View that all matter is alive, either in itself or by participation in the operation of a world soul or some similar principle. Hylozoism is logically distinct both from early forms of animism, which personify nature, and from panpsychism, which attributes some form of consciousness or sensation to all matter. The word was coined in the 17th century by Ralph Cudworth, who with Henry More (1614–1687) spoke of “plastic nature,” an unconscious, incorporeal substance that controls and organizes matter and thus produces natural events as a divine instrument of change.
Learn more about hylozoism with a free trial on Britannica.com.
In England, some of the Cambridge Platonists approached hylozoism as well. Both Henry More and Ralph Cudworth (the Younger, 1617-1688), through their reconciliation of Platonic idealism with Christian doctrines of deific generation, came to see the divine lifeforce as the informing principle in the world. Thus, like Bruno, but not nearly to the extreme, they saw God's generative impulse as giving life to all things that exist. Accordingly Cudworth, the most systematic metaphysician of the Cambridge Platonist tradition, fought hylozoism. His work is primarily a critique of what he took to be the two principal forms of atheism. i.e. materialism and hylozoism. The hylozoist whom Cudworth had especially in mind is Thomas Hobbes.
Cudworth singled out Hobbes not only as a defender of the hylozoic atheism "which attributes life to matter", but also as one going beyond it and defending "hylopathian atheism, which attributes all to matter." Cudworth attempted to show that Hobbes had revived the doctrines of Protagoras and was therefore subject to the criticisms which Plato had deployed against Protagoras in the Theaetetus. On the side of hylozoism, Strato was the official target. However, Cudworth's Dutch friends had reported to him the views which Spinoza was circulating in manuscript. Cudworth remarks in his Preface that he would have ignored hylozoism had he not been aware that a new version of it would shortly be published.
Spinoza's idealism also tends toward hylozoism. In order to hold a balance even between matter and mind, Spinoza in fact combined materialistic with pantheistic hylozoism, by reducing both to the rank of mere attributes of the one infinite substance. Although he specifically rejects identity in inorganic matter, he, like the Cambridge Platonists, sees a life force or living force within, as well as beyond, all matter.
In the 19th century, Ernst Heinrich Haeckel developed a materialist form of hylozoism, specially against Virchow's and Helmholtz's mechanical views of humans and nature. In his Die Welträtsel of 1899 (The Riddle of the Universe 1901), Haeckel upheld a unity of organic and inorganic nature and derived all actions of both types of matter from natural causes and laws. Thus, his form of hylozoism reverses the usual course by maintaining that living and non-living things are, essentially, the same and by erasing the distinction between the two and stipulating that they behave by a single set of laws.
In contrast, the Argentine-German neurobiological tradition terms hylozoic hiatus all of the parts of nature which can only behave lawfully or nomically and, upon such a feature, are described as lying outside of minds and amid them – i.e., extramentally. Thereby the hylozoic hiatus becomes contraposed to minds deemed able of behaving semoviently, i.e. able of inaugurating new causal series (semovience). Hylozoism in this contemporary neurobiological tradition is thus restricted to the portions of nature behaving nomically inside the minds, namely the minds' sensory reactions (Christfried Jakob's "sensory intonations") whereby minds react to the stimuli coming from the hylozoic hiatus or extramental realm.
Martin Buber, too, takes an approach that is quasi-hylozoic. By maintaining that the essence of things is identifiable and separate, although not pre-existing, he can see a soul within each thing.