Empiricism or Pragmatism? Ernst Mach’s Ideas in America 1890–1910

  • Erik C. Banks
Part of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook book series (VCIY, volume 22)


Ernst Mach’s philosophical ideas were warmly received in America, which already had a pragmatist tradition close to Machian empiricism and budding schools of philosophy, psychology, and physics more or free of the neo-Kantian influences which were a strong academic competitor to the spread of empiricism in Europe. The founding pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and William James engaged directly with Mach and Paul Carus, the editor of the Monist and publisher of the Open Court press actively translated and published Mach’s works for the American public. A generation later when members of the Vienna Circle sought Academic posts in elite American universities, the ground was well prepared for their arrival as Holton and Stadler have described. Beneath the surface however, the American reaction to Mach was not one of naïve admiration but fairly staunch criticism, which Mach himself appreciated and welcomed. Peirce was highly critical of Mach’s mechanics in a review and Peirce famously described Mach’s empiricism as akin to riding a horse to death. In some ways, Peirce himself had anticipated aspects of Mach’s views on mind and body, a surprising discovery I made recently. Even Carus, who declared himself an admirer, was highly critical of Mach’s theory of economy of thought. James, too, who admired Mach greatly, had major disagreements with Mach on so-called sensations of innervation in psychology, and although’s James’ own radical empiricist essays owed much to Mach’s neutral monist ideas in the Analysis, James broke away from what he saw as Mach’s excessive physical reductionism, rejecting the monism about nature that was Mach’s trademark. In short Mach’s ideas acted as a stimulus to American thinkers, but they had their own tradition and they were able to resist his authority and contribute in reverse to Mach’s own refinement of his positions.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erik C. Banks
    • 1
  1. 1.Wright State UniversityDaytonUSA

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