Seminar on “The history and theory of vitalism, from Descartes to Canguilhem” by Charles Wolfe (University of Ghent)

Date and Time: May 8, 11 & 12 (11:00 a.m.)

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Charles T. Wolfe, Ghent,

Title: The history and theory of vitalism, from Descartes to Canguilhem

Abstract: In this series of talks I try to reconstruct something like a vitalist conceptual tradition, present both in a subterranean form in the Scientific Revolution period, despite the fact that, as I suggest in the “Life” paper (text 1), there can be no ontology of Life in this period, and increasingly with the emergence of a science of biology in the late 18th century (and here I ask: what do we do with the growing obsession with ‘life science’ from the 1740s onwards, with people like Buffon and Diderot – Diderot who in his 1753 Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature dismisses the mathematical sciences as somehow ‘done’ and asserts that ‘life science’ is a new revolutionary area (*)). In the late 19th century vitalism becomes something of a dogmatic concept, with people like Hans Driesch (**), but in the 20th century there is a new, less metaphysical form of theory of organism, sometimes with vitalist ambitions, culminating perhaps in the idiosyncratic theory of Georges Canguilhem, himself influenced by Kurt Goldstein (text 5 and see Ferrario and Bianco’s papers – on Goldstein and Canguilhem respectively, in Normandin and Wolfe eds., 2013, and Wolfe 2015). And in recent years it is possible to see a new kind of ‘organizational’ concept emerging in theoretical biology, eg in the work of Moreno and collaborators (***), discussed by the philosopher William Bechtel (text 6), which is light years removed from metaphysical vitalism, but is perhaps closer to what I have called the ‘functional vitalism’ of the 18th century Montpellier medical vitalists, with references to concepts such as the ‘animal economy’ (texts 2, 3, 4). I do not argue here that we need to be vitalists, or that mechanistic science (whatever that means) is bad, indeed there has been much good work on mechanistic explanations in recent years, sometimes with reference to biology (****). And perhaps we should reflect on ‘words’ themselves (text 7) and the problem of how vitalism has been treated and defined (texts 8, 9). But nevertheless, I believe a historico-philosophical investigation and evaluation of these episodes – are they are a tradition? a discontinuous tradition ? – helps us have a more diverse, less stubborn and dogmatic conception of the philosophy of biology and its orthodoxies and heterodoxies.

Texts discussed

(There will be a folder with readings available in dropbox)

1. Charles Wolfe, “Why was there no controversy over Life in the Scientific Revolution?”, in V. Boantza & M. Dascal, eds., Controversies in the Scientific Revolution (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011), pp. 187-219

2. Jean-Joseph Ménuret de Chambaud, ‘Œconomie Animale (Médecine)’, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des arts et des métiers, eds. Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert, 35 vols. (Paris: Briasson, David, Le Breton & Durand, 1751-1780; reprint, Stuttgart/Bad Cannstatt, 1966), vol. 9, 1765, 360-366.

3. Charles Wolfe and Motoichi Terada, “The animal economy as object and program in Montpellier vitalism,” Science in Context 21:4 (2008), 537-579

4. Charles Wolfe, “Models of organic organization in Montpellier vitalism,” Early Science and Medicine (2017)

5. Georges Canguilhem, “Aspects of vitalism.” In Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life, translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 59-74. (First published 1952)

6. William Bechtel “Biological mechanisms: Organized to maintain autonomy.” In F. Boogerd et al., eds., Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations (New York: Elsevier, 2007). PDF online : <>

7. Susan Oyama, “Biologists behaving badly: Vitalism and the language of language,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32 (2010): 401-423.

8. Scott F. Gilbert and Sahotra Sarkar, “Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century.” Developmental Dynamics 219 (2000): 1–9

9. Charles Wolfe, “Vitalism without Metaphysics?”, introduction to Vitalism Without Metaphysics? Medical Vitalism in the Enlightenment, special issue of Science in Context 21:4 (2008), 461-463

General background

Sebastian Normandin and Charles Wolfe, eds., Vitalism and the scientific image in post-Enlightenment life science, 1800-2010 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013)

Additional (optional)

Roselyne Rey, Naissance et développement du vitalisme en France de la deuxième moitié du 18e siècle à la fin du Premier Empire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000) (originally a PhD dissertation in 3 volumes, University of Paris, 1987)

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism: a holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man (1934) (translation reprint, New York: Zone Books / MIT Press, 1995)

Moritz Schlick, “Philosophy of organic life.” In H. Feigl & M. Brodbeck, eds., Readings in the Philosophy of Science (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1953), 523-536.

Pascal Nouvel, ed., Repenser le vitalisme – Histoire et philosophie du vitalisme (Paris: PUF, 2011)

Charles Wolfe, “Was Canguilhem a biochauvinist? Goldstein, Canguilhem and the project of ‘biophilosophy’,” in Darian Meacham, ed., Medicine and Society, New Continental Perspectives (Springer, Philosophy and Medicine Series, 2015), 197-212

(*) Diderot, Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature, § IV, in Diderot, Œuvres complètes, DPV, IX, 30-31. See for discussion Charles Wolfe, “Epigenesis as Spinozism in Diderot’s biological project,” in Ohad Nachtomy and Justin E.H. Smith, eds., The Life Sciences in Early Modern Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 181-201.

(**) see the papers in F. Burwick & P. Douglass, eds.,The crisis in modernism. Bergson and the vitalist controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), including on Bakhtin’s critique of Driesch.

(***) see the many excellent papers by Moreno, Etxeberria, Ruiz-Mirazo et al., and also A. Moreno and M. Mossio, Biological Autonomy. A Philosophical and theoretical enquiry (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014).

(****) P.A. Braillard, C. Malaterre, Explanation in Biology (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015)

IAS-Research Seminar by Ramiro Frick: “Comunicación biológica: hacia una perspectiva organizacional”

Date and Time: April 4, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Ramiro Frick (

Title: Comunicación biológica: hacia una perspectiva organizacional


Ejemplos de comunicación biológica (CB) ocurren entre diferentes organismos multicelulares de las misma o diferentes especies, entre diferentes células de un mismo organismo multicelular, entre diferentes organismos unicelulares,  e incluso entre distintas partes de una misma célula. El estudio de la CB, por tanto, es un área de investigación altamente interdisciplinaria, donde convergen elementos teóricos, metodologías, énfasis e intereses muy diversos  (D’Ettorre & Hughes 2008). Esta situación, por un lado, puede ayudar a explicar el “caos semántico” y la escasa nitidez conceptual en el estudio de la CB (Maynar Smith & Harper 2003, Hurd & Enquist 2005), y por otro lado, plantea la necesidad de un análisis filosófico (Scott-Phillips 2008).

Respecto de cuestiones tales como ¿qué es la CB? ¿en virtud de qué un cierto proceso es un proceso de CB?, hasta el día de hoy no existe consenso ni suficiente claridad. No obstante, en la literatura científica y filosófica es posible distinguir dos grandes aproximaciones: aquellas que conceptualizan la comunicación en términos de transmisión de información (e.g. Seyfarth et al. 2010), y aquellas que rechazan una caracterización informacional en favor de una concepción de la comunicación basada en nociones como manipulación o influencia adaptativa (e.g. Dawkins and Krebs 1978; Rendall et al. 2009).

En esta presentación i) se examinaran críticamente las dos grandes aproximaciones a la CB, atendiendo al significado y rol explicativo que en estas aproximaciones desempeñan los conceptos de información e influencia, respectivamente; ii) se señalaran distintos tipos de problemas de estas aproximaciones, muchos de ellos derivados de confundir dimensiones últimas con dimensiones próximas del fenómeno de la comunicación, y en particular, de un compromiso con la noción etiológica de función; y iii) se mostrará cómo una aproximación organizacional a los fenómenos biológicos permite articular una concepción de la CB libre de estos problemas.


Dawkins, R., & Krebs, J. R. (1978). Animal signals: information or manipulation. Behavioural ecology: An evolutionary approach, 2, 282-309.

D’Ettorre, P., & Hughes, D. P. (2008). Sociobiology of communication, Oxford University Press.

Hurd, P. L., & Enquist, M. (2005). A strategic taxonomy of biological communication. Animal Behaviour, 70(5), 1155-1170.

Maynard-Smith, J., & Harper, D. (2003). Animal signals. Oxford University Press.

Rendall, D., Owren, M. J., & Ryan, M. J. (2009). What do animal signals mean?. Animal Behaviour, 78(2), 233-240.

Rendall et al (2009) “What do animal signals mean?” Animal Behaviour 78: 233-240.

Scott-Phillips, T. (2008). Defining biological communication. Journal of evolutionary biology, 21(2), 387-395.

Seyfarth, R. M., Cheney, D. L., Bergman, T., Fischer, J., Zuberbühler, K., & Hammerschmidt, K. (2010). The central importance of information in studies of animal communication. Animal Behaviour, 80(1), 3-8.

From organization of processes to organisms and other biological individuals

Seminar on Thursday, 2nd of February at 11:15am at the Carlos Santamaria (IAS room)

Argyris Arnellos (UPV/EHU): From organization of processes to organisms and other biological individuals


The emphasis on the collaborative dimension of the living world overlooks the importance of biological individuals (conceived as highly integrated and self-maintaining organizations) as the very conditions of possibility for the subsequent buildup of more complex collaborative networks in the course of evolution. Acknowledging the importance of collaboration in life, I briefly explain a process-based organizational ontology for biology, according to which I suggest that the essential features of unicellular organismality are captured by a self-maintaining organization of processes that is integrated on the basis of a special type of collaboration (realized through regulatory processes entailing an indispensible interdependence) between its constitutive and interactive aspects. I then use this ontology to describe different types of unicellular collaborations and to argue that it takes a certain type of collaboration among cells to yield a multicellular organism. The suggested organizational framework is used to critically assess and provide clearer and specific alternatives for several implications raised from the consideration of a mainly and ‘excessively’ collaborative view of life, and especially, issues related to the identification of biological individuals and their boundaries, the distinction between biological individuals and organisms, the organismal status of symbiotic multicellular systems, and the distinction between life and not life, avoiding the problems of pluralism but without however ignoring, neither underestimating nor undermining the central role of the concept of collaboration in understanding the biological realm.

First Bordeaux-San Sebastián Workshop on Philosophy of Biology

Date and time: October 20-21, 2016. Centro Carlos Santamaría (Aula A.4). Campus de Gipuzkoa – UPV/EHU, Donostia-San Sebastián

Speakers: Lynn Chiu (CNRS, Université de Bordeaux), Martha Susana Esparza Soria (UPV/EHU), Arantza Etxeberria (UPV/EHU), Sara Green (University of Copenhagen), Alvaro Moreno (UPV/EHU), Laura Nuño de la Rosa (UPV/EHU), Thomas Pradeu (CNRS, Université de Bordeaux), Marie-Elise Truchetet (University Hospital of Bordeaux)

Organizers: Leonardo Bich (CNRS, U. Bordeaux) Arantza Etxeberria (UPV/EHU)


Flyer: Here

Program and abstracts: Here

IAS-Research Seminar by Michael Beaton (UPV-EHU & Sussex): “Sensorimotor Direct Realism: How We Enact Our World”

Date and Time: June 13, Monday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Michael Beaton (UPV-EHU & Sussex)

Title: Sensorimotor Direct Realism: How We Enact Our World


Direct realism is a non-reductive, anti-representationalist theory of perception which is currently generating a lot of interest within mainstream analytic philosophy. For all that, it is widely held to be both controversial and anti-scientific. The sensorimotor theory of perception, on the other hand, initially generated a lot of interest within mainstream cognitive science, but has not yet delivered on its early promise of changing fundamentally the way in which cognitive scientists think about perception. Here I will argue that sensorimotor theory and direct realism complement each other very well, and that the resultant theory – sensorimotor direct realism – is a scientifically tractable alternative to the dominant, mainstream, representationalist approach within cognitive science. I will argue for the apparently philosophically radical claim that we directly perceive objects themselves, showing how this claim can be understood in a way which makes it amenable to normal scientific study. Objects are analysed as a kind of collaboration between the world and the perceiver. On this account, whilst we never perceive outside the categories of our own understanding, we do, literally, perceive outside our own heads, with no intermediary representations required.

Presentation based on three pieces recently published in Constructivist Foundations.

IAS-Research Seminar by Laura Menatti and Antonio Casado da Rocha: “Landscape and Health: Connecting Psychology, Aesthetics, and Philosophy through the Concept of Affordance”

Date and Time: June 13, Monday, 10:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speakers: Laura Menatti (Chile) and Antonio Casado da Rocha (UPV/EHU)

Title: Landscape and Health: Connecting Psychology, Aesthetics, and Philosophy through the Concept of Affordance


In this paper we address a frontier topic in the humanities, namely how the cultural and natural construction that we call landscape affects well-being and health. Following an updated review of evidence-based literature in the fields of medicine, psychology, and architecture, we propose a new theoretical framework called “processual landscape,” which is able to explain both the health-landscape and the medical agency-structure binomial pairs. We provide a twofold analysis of landscape, from both the cultural and naturalist points of view: in order to take into account its relationship with health, the definition of landscape as a cultural product needs to be broadened through naturalization, grounding it in the scientific domain. Landscape cannot be distinguished from the ecological environment. For this reason, we naturalize the idea of landscape through the notion of affordance and Gibson’s ecological psychology. In doing so, we stress the role of agency in the theory of perception and the health-landscape relationship. Since it is the result of continuous and co-creational interaction between the cultural agent, the biological agent and the affordances offered to the landscape perceiver, the processual landscape is, in our opinion, the most comprehensive framework for explaining the health-landscape relationship. The consequences of our framework are not only theoretical, but ethical also: insofar as health is greatly affected by landscape, this construction represents something more than just part of our heritage or a place to be preserved for the aesthetic pleasure it provides. Rather, we can talk about the right to landscape as something intrinsically linked to the well-being of present and future generations.

Presentation based on paper recently published in Frontiers Psychology (see online).

IAS-Research Seminar by Xabier Barandiaran: “Collective identities in interaction networks: exploring the technopolitical autonomy of the 15M through neurodynamic analogies”

Date and Time: February 26, Friday, 15.00 pm

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Xabier Barandiaran (UPV-EHU)

Title: Collective identities in interaction networks: exploring the technopolitical autonomy of the 15M through neurodynamic analogies


The emergence of network-movements since 2011 has opened the debate around the way in which social media and networked practices make possible innovative forms of collective identity. We briefly review the literature on social movements and ‘collective identity’, and show the tension between different positions stressing either organization or culture, the personal or the collective, aggregative or networking logics. We argue that the 15M (indignados) network-movement in Spain demands conceptual and methodological innovations. Its rapid emergence, endurance, diversity, multifaceted development and adaptive capacity, posit numerous theoretical and methodological challenges. We show how the use of structural and dynamic analysis of interaction networks (in combination with qualitative data) is a valuable tool to track the shape and change of what we term the ‘systemic dimension ’ of collective identities in network-movements. In particular, we introduce a novel method for synchrony detection in Facebook activity to identify the distributed, yet integrated, coordinated activity behind collective identities. Applying this analytical strategy to the 15M movement, we show how it displays a specific form of systemic collective identity we call ‘ multitudinous identity ’ , characterized by social transversality and internal heterogeneity, as well as a transient and distributed leadership driven by action initiatives. Our approach attends to the role of distributed interaction and transient leadership at a mesoscale level of organizational dynamics, which may contribute to contemporary discussions of collective identity in network-movements.

Barandiaran, X. E., & Aguilera, M. (2015). Neurociencia y tecnopolítica: hacia un marco analógico para comprender la mente colectiva del 15M. En J. Toret (Ed.), Tecnopolítica y 15M. La potencia de las multitudes conectadas (pp. 163-211). Barcelona: Editorial UOC.

Monterde, A., Calleja-López, A., Aguilera, M., Barandiaran, X. E., & Postill, J. (2015). Multitudinous identities: a qualitative and network analysis of the 15M collective identity. Information, Communication and Society, doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2015.1043315

IAS-Research Seminar by Ezequiel Di Paolo: “Participatory Object Perception”

Date and Time: February 26, Friday, 16.00 pm

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Ezequiel Di Paolo (UPV-EHU)

Title: Participatory Object Perception


When we regard an object with an abstract attitude, taking into account it’s shape, colours and other properties, are we exercising a social skill?
Social factors have so far been neglected in embodied theories to perception despite the wealth of phenomenological insights and empirical evidence indicating their importance. In this talk I examine evidence from developmental psychology and neuroscience and attempt an initial classification of this evidence according to whether social factors play a contextual, enabling, or constitutive role in the ability to perceive objects in a detached manner, i.e., beyond their immediate instrumental use. While evidence of cross-cultural variations in perceptual styles and the influence of social cues on visual attention could not be said to play more than a contextual role, other factors such as the intricate developmental links between dyadic and triadic interactions in infancy, as well as episodes of peer-learning in children play enabling roles. A common element in these factors is the presence and resolution of interpersonal conflict. Detached object perception could not develop without these social factors. I argue, in addition, that social skills such as managing partial social acts which are addressed to and completed by others, linguistic mediation, make- believe play, and the ability to control perspectival switches are constitutive –i.e., are of the essence– for seeing objects as present with a detached attitude. I discuss the prospects of incorporating such social elements into dynamical interpretations of the sensorimotor approach through the enactive notion of participatory sense-making.
This talk is based on this recent article:
Di Paolo, E. A. (2016). Participatory object perception. Journal of Consciousness Studies, forthcoming.

IAS-Research Seminar by Nei de Freitas Nunes-Neto: “Regulation in organisms and its ecological consequences”

Date and Time: December 14, Monday, 11.30 am

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Nei de Freitas Nunes-Neto (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Title: Regulation in organisms and its ecological consequences


In this talk, we argue that one of the keys to understand how increasingly complex and diverse ecosystems can reach stability lies in the internal regulation of complex multicellular organisms. Indeed, multicellular organisms are able to perform new and complex ecological functions, which, at least in the case of many animals, strongly depend on regulatory controls exerted by the multicellular organism on an internal ecological community, harbored in their guts. Through the development of a case study on termites harboring an internal ecological community in their guts, we highlight two main general issues. First, that regulation implies an asymmetric relation between the regulatory and the regulated level, where the higher, regulatory level functionally modulates lower level functions. And second, that this hierarchical organization implies that, in order for a (sub)system to exert a regulatory control, it requires a capacity for global functional integration. Based on this conceptualization, we extend on the ecological consequences of regulation, arguing that the performance of the ecological functions by multicellular animals can be interpreted as actions of niche construction, in the context of larger ecosystems, contributing to their stability. Additionally, as a final point, we make a comparison of our view with the holobiont theory.