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'An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not been "deciphered" when it has simply been read; rather one has then to begin its interpretation, for which is required an art of interpretation.' -- Nietzsche, 'On the Genealogy of Morals'

vitalism, healthcare, medicine « Previous | |Next »
January 07, 2006

As I mentioned earlier chiropractic has been known as a vitalistic health care approach, as opposed to the mechanistic paradigm adopted by the medical profession. This is so even though, for many years, in an attempt to mimic the medical profession, some chiropractors have abandoned the vitalistic character of chiropractic in favor of one focused on musculoskeletal treatment only.This quote sums this situation up:

I find it interesting that chiropractic was developed on vitalistic principles, and somewhere along the way that principle was replaced by musculoskeletal therapy. As a result of this shift the public largely views chiropractic as offering musculoskeletal pain therapy only. At a grass-roots level, chiropractors like myself have to work our butts off re-educating the public of the true potential of chiropractic."

If vitalism is an integral part of chiropractic healthcare, then what is 'the vitalistic character' of chiropractic health care? What does vitalism mean? Is vitalism part of an old 19th century debate that has been left behind by recent developments in biology?

We know that vitalism means the mechanism vs. vitalism debate, and that mechanism meant that the universe was a giant machine, set into place by mere chance and sheer accident, and that there was no purpose in nature, and no design of nature by God. We know that vitalism is a response to the flaws of the mechanistic models of the body that have dominated medicine.

What then is vitalism?

One account---the romantic one-- holds that vitalism is the notion that living organisms possess some unique quality, an élan vital, that gives them that special quality we call life. Does it mean a teleologist position that posits a mystical entelechy or life-force possessed by living things that constrain the action of living entities? On this account the actions of an organic entity that constitute teleological causation are governed by laws that transcend the laws governing mechanical process -- those atomic, molecular, and cellular processes which can be described entirely in the mode of mechanical causation.

The "life force" or "spark of life" that is separate from its physical existence is what demarcates living from non-living being. Illness is caused by a disturbance to the body's vital energy and the cure is to restore balance to the flow of vital energy.

Often this romantic conception is a part of a pantheistic world-view (ie., where God is the universe rather than being separate from it). Then vital energy is thought of as a natural life force that pervades nature or the universe. pantheist assumptions the flow of energy from an externalized source, (Universal Intelligence or God) An eternal "metamerized" portion of that intelligence, referred to as Innate, is needed by each individualized being. Although Innate is not localized, its seat of control is the brain. From the brain, Innate’s intelligence travels down the spinal cord, and from the spinal cord outward to the periphery.

That 19th century account indicates we are dealing with the philosophy of biology that accounts for the unitary nature of a living organism the philsophy of
and the history and philosophy of medicine. We can interpret vitalism as a reworking of the tradition of an organic metaphysics that can be traced backed to Aristotle, his conception of a purposive natureand an integrated functioning organism. It also suggests that there may be alternatives to vitalism within organic philosophy; that vitalsim is just one current within the organic tradition, the philosophical criticism of mechanism, and the application of mechanism to the human body.

We can dig this out by this kind of questioning. In what sense exactly is the whole organism more than the sum of its parts? Vitalists assert that some non-physical entity, force or field, must be added to the laws of
physics and chemistry to understand life. Organismic biologists maintain that the additional ingredient is the understanding of ‘organization’, organizing relations, or self-organizing.

Another account, that of emergentism addresses the elimination of teleology by mechanism. It holds that the capacity of an organic entity act in a goal-directed way is not a mystical property, but an emergent property of matter -- a property of biological entities qua organic unities. It is a property possessed by the entity as a whole, but it is not a property had by any of the parts. This understanding of the emergent property of being-a-goal-directed-entity is a reworking of Aristotle. Goal-directedness is a capacity of a living organism as a whole, a capacity that emerges from a complex interdependency among its parts, and a particular goal-directed (life-sustaining) action or process is the realization of an entity's capacity for goal-directed action (sustaining its life).

Hence vitalism is just one stand within the organc philosophical tradition.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 02:21 AM | | Comments (0)