Vibrant Matter – Chapter 5

13Jun10

In chapter five of Vibrant Matter Bennett turns her attention to vitalism in order to flesh out her project of a vital materialism. As with the previous chapter, Bennett notes the importance of annhilating  distinctions. What kinds of distinctions are being dissolved and in what fashion is a problem obscured in the term materialism. As Graham Harman has noted, the term materialism is less than useful especially in comparison to realism. The central distinction or rupture that Bennett engages is  between matter and force (though not strictly in those terms).

Bennett addresses what she designates critical vitalism (that of Dreisch and Bergson) as an ally of her vital materialism as both theories oppose finalism and mechanism. For Bennett, vitalism points to the possibility of an open or dynamic universe, a dynamism which Bergson and Dreisch saw  as necessary in the wake of too quickly advancing science.

The picture that Bennett paints of critical vs naive vitalism is a bit too clean. Though it may simply be for the sake of brevity, Bennett paints pre-Bergsonian  vitalism as a religious form of philosophical thinking. This treatment of vitalism ignores the materialist trends in the various theories of life force such as those of Haller and Humboldt. Humboldt’s experiences with the work of Volta in particulate illustrates how so called naive vitalism in fact provides fertile ground for a materialist collapsing of the organic and inorganic.

Humboldt’s and Volta’s experiments with frog leg muscle and electric current demonstrate the romantic search for unifying forces in nature which while sometimes relying too much on spiritual thought had promise in attempting to situate electricity, gravity and other forces in the larger realm of nature whether living or not. Bennett’s charge of passive matter (or perhaps more accurately passive bodies or forms of matter) is apt and it is for this reason that Schelling and Bergson both see vitalism as troubling but useful against mechanist views of the universe.

As I noted in the previous entry, my problem with Bergsonian vitalism and D and G’s vitalism by extension is that a spiritual supplement is replaced with a noetic one. In the closing pages of What is Philosophy? D and G take the mechanist modes of  sensation and make it contemplative thereby anchoring vitalism in a kind of thoughtfllness without knowledge. It is this thoughtfullness which seems to be lurking within Bennett’s vital materialism. Furthermore, if vitalism is, as a first step, useful as pointing towards an incalculability it must be thought out how this indistinction must be clarified in terms of ontological versus epistemological so we know the limits of knowing as opposed to the limits of being.

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2 Responses to “Vibrant Matter – Chapter 5”


  1. 1 Woodard on Bennett’s Chapter 5 « PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR
  2. 2 Vibrant Matter Reading Group: Chapter 6 “Stem Cells and the Culture of Life” « An und für sich

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