Papineau on the Rise of Physicalism

I just read David Papineau’s excellent and provocative 2001 article, “The Rise of Physicalism “.  He argues that physicalism is supported by the principle of the completeness of physics (sometimes known as the causal closure of the physical), and that theoretical and empirical evidence for such a principle slowly built up over the centuries but became overwhelming only in the middle of the 20th century, when — not coincidentally, if Papineau is right — contemporary physicalism replaced phemomenalism, vitalism, and other previously popular views and became a dominant view in metaphysics (especially with respect to the mind).

Papineau’s paper is by necessity quick and occasionally explicitly speculative on how the history went.  Does anyone know whether Papineau’s story is correct?  Is there any more detailed and recent historical literature on the topics covered by Papineau (conservation laws in physics, vitalism and its demise, physicalism about the mind) that supports (or undermine, as the case may be) Papineau’s account?

(Cross-posted at It’s only a theory.)


  1. I’ve been steeped in researching vitalism lately, and his characterization of the importance of conservation of energy is quite good. They called it the ‘correlation view’ (that all types of energy are “correlated” with one another, or interchangable), and they inevitably applied it to life and vital forces. It was a while longer before they realized that there was no special separate vital force or energy that is transformed into mechanical/heat energy. It was an interesting time to say the least.

  2. Urstoff

    It seems like that’s just begging the ontological question. A dualist (or pluralist) could simply respond by waving his hand and declaring that he has just produced a counterexample to the causal closure of physics.

    In other words, the ontology of mind is the job of psychology and neuroscience, not physics.

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