Ernst Mach: Science and Buddhism. A Misunderstanding Under Globalization’s Signature

  • Ursula BaatzEmail author
Part of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook book series (VCIY, volume 22)


Ernst Mach was one of the most influential intellectuals in Vienna’s cultural life during the fin de siècle. His assumption of the self as a complex of transitory elements has influenced poets like Hoffmannsthal, Schnitzler and Musil. During these years, Buddhism, which shares some of the same assumptions, was discovered by Western intellectuals, among them also intellectuals who were critical of religion. At that time, Buddhism was hardly known and frequently misinterpreted. Nevertheless, the apparent parallels between Mach’s thought and Buddhism – especially in his “Analysis of Sensations” – has inspired contemporaries to bestow Mach the title “Buddha of Science”(Gomperz).

Today, the close connection of Buddhism and science is almost commonplace, especially in neuroscience. Sometimes science is used to substantiate Buddhist claims and at other times it is vice versa. The current trends of the relationship of science and Buddhism have a long history. Sinhalese and Japanese Buddhists as well as American freethinkers have featured the idea of Buddhism’s affinity to Science as early as in the nineteenth century. One of the most important intermediaries in this process was Paul Carus, Mach’s translator and editor in the US.

A closer look at Ernst Mach’s “Analysis of Sensation” could prove that the supposed relationship is a category mistake, even though there are in fact certain parallels and isomorphisms. The “Scientific Buddha” (Lopez) is the result of a complex process of the reception of Buddhism in Europe, the US and Asia. Western representations and interpretations of Buddhism were turned into anticolonial propaganda in the course of the struggle of Sri Lanka and Japan against Western colonial powers and their ally, Christianity. This modernized Buddhism was then re-exported to Europe and the US as its authentic version, where it was welcomed as a form of traditional wisdom. Thus, any attempts to equate or verify Buddhism with or by science is a naturalistic fallacy.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarWienAustria

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