Given how much I have written about Deleuze and how much Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari I have read, I confess that I am a bit embarrassed when I come across claims/charges that Deleuze is a vitalist. When I compare the references to vitalism I come across in the biological science and history of science (this wiki are a passable account of what I understand by vitalism) that I read with my understanding on Deleuze’s ontology, I have a difficult time seeing how Deleuze fits the bill. This leads me to wonder if I’m not missing something deep and obvious about Deleuze’s ontology or what counts as vitalism, or both. As it stands, it seems to me that charges that Deleuze is a vitalist are more ways of sidestepping arguments against Deleuze’s ontology than accurate interpretations of his position. That is, they strike me as ad hominem attacks on his position designed to dismiss through the association of his ontology with a position rightly regarded as noxious today rather than real arguments against the claims that he’s actually making. Someone help me out here. What am I missing?

UPDATED (Ask and ye shall receive): Michael, over at Complete Lies (a blog I’m just now discovering… Sorry Michael!), has a post up discussing vitalism. In a comment responding to Kvon, he further clarifies the manner in which he understands vitalism:

I think the key is the distinction between “machinic” and “mechanistic.” Mechanism is the old Newtonian physics that we all grew up with, which the romantics (like Schelling) and later vitalists (like Bergson) rebelled against. I think it’s safe to say that Deleuze and Grant are both steering clear of any sort of mechanistic causality as well as any Cartesian dualism with a causal “outside” and a non-causal “inside.” From my understanding of Deleuze, when he speaks of machines, he does not mean the same thing as when Descartes speaks of automata. That’s the difference.

Under this model, mechanism would be Newtonian mechanistic causality and vitalism would be the presence of some other force or activity within the depths of things. I wonder, however, whether this opposition isn’t a bit dated. Rather than giving ourselves two options about the nature of objects (mechanistic causation versus vitalistic agency), why not instead bite the bullet and argue that Newton-Laplace et al got it wrong, and that mechanistic causation as conceived by these thinkers is an exceedingly abstract, limited, conception of matter. Here, I think, we get the transition from the physics of certain types of objects to the sciences of chemistry, biochemistry, and biology. When evoking chemical reactions, biolochemistry, and biology we don’t need to evoke occult agencies like vital forces, but are instead talking about certain physical processes that obey time’s irreversible arrow and which are iterative (especially in biochemistry and biology) in nature. Under this thesis, rather than setting up an alternative between mechanism and vitalism, the claim would instead be that we have a lot to learn about how matter works.

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