Gerard Heymans

gerard heymans portrait

Omwenteling onder het schedeldak

Gerard Heymans en de hervorming van de psyche (chapter in Ido de Haan e.a., Het eenzame gelijk, Boom Publishers, Amsterdam, 2009)


The Dutch philosopher Gerard Heymans (1857-1930) concluded in 1909 that, whereas the 19th century had been the age of natural science, the 20th century would be the age of psychology. Heymans was a representative of psychic monism (or panpsychism, as it is also called). According to this view, in the development of mankind and of the world manifests itself the development of an all-encompassing psychic organism: one world-consciousness that evolves according to the laws of nature, which regulate the movements of the atoms in the brain just as precisely as the movements of the heavenly bodies in their constant orbits. Every individual consciousness is contained in the world-consciousness.

Psychic monism claims that matter is a reflection, or mirror image, of the mind and that, therefore, physical reality is a manifestation of psychic reality. Only the psychic is real. This would imply that social and political reforms only make sense if they contribute to the psychic healing of mankind.

Heymans believed that the one-sided attention of the previous century for materialistic science had turned humans into psychological wrecks: restless, pessimistic, desperate, neurasthenic, even inclined to commit suicide. Scientific materialism had led to mental emptiness, senselessness, estrangement; it had undermined religion, and destroyed mental traditions. Attention should be shifted towards the personality. Man had become his own maze because he no longer knew which of his aspirations really were rooted in his personality and his soul. As a result of this estrangement people lost contact with the Weltgrund, the deeper sense and foundation of the world. A new idea of fundamental unity was needed; psychic monism claimed it could restore this sense of unity with the universe in proving that individuals were no stray entities. Instead, they were all part of the World Spirit; each person was an individual manifestation of this all-encompassing supreme consciousness.

Psychic monism was part of a broader fin de siècle tendency to reject Cartesian dualism. Gustav Fechner’s psychophysics, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Helmholtz theory, and neo-Kantianism all denied Descartes’ theorem of the fundamental distinction (and separation) of matter on the one hand and the immaterial spiritual reality on the other hand. Heymans’ psychic monism should, however, not be associated with Hegel’s idealism. Heymans firmly believed that consciousness (since it is the reflection of the material external world) can be empirically observed and researched.

To prove this point, Heymans in 1892 set up a psychological laboratory in his home in Groningen. It resembled a small-scale variant of the psycholab of Wilhelm Wundt. What these neo-Kantian laboratories were basically about was the use of measuring devices for the empirical exploration of the human powers and habits of perception and observation. Deviations in perception, like optical illusions, had their special interest. The idea was not only to demonstrate Kant’s idea that human beings completely depend on what their senses tell them (and sometimes tell them wrong), but also to learn as much as possible about mental deviations in order to find ways to correct or cure them. This might, it was hoped, compensate for human psychic and intellectual weakness. Heymans in his psycholab discovered one such deviation, to which he attached great importance: a particular impression tends to be shut out by another, simultaneously occurring, stronger impression. He believed this to be a regularity in man’s psychology. The strongest impressions, the stimuli that are nearest, supplant or overrule the weaker or more distant ones. This is why, according to Heymans, aggression generally will win out on feelings of sympathy, or why revenge will push out reconciliation, or why militant nationalism will overrule international pacifism.

Fechner believed that not only humans, but every living organism (animals, plants, micro-organisms, but also the earth as a meta-organism) had consciousness and was, therefore, part of the worldwide or universal consciousness. Each organism develops from within, and thus has an inner self-evolution, and this is what connects it to the universal consciousness. Gerard Heymans basically followed Fechner in this. This view of psychic monism should not be confused with Bergson’s élan vital, which is an external force of life.

The psychic monist believes that only our psychic reality (our inner world) is directly accessible to us, because we can experience it immediately. Physical reality or the outer world, on the other hand, we only know indirectly, through the mediation of our senses. We cannot access the phenomenon outside ourselves, as the Ding an sich. Our perceptions of sound or colour are phenomena of the mind, of consciousness: our senses are constructed in such a way that they can only receive certain stimuli that give us the impression that the material manifestation (of colour, form, texture, scent, or sound) is the real reality. However, sound does not exist apart from the ear; it is the ear and the consciousness connected to it that turns sonic waves into the sound we experience. Besides, what we perceive, in the external world, as matter, is, for itself, consciousness. If we could take a look under another person’s skull, we would perceive the matter (form, texture, colour) of this person’s brain, while to this person his brain is consciousness, and only consciousness. Yet a brain is matter and spirit at the same time: there is a perfect parallel between the movements of (and in) the material brain on the one hand, and its consciousness on the other.

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