Hans Driesch


“The object is not the mere sum of its attributes: it is their unity – it is all the attributes together”

Hans Driesch (1867-1941) was a biologist who developed a humanistic and internationalist holistic philosophy in defiance of the Nazi regime in his native Germany.

His embryological research at the start of the twentieth century helped challenge the mechanistic model of life that had come to dominate Western thinking under industrial capitalism.

In a crucial experiment, he destroyed one of the blastomeres of a sea-urchin egg at the two-cell stage of development and found that what happened next contradicted the expectations of the machine model.

Instead of a half-animal developing out of the two egg halves, the half developed into a whole larva that was half the normal size.

Hans Driesch vitalismThis research led Driesch towards his influential theory of organisms as “harmonious equipotential systems” which adapted to the needs of a given situation via a purposeful teleological principle he termed entelechy.

He explained in The History and Theory of Vitalism that this was neither an energy nor a material substance: “Entelechy is an agent sui generis, non-material and non-spatial, but acting ‘into’ space, so to speak; an agent, however, that belongs to nature in the purely logical sense in which we use this word”. (1)

Entelechy allowed a possible happening to become real, he said, without itself providing the energy required for this to happen. “Entelechy only allows that to become real which it has itself held in a state of mere possibility”. (2)

His friend and scientific colleague Jakob Johann von Uexküll commented in 1908: “Driesch succeeded in proving that the germ cell does not possess a trace of machine-like structure, but consists throughout of equivalent parts. With that fell the dogma that the organism is only a machine.

“Even if life occurs in the fully organized creature in a machine-like way, the organization of a structureless germ into a complicated structure is a power sui generis, which is found only in living things and stands without analogy”. (3)

Jakob Johann von Uexküll
Jakob Johann von Uexküll: pro-state

However, it was in opposition to Uexküll’s often-similar theories that Driesch established his own distinct world view.

Uexküll had developed a holistic model of animal behaviour that saw the organism and its environment as a single, integrated system, which he termed the Umwelt. This did not fit well with Nazi scientific theories, which focused on inherited traits and regarded all mention of “environment” as suspiciously left-wing and anti-German.

Uexküll shared the radical organic understanding of the way that natural communities had been replaced by artificial states, which prevented the proper functioning of human society. But his thinking did overlap with Nazi ideology in one area, in that he suggested that a healthy state, or a monarchy, acted as the necessary “brain” of a social organism.

Driesch spoke out against his old friend’s theory after Uexküll published his Staatsbiologie (Biology of the State) in 1920, and insisted that a state was not in any way an organism. It totally lacked the autonomous and creative sense of purpose, the entelechy, which animated living entities.

Instead, the only collective human organism that Driesch was prepared to recognize was a concept of humankind that recognized no national or völkisch boundaries. He wrote in 1922: “The fact that mankind can create states qualifies it to be in a certain sense a single ‘organism’; however the empirical individual states are, in their logical essence, much more like rocks than like some special construction in the context of the organic world”. (4)

Driesch maintained that the concept of wholeness, on which his philosophy was based, arose from pure logic: “For the object is not the mere sum of its attributes: it is their unity – it is all the attributes together”. (5)

entelechyBut he was criticised by Max Wertheimer, and others in the circles around Gestalt Theory, for what they regarded as the unscientific basis of his vitalistic biology. They objected to his idea of a non-spatial life force, entelechy, guiding the development of an organism. Wertheimer commented that Driesch had “gone over to the camp of the spiritualists”. (6)

At the Prague International Congress of Philosophy in 1934, he was attacked by Viennese logical positivists Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach and Moritz Schlick, who not only took issue with the concept of wholeness itself but also wrongly equated Driesch’s holistic organic vision with the fascism he so deeply opposed.

It is true that Nazi ideologists initially showed an interest in Driesch’s work. Anne Harrington writes: “During the early, most influential years of Nazi holism, Driesch was a consistently useful resource for a range of holistic scientists with Nazi nationalist leanings. Even those who rejected his vitalism could still hail him as a midwife to the new era of ‘ German wholeness'”. (7)

But this interest flew in the face of Driesch’s own emphatic opposition to the Nazi regime and his determination to forge a philosophy of vitalistic wholeness based on internationalism and humanism.

Driesch travelled extensively in Asia after the First World War, with the deliberate aim of widening his cultural horizons. Harrington notes: “He believed that studying foreign cultures could be an important avenue for discerning transcendent principles that united and guided all individual human communities, regardless of their surface differences”. (8)

Adolf Hitler: very pro-state

In 1927 Driesch declared himself opposed to all “cults of statehood” (9) and in the years leading up to the Hitler regime he repeatedly spoke out against the rise of nationalism.

He used a series of newspaper articles to argue that entelechy recognized no national borders, that the only biological whole that we belonged to was the human species and that militarism and war were “the most terrible of all sins” against the vitalistic principles of life, holistic co-operation and higher development.

In the light of this, it is not surprising that Driesch was among the first non-Jewish German professors to be forcibly retired, at the age of 66, when the Nazis came to power in 1933.

After this, he received no more invitations to speak or hold seminars within Germany. He continued to hold occasional lectures abroad until the spring of 1935, but then all public speaking and travel privileges were taken away from him for the rest of his life.

In 1985, historian of psychology Eckhart Scheerer wrote that Driesch had identified “the biological necessity of reason” and added that his entelechy hypothesis had “made it possible for him to fill his theoretical biological-holistic world view with humanistic spirit”. (10)

Video link: The Definition of Vitalism (1 min 25 secs).

hans driesch

1. Hans Driesch, The History and Theory of Vitalism, trad. by C.K. Ogden (London: Macmillan, 1914), p. 204.
2. Driesch, The History and Theory of Vitalism, p. 205.
3. Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 51.
4. Hans Driesch, Philosophie des Organischen (Leipzig: Engelmann, 1922), p. 573, cit. Harrington, p. 61.
5. Driesch, The History and Theory of Vitalism, p. 189.
6. Harrington, p. 124.
7. Harrington, pp. 189-90.
8. Harrington, p. 190.
9. Hans Driesch, ‘Zur neueren Vitalismuskritik’, Biologisches Zentralblatt, 47, 1927, cit. Harrington, p. 190.
10. Eckhart Scheere, ‘Organische Weltanschauung und Ganzheitsspsychologie’, Psychologie im Nazionalsozialismus, ed. by Carl F. Graumann (New York: Springer Verlag, 1985), p. 40, cit. Harrington, p. 190.




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