Healing Hypotheses 


This is a prolegomenon to the study of (1) the early philosophy of Horatio Willis Dresser (1866-1954) as it relates to New Thought and (2) the philosophical foundations of New Thought as they relate to Dresser.

New Thought is a philosophical-religious movement which originated in the United States in the nineteenth century. While it seeks to provide a complete approach to life, its primary field of emphasis has been healing by nonphysical means.

New Thought's background is provided by the ancient tradition of religious healing, American philosophy largely of the nineteenth century, and speculation inspired by phenomena produced by mesmerism, also known as animal magnetism. Mesmerists reported not only hypnotic effects that now commonly are accepted, but also "higher phenomena," including telepathy and clairvoyance, which served both to stimulate speculation and to retard acceptance of mesmerism.

The most commonly accepted explanation of all mesmeric phenomena in the first half of the nineteenth century was a holdover from earlier speculation on magnetism and astrology. This view assumes that one person can influence another through an invisible but material entity referred to as fluid. This came to be identified with electricity, which also was considered a fluid.

The "electrical psychology" of John Bovee Dods (1795-1872) distinguished differing densities of matter under the names of mind, matter, and the electricity that connects mind and matter.

A similar description is given by Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), who engaged in healing and maintained that "the explanation is the cure." Quimby holds that there is "spiritual matter" between mind and


Healing Hypotheses


matter. But, unlike the case of Dods, the Quimby view is an idealism, especially as interpreted by Dresser.

The example and views of Quimby helped to inspire Warren Felt Evans (1817-1889) to develop a healing practice and an idealistic philosophy. He was the first to publish books on the "new" healing, Quimby having written but not published.

Evans starts with a conventional theism expressed in Swedenborgian terms, and moves to a view that he calls "Christian Pantheism." His is not so much a fully thoughtout philosophical system as it is a collection of idealistic conclusions of various philosophers. Early in his philosophizing in regard to healing, Evans places considerable emphasis on the nonintellectual aspects of life, treating healing as the willing acceptance of divine assistance. Later he stresses the role of thought, maintaining that it and existence are one; hence, thought is adequate for attaining desired ends.

In the 1890's the later views of Evans and those who agreed with him came to be known as New Thought.

Dresser begins with an acceptance of pantheism. However, he prefers not to call it that; he holds that although God is expressed as man and Nature, the reserving of some of God unmanifested removes his view from pantheism. Dresser soon comes to reject pantheism, as now will be seen.

As Dresser's interest in epistemology heightens, he places increasing emphasis on analysis of experience. In this he begins with an indiscriminate whole of experience, and maintains that one gradually becomes aware of himself in relation to an other. For Dresser there is no meaning in the uninterpreted immediate. Hence, he rejects any claim of knowledge from unreflective mysticism. Thus he discards pantheistic mystical pronouncements, and relies on a commonsense separation of God from man and nature.

Dresser's philosophy is developed in contrast with New Thought, which asserts that God is all and perfectly good, and that one need only realize this state of affairs

Healing Hypotheses


adequately in order to have a perfect life. Dresser challenges New Thought to prove its claims. In the absence of proof to the contrary, Dresser assumes that God and the world and man are separate, and that thinking will not result in such remarkable effects as New Thought claims.

However, Dresser does accept experiences of healing as being of divine origin. On the strength of his own examined extrasensory perception he maintains that there is a qualitative difference between spiritual experiences and merely psychical ones. He holds that it is to the higher, spiritual, level of activity that one should turn to find God and whatever healing may be given by God's grace. This higher level is marked more by love than by thought. Hence he considers inadequate the New Thought practice of mental affirmation of God's presence in order to accomplish healing.

Being in sympathy with the New Thought aims of healing and general human betterment, and, before delving deeply into philosophy, even accepting pantheism, Dresser's writings were popular in New Thought circles in the late 1890's and early 1900's. However, as he found New Thought generally unreceptive to scholarly examination, he turned increasingly to psychology and to the Swedenborgian New Church as fields of his activity.

New Thought and Dresser went their own ways. There is no reason for concluding that Dresser managed to bring New Thought in any significant degree toward his essentially orthodox views. However, he was recognized as a New Thought writer, accepted offices in New Thought organizations, and--judged by the popularity of his books--probably aided New Thought considerably around the turn of the century in its general aim of helping people to realize the availability of God.

In recent decades, probably with little or no Dresser influence, New Thought has shown some indications of moving in directions favored by Dresser. It has become somewhat more scholarly; some of its groups now offer various courses having philosophical,


Healing Hypotheses

theological, and psychological content.  Also there has come to be considerable recognition that thought unaided by a higher realization of divinity is unable to accomplish fully its healing aims.  However, unlike Dresser, New Thought remains firmly pantheistic.

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