Tag Archive: Hans Driesch; vitalism and psychical research


Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

Germana Paretti published an interesting article about Hans Driesch entitles “Hans Driesch’s Interest in the Psychical Research: A Historical Study” (Medicina Historica, 2017, 1, 156-162; author’s address germana.pareti@unito.it).

Hans Driesch

Hans Driesch

Here is the abstract:

“In recent times the source of interest in psychical research in Germany has been subject of relevant studies. Not infrequently these works have dealt with this phenomenon through the interpretation of the various steps and transformations present in Hans Driesch’s thought, from biology and medicine to neovitalism, and finally to parapsychology. However these studies identified the causes of this growing involvement in paranormal research either in the historical context of “crisis” of modernity (or “crisis” in psychology), or in an attempt to “normalize” the supernatural as an alternative to the traditional experimental psychology. My paper aims instead at throwing light on the constant effort by Driesch to conceive (and found) psychical research as a science of the super-normal, using the methodology successfully adopted by the scientific community (especially German) in the late nineteenth century.”

Driesch Vitalismus
Driesch Gesgische Vitalismus

According to Pareti:

“Asked to lecture on his conception of vitalism at Cambridge University, [Driesch] . . . met there Henry Sidgwick and he became interested in the research on psychic phenomena. He joined the Society for Psychical Research of London (SPR) in 1913, and he was its president in 1926-27. When he wanted to investigate psychic phenomena further in Oslo in 1935, the Nazis denied his passport, so he did not pursue this work further. Invited to lecture on philosophy by many universities (in Europe, United States, South America and the Far East), Driesch had the opportunity to work with some pioneers in the field of psychic research: Walter Franklin Pierce in Boston, Gustav Geley and Eugène Osty in Paris, Oliver Lodge in Britain and Albert von Schrenck-Notzing in Germany. He sat with mediums such as “Margery,” Mrs. Osborne Leonard and Willi and Rudi Schneider. Although impressed by Mrs. Leonard and the Schneiders, Driesch was not always convinced of the genuineness of mediumistic phenomena.”

Driesch Science Philosophy Organism

His vitalistic writings included the concept of entelechia. “Derived from a biological-metaphysical context, it denoted a vital agent, an internal perfecting non-mechanical principle existing in all living organisms, ‘a unifying, non-material, mind-like something’ . . ., and Driesch sustained that ‘we have an interaction in the purely natural sphere, i.e. between entelechy and the matter of my body.’ Nevertheless, the working of entelechia had to be parallel to that of the soul: ‘the working of my soul … and [its] certain states are ‘parallel’ to ‘my conscious havings’ . . . He admitted that, in fact, in the normal morphogenesis we do not know as entelechy acts, but it could regulate organic development and explain several paraphysical actions. Above all, paraphysical phenomena are cases of a kind of ‘enlarged’ vitalism, a ‘supervitalism’ . . . Although he complained that some critics erroneously mixed his psychology with his vitalism, Driesch was sure that vitalism represented ‘a fundamental breach’ in the normal science, being a bridge connecting normal (scientific) and psychical research. Therefore he refuted any psychophysical (or psychomechanical) parallelism, conceiving mind as an independent entity, ‘enthroned by the side of the physical body.’ Its physiological effects are well known, since a lot of bodily symptoms can be mentally produced (inflammation, pregnancy, stigmata etc.).”

“Neverthless Driesch did not deny matter and its role. ‘Matter is everywhere in the space,’ and the vital agent makes a constructive use of it, or, the mental part of the individual acts purposely on matter. Its influence is visible in the simplest of supernormal phenomenon, in which matter is under the influence of assimilation, an established process highlighted by Justus von Liebig in his organic chemistry. Materialisation and its varieties (telekinesis and levitation) constitute a kind of organized assimilation, a kind of supernormal embriology. So, if regarded as vitalistic actions, or forms of ‘behaviour’ of some unconscious entity, paraphysical phenomena lose their negative character of absurdity, since they respect the principle of economy or of parsimony, according to which no phenomenon may be considered fundamental if it can be reduced to another.”

The article also has interesting sections about other topics. This include Driesch’s ideas regarding methodology in parapsychology, and his mention of other researchers in his work.

Interestingly, the last issue of the Paranormal Review has an article about Driesch by John Poynton: “President’s Letter: The SPR’s Philosopher-Presidents: Hans Driesch.” Paranormal Review, 85, 4-5).

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