nl en

Questioning Life and Death


Admission requirements

This course is open to MA students in Philosophy. Admission to the specialisations History and Philosophy of the Sciences and/or Philosophical Anthropology and Philosophy of Culture is required.


More than a century after Charles Darwin, the question of life is more relevant than ever before. What is life? When can an organism, such as a human being, be said to be alive? Advanced medical techniques have enlarged the accessibility of life’s secrets. The discovery of DNA, for example, represents to many scientists the promise of the future unravelling of the core structure of life itself.

In this seminar, we will focus on some vitalistic theories – all too often neglected in contemporary debates – that speculate about the essence of life in a context highly dominated by Darwinism and Lamarckism. How do these theories (e.g. as developed by Ludwig Klages, Hans Driesch, Henri Bergson, etc.) try to do justice to what they consider as ‘life’ or the ‘living’?

How do they distinguish life from the mere inorganic? Are metaphysical concepts such as ‘entelechy’, élan vital, ‘morphogenetic field’, or even ‘soul’, useful here? Can vitalistic approaches shed light on contemporary debates as to life’s beginning, end and intrinsic value? In short, to what degree are these approaches still viable?

Course objectives

This course aims to reflect upon the notion of life from a philosophical perspective that is usually neglected nowadays by mainstream life sciences: the perspective of vitalism or philosophy of life. It intends to provide a philosophical background to contemporary political, scientific, or religious debates about life, whether it be debates on questions regarding the end of life, the start of life, the reproduction of life, extraterrestrial life, or other.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of :

  • 19th and early 20th philosophy of life;

  • several philosophical assessments of possible implications of life;

  • views on the nature of the inorganic or the inanimate.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • identify underdetermined conceptual dimensions in prevailing approaches of life

  • distinguish the virtues and merits of assumed ‘vital’ properties of animate phenomena;

  • provide contemporary debates about life (see above) with a meaningful philosophical background;


See Timetables MA Philosophy 2015-2016

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Course Load

Total course load (10 EC x 28 hrs): 280 hours

  • Attending seminars: 14 x 3 hours = 42 hours.

  • Time for studying the compulsory literature and completing assignments: 60 hours.

  • Time for writing the paper (including reading / research): 178 hours.

Assessment method

  • Weekly assignments: 30%

  • Conclusive paper: 60%

  • Course attendance and participation: 10%


One resit will be offered, consisting of the final paper. The grade will replace previously earned grades for subtests. Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination(s) cannot take the resit.


Blackboard will be used for posting of instructions or texts, discussion, posting of questions for the instructor or fellow students etc. Blackboard is also used for uploading assignments and the conclusive essay (through Turnitin).

Reading list

All texts will be made available on Blackboard or on the library’s course reserve shelf.


Please register for this course via Study administration system uSis
See also Registration for lectures and tests

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetable in the column under the heading “”.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. H.W. Sneller