All homeopaths talk about is “vital force”. They consider it responsible for the disease and the return to health. But is it force? If it is not, should we continue to call it “force” or should we change the term to something else. What does it really represent? The term “vital force” is taught to all those studying at homeopathic schools. It is attributed to Hahnemann who used it in his book “Organon”. But is it a creation of Hahnemann? Let’s start first with what Hahnemann means by the term “vital force”. In Aphorism 11 he writes:
“…it is only the vital force, deranged to such an abnormal state, that can furnish the organism with its disagreeable sensations”.
From this we find that Hahnemann believed that “vital force” is what causes the symptoms.
Let’s look at Aphorism 12:
“It is the morbidly affected vital energy alone that produces disease, so that the morbid phenomena perceptible to our senses expressed at the same time all the internal change, that is to say, the whole morbid derangement of the internal dynamis; in a word, they reveal the whole disease”. He writes that the vital force, when it is affected, is what causes the disease, that is, the cause of the disease. Are these wordings Hahnemann’s original ideas or are they taken from someone else?
If you read Van Helmont or Stahl you will see that they too were saying the same things a few hundred years ago. There is “something” that if it works harmoniously keeps the human healthy and when it is disturbed it causes illness. The first named it “archeus” while the second called it “anima”. Also, the Vitalists, led by P. Bartez, considered that all animal phenomena are the effects of the action of an internal force, a vital principle that does not exist outside the organic living bodies. This creates all the vital functions of living organisms and called it “vis vitalis” from the Latin, “vita” meaning “life”.
If you go even further back, you will find that Aristotle, Hippocrates, and generally all ancient Greeks considered the existence of a “something” that if it functioned harmoniously maintained health, while its disorder caused symptoms, i.e. sickness.
The first who seem to have talked about the existence of this “thing” were the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. They called it “dynamis”. Aristotle then calls it “life dynamis” because he considered that “something” is a trait of living organisms only.As can be seen from the above, the “vital force” or “dynamis” as mentioned by Hahnemann is merely a paraphrase of the term “life dynamis” of the ancient Greeks and has the same explanation.
Although Hahnemann does not mention the ancient Greeks in his books, except for Galen, it is impossible for him not to have read Hippocrates and generally ancient Greek texts. From many biographies about his life we know that Hahnemann spoke several languages, including ancient Greek and Latin. He learnt ancient Greek and then worked as a translator for Greek and Latin medical books. Thus, although he has never said that he has received this knowledge from the ancient Greeks, nor did he nominally mention any of the Greek physicians, it is obvious that he has been deeply affected by them, since he uses the principles, concepts, descriptions and methods of practice from the ancient Greek knowledge. Even at the university that he went to, ancient Greek medicine was taught from the Greek and Latin texts, so it was impossible not to read the terms and definitions given by the ancient Greeks. From all this, we conclude that Hahnemann used the term “life dynamis”, paraphrasing it to “vital force”, with the same qualities as the ancient Greeks gave to it.
While in his first books he uses the term “vital force”, in the 5th edition of “Organon” he changes the term and calls it a “vital principle”. Towards the end of his life, in the 6th and the last version he changes it again using the term “life principle”. So he himself found that the name “vital force” was not fully covered. Why was that and why are modern homeopaths taught to use the term “vital force”?
Let us analyze the term “vital force” to see if it fits based on the explanation given to us in the definition. “Vital” means “necessary for life”. “Force” is “the cause of any change in motion or geometry of bodies “. If something makes an object move, that is force. If something makes an object change its shape that is a force. Hahneman used the word “force” for “dynamis”. In Ancient Greece, however, when they used the term “dynamis” they meant something different. Aristotle writes “Dynamis is the principle of a change of one in another”. “Dynamis” meant “the intelligence or mood of a thing that is able to be and not to be that or the other”. In other words it’s the potential of a thing to be or not to be. If we apply it to a living organism then “dynamis” is “the potentiality of an organism to change some of its own qualities.” So the ancient Greeks with the word “dynamis” did not mean the “force” we mean today. The finding that “vital force” is not right as a term has been understood by other homeopaths too, who tried to explain it with today’s terms. Some of them think that it is the “soul”, the “spirit”. Some others conclude that “force” is an energy. So “vital force” is the “energy of life”. Is this term representative for “vital force”?
If we look in dictionaries what the term “energy” means, we will find many different things.
- Energy is the ability of a body or system to produce work.
- Energy is the power and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.
- Energy is the power that comes from the use of natural or chemical resources, especially for the supply of light and heat or for machine work, e.g. nuclear energy
- Energy is the property of matter and radiation that manifests itself as an ability to perform work (such as causing movement or interaction of molecules).
There are different types of energy:
All these energies have some properties. One of these is the change according to external stimuli. However “vital force” has some more qualities than “common energies”. It can alter its reaction based on learning, experience. Normal energies do not have this ability. They do not learn, they just react to stimuli every time in the same way. For example, if you drop an apple, the energy of gravity will do the same thing every time. It will not change the way the apple falls. So the term “vital force” I would define as something different, because it is influenced by some other functions that living beings have. A person has the freedom to choose whether on a stimulus, e.g. he felt an insult, he would hit or not hit the insulting person. This depends on his/ her experience and learning. He may have reacted when he was younger by hitting the insulting person. But then he found out that the other person might have been stronger and hit him back worse. He may have learned that if he hits his boss he will be fired by him so he does not do it because he fears that he will lose his job. From this we understand that man has the potential to react as he thinks best about himself.
I will give you another example to understand this better. A woman has headaches after her husband shouts and she does not react even though she feels lots of anger inside. If she does psychotherapy and starts to get angry with her husband, the reaction may be different to that stimulus, causing the headaches to decrease or even disappear. Here it seems that learning has changed the expression of “vital force” because it has this potentiality.
Based on all that I have described above, I do not think it is right to speak of “vital force,” “life energy,” but of “living potential.” The definition of “living potential” seems to me to be the following. “Living potential” of an organism is the potential that has the means inherently, to alter its health and illness properties in the mental and physical fields, depending on internal or external factors. All forms that have life have a living potential. This living potential is responsible for health and illness. Changes in living potential can cause illness but also restore health.
As a conclusion I want to emphasize that the terms “vital power”, “energy”, “spirit”, “soul”, etc. do not fit and all homeopaths should use the term “living potential” to describe that “something” which causes illness to every living being but can also restore it to health. This is because if we want to call Homeopathy a science, everyone should agree and understand exactly the meaning of each term.
Hippocrates – “All works”
Hahneman – “Organon of medicine”, “Chronic diseases”
John Baptista Van Helmont – Oriatrike, or Physick Refined (English translation of Ortus medicinae)
Stahl – Theoria medica vera
- Bartez – “Nouveaux élémens de la science de l’homme”
Galen – “Galenic corpus”
Konstantinos Pisios – “The ideal treatment”
Thank you for this thought provoking article. However, I am not convinced that we should change the term ‘life force’ to ‘living potential’, on the basis of your argument.
δυναμις in Greek, according to my Liddel’s and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, has the meanings of strength, might, power, ability, force. To equate dynamis with ‘potential’ seems to me to highlight only one aspect of a range of meanings.
I always understood life force, vital force, life principle, dynamis, to be exchangeable terms for a concept which tries to capture the peculiar qualities we call ‘life’, and that for Hahnemann is the ability of the organism to feel, sense and function (and therefore disease is experienced by the individual as disagreeable sensations and abnormal functions), highlighting the immaterial nature of these processes. And this, of course, is Hahnemann’s phenomenological approach by stressing the importance of the individual’s experience of disease, rather than assuming some kind of objective and measureable existence of disease (separate from the affected individual).
In my understanding, Hahnemann never says that the Vital Force ’causes’ the disease, rather it ‘brings about’ the disagreebale sensations (in the Kuenzli translation the German original ‘verleihen’ is translated as ‘brings about’). The cause of these disagreebale sensations is a ‘hostile disease agent’ (a miasmatic infection, always the ultimate cause of disease for Hahnemann). The Vital Force is simply mistuned by these agents, and this mistunement is experienced by the individual as disagreebale sensations and abnormal functions.
‘Living potential’ seems to me rather a sub-category of the Vital Force, in the sense that the Vital Force has clearly also the potential to be affected in the direction of health or disease, but that this does not define the Vital Force, since the term seems to be an attempt to sum up life’s main characteristics in general. But I do find it useful to highlight this potential aspect of the Vital Force in practice, because this is of course the message we want to get across to patients, that they can aid or hinder health through their own behaviour, habits, thoughts, feelings, etc.
Thank you again for this article!
Ralf Jeutter, UK
I agree with Dr. Ralf jeutter Sir that a change of name for the “vital force ” is not warranted.
Hahnemann didn’t use the word for explaining something well understood, instead it was a speculatory word for the phenomenon of an invisible system to the visible living body which has complementary behaviour with the latter.
This much is indisputable. He never claimed that the phenomenon of vital force mentioned by him is “irreducible”. Instead he offered it only as an explanation of a function ( for want of a better explanation ) responsible for what homeopathy is what it is.
Unless a more scientific explanation for the existence of such a parallel and complementary system is discovered and published , a mere change of name is not going to make any difference.
Dr. Hahnemann in 1833 said that the cause/origin of disease could be due to dynamic morbid derangement of non-material vital force. In paragraph 72 of Organon, Hahnemann has called vital force as ‘automatic life energy’. In the same 6th edition, he has also used the term ‘’vital principle’ instead of vital force. The term ‘vital principle’ was originally coined by Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806).
A mere change of name for the “vital force” is not warranted. We have not made any further additions to the explanation of the plausible mechanism. All advances are only re-interpretations of the same premises which were at the disposal of Dr.Hahnemann.
Hahnemann had complete knowledge of contemporary sciences. Hence “vital force”
was a name he had intentionally brought in to show the existence of an invisible system parallel to the visible living body and acting in complementarity to the latter.
He never claimed it to be an irreducible explanation. But intended as a speculatory theory in the absence of a better theory. As such unless a further analysis of the phenomenon vis-a-vis the latest advances in sciences is offered, a mere change of name is undermining the master’s superior knowledge.