Élan vital was coined by French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1907 book Creative Evolution, in which he addresses the question of self-organisation 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 - with the intuitive perception of experience and the flow of inner time.
Distant anticipations 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, and in that of Zeno of Elea. The concept of élan vital is also similar to Arthur Schopenhauer's concept of the will-to-live.
It was believed by some 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".
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 an internal force, a substance in which the distinction between organic and inorganic matter is indiscernible, and the emergence of life undecidable.
The notion of élan vital also had considerable influence on the psychiatrist and phenomenologist Eugène Minkowski and his own concept of a personal élan - the element which keeps us in touch with a feeling of life (and is lost in autism).
The French army incorporated the doctrine of élan vital into its thinking during the leadup to the First World War by arguing that the spirit of individual soldiers was more improtant for victory than weapons.
- Geneticists see no life force other than the organisational matrix contained in the genes themselves.
- The 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 power." However 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"
- Author and popular theologian C.S. Lewis rejected Bergson's concept in his essay The Weight of Glory stating "...even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. Hence all the nonsense that Mr. Shaw puts into the final speech of Lilith, and Bergson’s remark that the élan vital is capable of surmounting all obstacles, perhaps even death—as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics."
- S. Atkinson ed., The Philosophy Book (2011) p. 227
- Eric Benre, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1976) p. 98-9
- L. Vikka, The Intrinsic Value of Nature (1997) p. 56-7
- K. Ansell-Pearson, Germinal Life (2012) p. 21
- H. Spiegelberg, Phenomenology in Psychology and Psychiatry (1972) p. 244
- J. Picchione, The New Avant-Garde in Italy (2004) p. 16
- MacMillan, Margaret (2013). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. New York: Random House. p. 258. ISBN 978-1-4000-6855-5.
- R. F. Weir, ed., Genes and Human Self-Knowledge (1994) p. 37
- Mihi a docto doctore / Demandatur causam et rationem quare / Opium facit dormire. / A quoi respondeo, / Quia est in eo / Vertus dormitiva, / Cujus est natura / Sensus assoupire. Le Malade imaginaire, (French Wikisource)
- C. S. Lewis, Essay Collection (2000) p. 99