Élan Vital

Élan vital [ey-lahn vee-tal] was coined by French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1907 book ‘Creative Evolution,’ in which he addresses the question of self-organization and spontaneous morphogenesis of things in an increasingly complex manner. Elan vital was translated in the English edition as ‘vital impetus,’ but is usually translated by his detractors as ‘vital force.’ It is a hypothetical explanation for evolution and development of organisms, which Bergson linked closely with consciousness.

It was believed by others that this essence (élan vital) could be harvested and embedded into an inanimate substance and activated with electricity, perhaps taking literally another of Bergson’s metaphorical descriptions, the ‘current of life.’ British biologist Julian Huxley remarked that Bergson’s élan vital is no better an explanation of life than is explaining the operation of a railway engine by its ‘élan locomotif’ (‘locomotive driving force’). The same epistemological fallacy is parodied in Molière’s ‘Le Malade imaginaire,’ where a quack ‘answers’ the question of ‘Why does opium cause sleep?’ with ‘Because of its soporific [sleep-inducing] power.’

Huxley happily used the term élan vital in a more metaphorical sense, as may be seen from the following excerpt: ‘When I was just last in New York, I went for a walk, leaving Fifth Avenue and the Business section behind me, into the crowded streets near the Bowery. And while I was there, I had a sudden feeling of relief and confidence. There was Bergson’s élan vital—there was assimilation causing life to exert as much pressure, though embodied here in the shape of men, as it has ever done in the earliest year of evolution: there was the driving force of progress.’

A distant precursor of Bergson can be found in the work of the pre-Christian Stoic philosopher Posidonius, who postulated a ‘vital force’ emanated by the sun to all living creatures on the Earth’s surface. The concept of élan vital is also similar to Schopenhauer’s concept of the ‘will-to-live.’ The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze attempted to recoup the novelty of Bergson’s idea in his book ‘Bergsonism,’ though the term itself underwent substantial changes by Deleuze. No longer considered a mystical, elusive force acting on brute matter, as it was in the vitalist debates of the late 19th century, élan vital in Deleuze’s hands denotes a substance in which the distinction between organic and inorganic matter is indiscernible, and the emergence of life undecidable.

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