Mach’s “Sensation”, Gomperz’s “Feeling”, and the Positivist Debate About the Nature of the Elementary Constituents of Experience. A Comparative Study in an Epistemological and Psychological Context

  • David Romand
Part of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook book series (VCIY, volume 22)


In the present article, I compare Ernst Mach’s and Heinrich Gomperz’s contributions to the German-speaking positivist tradition by showing how, in trying to refound epistemology on the basis of one definite category of experiential element, namely, sensation (Empfindung) and feeling (Gefühl), respectively, they each epitomized one major trend of Immanenzpositivismus. I demonstrate that, besides Mach’s “sensualist” conception of positivism – in light of which historians have tended thus far to interpret all German-speaking positivist research of that period – there also existed an “affectivist” conception of positivism, which originated in Avenarius’s empiriocriticism and culminated in Gomperz’s pathempiricism (Pathempirismus). Here I aim to provide a new perspective on the history of positivism by highlighting the role played in it by psychological concerns. First, I revisit the notion of Immanenzpositivismus, the form of positivism that prevailed in both Germany and Austria between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: in addition to addressing the definition of this philosophical school of thought, I discuss the issue of “pure experience”, from which the positivists tried to reinterpret the foundations of knowledge. Second, I deal with Mach’s sensation-based approach to Immanenzpositivismus by commenting on his ontological and typological analysis of the constitutive elements of experience and emphasizing the fact that his concept of Empfindung is a relatively ill-defined notion in light of contemporary psychological standards. Moreover, I show that, despite his pretense of confining his epistemological developments to the analysis of sensations, Mach did not deny the involvement of feelings in epistemology, as clearly evidenced by some passages of Erkenntnis und Irrtum. Third, I analyze Gomperz’s feeling-based conception of Immanenzpositivismus, that is, pathempiricism, by highlighting how he strove to radically refound epistemology on the basis of the most recent advances of affective psychology. Focusing on the question of language sciences, I also discuss how he considered the role of feelings in the various forms of theoretical knowledge, the only field of investigation that he revisited in detail in his unfinished book, the Weltanschauungslehre. Fourth and last, I contrast Gomperz’s with Mach’s positivist model and argue that the former is more coherent and has a higher explanatory power than the latter. In conclusion, I insist on the importance of revisiting pathempiricism within the broader framework of affective epistemology.



I thank Friedrich Stadler for having encouraged me to submit a presentation proposal on Mach and Gomperz on the occasion of the Ernst Mach Centenary Conference and to pursue my investigations on Gomperz and pathempiricism, and Martin Seiler for his thoughtful comments on Gomperz and the Weltanschauungslehre.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Romand
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre Gilles-Gaston Granger – UMR 7304Aix-Marseille UniversityMarseilleFrance

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