The vitalist conception of life was fundamentally about organization: the nature of individual organs’ interrelationships and interdependencies, whose overall “economy” produces a “life and sensibility,” not some singular and overarching force. The “vital principle” of vitalism was therefore not unified, but diffused throughout the body, manifesting diverse characteristics in the organs... Their functions were not reducible to mind or matter; they were potentialities specific to organic material, products of its innate characteristics and "sensibilities."
In 1738, affluent Parisians flocked to an exhilarating new exhibit at the Hôtel de Longueville that featured a flutist, a pipe-and-tabor player, and a curious duck that would eat corn right out of your hand and defecate only moments after. Of course, these were not normal musicians -- in fact, they were not even very good -- and this was certainly no normal duck. All three were automata: elaborate machines designed to imitate life.
When people say “knowledge is power,” what they really mean is knowledge is empowering. Generally, the idea is that knowledge is the foundation of individual achievement -- that it makes a person more capable, effectual, and successful. In this piece, I’d like to take the opportunity to interrogate the history of the phrase “knowledge is power,” in order to illustrate how it may be fraught in surprising ways.
Anyone in search of the original “meaning of life” need look no further than Sartor Resartus, an 1836 novel by Thomas Carlyle. In the story, a German philosopher named Teufelsdröckh (whose name literally means devil-dung) declares that “the meaning of Life itself” is “no other than Freedom.” Of course, “Freedom” is only the “original” meaning of life in the sense that Carlyle happened to coin the phrase.