IS no need to write in detail of one of the greater philosophers of the last hundred years, admired in his own country by the personalist Gabriel Marcel, by the Nobel prize winner Alexis Carrel, and by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He held the Chair of the Philosophy of History at the College de France from 1900 to 1921, and was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1918. Sadly, his death at
91 coincided with the last years of the appalling Nazi persecution of his fellow Jews, with whom he strongly identified himself.
He exerted a profound influence on the development of Vitalist philosophy in America and Europe, including Britain, where he aroused the interest of George Bernard Shaw and many others. William James hailed his work as bringing about 'a new Copernican revolution in thought'.
L'Evolution Creatrice (Paris 1909, soon afterwards translated as Creative
Evolution) is the best known of all his books. Its central idea of Elan Vital, or living energy working through all things, helped (as Professor H. H. Price wrote in an obituary) to undermine the materialist basis of the then fashionable Positivism. Some of his physiology is now out of date, notably his attribution to the whole brain (rather than its left hemisphere) of the dominant power to concentrate on immediate action or abstract thought, so inhibiting the emergence of ESP and of much memory, which only surface at times of relaxation.
But the main stream of his thinking is still vividly alive. His Presidential Address
to the SPR in 1913 praised the Society's methods of research in collecting, studying, verifying and comparing data, examining witnesses, evaluating evidence, 'as historians and lawyers do'; and acknowledged that 'when I note the enormous number of facts on record, their family likeness, the agreement of so many independent witnesses, I am led to believe in telepathy'. The experimental method, he observed, as it dealt solely with measurement, made it possible to study the workings of the brain, but not what it was working on. He thought the survival of death probable 'since the life of the organism is far wider than cerebral life'.
Among his other books - in English - are Time and Free Will (London, 1910) and
Matter and Memory (London, 1911).
Source (with minor modifications):
The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History by Renée Haynes (1982, Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London).