Hans Driesch

Hans Driesch


          HANS DRIESCH, biologist and philosopher, when working at the Marine Zoology Station at Naples in the 1890s carried out an odd experiment with a sea-urchin's egg. He killed one half of it; and found that the surviving half produced an embryo perfect except that it was only half the usual size. Concluding that 'the living cell aims at some sort of wholeness', he went on to formulate a theory of what he called 'entelechy'.

As briefly set out, many years later, in his fascinating but cautious SPR Presidential Address of 1926, it suggested that the development of organisms was directed by 'a unifying non-material mind-like something ... an ordering principle which does not add either energy or matter' to what goes on. This principle might exist outside time and space; an idea which recurs in the work of a later SPR President, Sir Alister Hardy (who declared himself an orthodox Darwinian just as Driesch declared his viewpoint was compatible with 'a mathematical and materialist approach to biology') and with the work of Dr Rupert Sheldrake. Driesch also suggested that 'the mind may carry out a morphogenetic action at a distance'.

Dr Elmar Gruber's able survey of Driesch's work (Journal, SPR, September 1978) suggested that he was a Vitalist as early as 1892.

His Gifford Lectures were published in 1907 and 1908. Visiting London in 1913 he met Mrs Sidgwick, and after discussions with her he joined the Society. In 1919 he became Professor of Systematic Philosophy at Cologne University and in 1921 Director of Philosophical Seminars at Leipzig. In May 1922 he gave in Prague the inaugural address to the newly formed Czech Society for Psychical Research. In another inaugural discourse - this time at the Fourth International Congress for Psychical Research (whose Transactions, edited by Theodore Besterman appeared in London in 1930) - he put forward the idea that 'the soul, like a monad remains identical with itself after death' but that then the normal channels of communications are those which are paranormal for the living.

He early realised the importance of J. B. Rhine's work, and translated his New Frontiers of the Mind into German. Of his own books there were often both English and German versions. The Science and Philosophy of the Organism, indeed, was first published in London in 1908; the German edition appeared in 1909. Nineteen fourteen saw The Philosophy of Vitalism, and The Crisis in Psychology came out in 1925. A monograph on parapsychology was translated by Theodore Besterman as Psychical Research in 1933.

Driesch contributed to many periodicals in Europe and America, as to the Society's publications; his paper on 'Memory and its Relation to Psychical Research' (Proceedings 43, 1935) opened up a field tentatively explored nearly fifty years later by Dr Susan Blackmore.

His work is not easy to read, even in English, partly because his mind worked in accordance with a Germanic pattern of words, thoughts and inferences; but it is of importance, notably for those attempts to link biology and psychical research which are being renewed in our own time.

Source (with minor modifications): The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History by Renée Haynes (1982, Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London).

Articles by Hans Driesch on this website:

The Possibility of Deception in Psychical Research

The Forms of Possible Deception in Psychical Research

Possibilities of Deception in Spontaneous Observation

Possibilities of Deception in Anticipatory Observation

Precautions in Experiment

Inadequate Precautions

Exaggerated Suspiciousness



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