual components reveals nothing
about how they really work together.
What is it that distinguishes between living and non-living
things? What animates living things? Where does this vital
spirit reside? Is it, perhaps, something we've been defining as mechanical
all along? What do we do with this knowledge if and when we find