Mach’s Psychology of Investigation and the Limits of Science

  • Katherine Arens
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 113)


As we have seen, the conceptual psychology which is the underlying paradigm for the latter nineteenth century stems from a synthesis of Empiricism and Idealism. Another name playing a role in this synthesis is Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist, who is remembered for his delineations of the concept of “frame of reference” and the Doppler effect — that is, his work in scientific epistemology.1 Mach’s reputation is that of the psychologist among physicists. His program ranges through the culture and history of the sciences as well, including: the history of science and its relativity,2 thought experiments (influencing ultimately even Einstein),3 Monism as a joint psychological and physical perspective on scientific investigation (especially in the circles around the journal The Monist),4 and the biological or economic adaptation of organisms — all topics at the core of Mach’s psychological approach to the methodologies of science.


Thought Experiment Conceptual Psychology Symbol Manipulation Mental Mechanism Pure Science 
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  1. 1.
    For overviews of the work of Mach, see: Erwin Hiebert, “An Appraisal of the Work of Ernst Mach: Scientist-Historian-Philosopher,” in Motion and Time, Space and Matter: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and Science, Peter K. Machamer and Robert G. Turnbull, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976): 360–89Google Scholar
  2. 1a.
    John T. Blackmore, Ernst Mach: His Work, Life, and Influence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972)Google Scholar
  3. 1b.
    Jürgen Blühdorn and Joachim Ritter, eds., Positivismus im 19. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zu seiner geschichtlichen und systematischen Bedeutung, Studien zur Philosophie und Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts, Bd. 16 (Frankfurt/Main: V. Klostermann, 1971)Google Scholar
  4. 1c.
    J. Hintikka, ed., “A Symposium on Ernst Mach,” Synthese, 18 (1968): 132–301. The basic bibliography, supplemented by Blackmore’s work, is that by Joachim Thiele, “Ernst-Mach-Bibliographie,” Centaurus, 8 (1963): 189–237.Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    For Mach’s use of history see: Erwin Hiebert, “Mach’s Philosophical Use of the History of Science,” In: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives of Science, Roger H. Stuewer, ed., Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, V (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970): 184–203.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    For accounts of Mach’s position as a scientist see especially: Albert Einstein, “Zur Enthüllung von Ernst Mach’s Denkmal,” Neue Freie Presse (Wien), 12 June 1926, Morgenblatt, p. 11Google Scholar
  7. 3a.
    J. Bradley, Mach’s Philosophy of Science, (London: Athlone Press of the University of London, 1971)Google Scholar
  8. 3b.
    P.W. Bridgman, “Significance of the Mach Principle,” American Journal of Physics, 29, No. 1 (January 1961): 32–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 3c.
    Erwin Hiebert, The Concept of Thermodynamics in the Scientific Thought of Mach and Planck, Wissenschaftlicher Bericht, 5/68 (Freiburg/Br.: Ernst-Mach-Institut, 1968)Google Scholar
  10. 3d.
    Gerald Holton, “Mach, Einstein, and the Search for Reality,” Daedalus, 97, No. 2 (Spring 1968): 636–73Google Scholar
  11. 3e.
    Richard von Mises, Ernst Mach und die empiristische Wissenschaftsauffassung: Zu E. Machs 100. Geburtstag am 18. Feb. 1938, Einheitswissenschaft, Heft 7 (s’Gravenhage: Verlag W.P. van Stockum & Zoon, 1938)Google Scholar
  12. 3f.
    Laurens Lauden, “The Methodological Foundations of Mach’s Anti-Atomism and their Historical Roots,” in Motion and Time, Space and Matter, Peter K. Machamer and Robert G. Turnbull, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976)Google Scholar
  13. 3g.
    and Floyd Ratliff, Mach Bands: Quantitative Studies on Neural Networks in the Retina (San Francisco: Holden-Day, 1965), which also contains a useful biographical sketch.Google Scholar
  14. 4.
    From its inception, “The Monist” was a vehicle for Mach’s thought. Aside from publishing translations of parts of his works, “The Monist” printed a steady series of articles on Mach, some notable ones being: Paul Carus, “The Origin of Mind,” Monist, 1 No. 1 (Oct, 1890): 69–86; Hans Kleinpeter, “On the Monism of Professor Mach,” Monist, 16, No. 2 (Apr. 1906): 161–68Google Scholar
  15. 4a.
    Philip E.B. Jourdain, “The Economy of Thought,” Monist, 24, No. 1 (Jan. 1914): 134–45Google Scholar
  16. 4b.
    Bertrand Russell, “On the Nature of Acquaintance,” Monist, 24, No. 1 (Jan. 1914): 1–16, “On the Nature of Acquaintance, II: Neutral Monism,” Monist, 24, No. 2 (April 1914): 161–87, and “On the Nature of Acquaintance, III: Analysis of Experience,” Monist, 24, No. 3 (July 1914): 435–53.Google Scholar
  17. 5.
    For an idea of the influence Mach had on his contemporaries, see: Joachim Thiele, “Zur Wirkungsgeschichte der Schriften Ernst Machs,” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, 20 (1966)Google Scholar
  18. 5a.
    Joachim Thiele, Wissenschaftliche Kommunikation: Die Korrespondenz Ernst Machs (Kastellaum: A. Henn Verlag, 1978); and Katherine Arens, Fundamentalism and Fin de siècle: Fritz Mauthner’s Critique of Language, op. cit.Google Scholar
  19. 6.
    See particularly Mach’s late work, Kultur und Mechanik (Stuttgart: W. Spemann, 1915), for his concept of the interactions between technology and civilization.Google Scholar
  20. 7.
    See “Einige vergleichende tier- und menschenpsychologische Skizzen,” Naturwissenschaftliche Wochenschrift (Jena), 31 (N.F. 15), No. 17 (23 April 1916): 241–47, for an example of his biological thought; also Populär-wissenschaftliche Vorlesungen, 4. Aufl. (Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1910). The term “biologist of the mind” refers to the title of a book on Freud to be discussed in the next chapter.Google Scholar
  21. 9.
    The majority of Mach studies do treat him as an epistemologist, however, on different grounds than the present discussion uses; see, for example: Max Adler, “Mach and Marx: Ein Beitrag zur Kritik des modernen Positivismus,” Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 33 (1911): 348–400Google Scholar
  22. 9a.
    Peter Alexander, “Ernst Mach,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, V (New York: MacMillan, 1967): 115–19Google Scholar
  23. 9b.
    Herbert Buzello, Kritische Untersuchung von Ernst Machs Erkenntnistheorie, Kantstudien, Ergänzungheft 23 (1911)Google Scholar
  24. 9c.
    Robert S. Cohen and Raymond J. Seeger, eds., Ernst Mach, Physicist and Philosopher, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 6 (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1970)Google Scholar
  25. 9d.
    Alfonsina D’Elia, Ernst Mach, Pubblicazioni della Facolta di lettere e filosofia dell’Universita di Milano, 59 (Firenza: La nuova Italia, 1971)Google Scholar
  26. 9e.
    Karl Gerhards, Machs Erkenntnistheorie und der Realismus (Stuttgart: W. Spemann, 1914)Google Scholar
  27. 9f.
    Edmund Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen, 1.Band: Prolegomena zur reinen Logik, Husserliana, Bd. XVIII, ed. E. Holenstein (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975): esp. 196–213Google Scholar
  28. 9g.
    Hermann Lübbe, “Positivismus und Phänomenologie (Mach und Husserl),” in Beiträge zur Philosophie und Wissenschaft: Wilhelm Szilasi zum 70. Geburtstag (München: n.p., 1960): 161–84.Google Scholar
  29. 10.
    See the biographical sketch in Floyd Ratliff, Mach Bands (op. cit.), and Friedrich Herneck, “Ernst Mach: Eine bisher unveröffentlichte Autobiographie,” Physikalische Blätter, 14, Heft 9 (1958): 385–90; the later editions of the Populärwissenschaftliche Vorlesungen contain papers on these topics.Google Scholar
  30. 12.
    See particularly the acoustical essays in the Populär-Wissenschaftliche Vorlesungen. For information on Helmholtz, see Erna Lesky, The Vienna Medical School of the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).Google Scholar
  31. 13.
    It is instructive to note that Husserl felt he had to distance his own program from Mach’s; see Joachim Thiele, “Ein Brief Edmund Husserls an Ernst Mach,” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, 19 (1965): 134–39.Google Scholar
  32. 15.
    On this text, see particularly: Erwin Hiebert, trans., “Introduction,” Ernst Mach: Knowledge and ErrorSketches on the Psychology of Enquiry (Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1976)Google Scholar
  33. 15a.
    and W. Grosse, “Die psychologischen Grundlagen der Erkenntnis (Über Machs “Erkenntnis und Irrtum”),” Deutsche Literaturzeitung, 27, No. 47 (24 Nov. 1906): 2925–32, and 27, No. 48 (1 Dec. 1906): 2989–96. The title The Analysis of the Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychic refers to the original Die Analyse der Empfindungen, und das Verhältnis des Physischen zum Psychischen; citations in the present chapter are from the “2., verm. Auflage” (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1900), and are my translations [=AS in text]. The original German title of Knowledge and Error is Erkenntnis und Irrtum: Skizzen zu einer Psychologie der Forschung (Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1905); citations used in the present discussion are translated for this situation and are taken from the 1906 second edition of that work [= KE in text].Google Scholar
  34. 17.
    Mach discussed thought-experiments in a chapter of Erkenntnis und Irrtum, “Über Gedankenexperimente” (pp. 180–97).Google Scholar
  35. 19.
    See the entries in Thiele’s bibliography. Most notable thereafter are: “Ernst-Mach-Symposium” and Positivismus im 19. Jahrhundert, both cited above, and Manfred Diersch, Empiriokritizismus und Impressionismus (Berlin: Rütten und Loening, 1973).Google Scholar
  36. 20.
    See Hermann Bahr, “Das unrettbare Ich” and “Die Philosophie des Impressionismus,” in Dialog vom Tragischen (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1904): 79–101 and 102–114.Google Scholar
  37. 21.
    For a statement of the influence of Mach on Edmund Husserl, see: Logische Untersuchungen, Erster Band: Prolegomena zur reinen Logik, Husserliana, Bd. XVIII, ed. E. Holenstein (Den Haag: M. Nijhoff, 1975): 196–213; Joachim Thiele, “Zur Wirkungsgeschichte der Schriften Ernst Machs,” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung (Munich), 20 (1966): 118–130; and “Ein Brief Edmund Husserls an Ernst Mach,” ed. Joachim Thiele, Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, 19 (1965): 134–38.Google Scholar
  38. 22.
    Mach gave series of lectures in both cities, which were collected as an ever-expanding volume called Populärwissenschaftliche Vorlesungen, which ran into 5 editions (5th ed., Leipzig, J.A. Barth, 1923).Google Scholar
  39. 23.
    A selection of his textbooks are: Compendium der Physik für Mediciner (Wien: W. Braumüller, 1863); Leitfaden der Physik für Studierende, with Gustav Jaumann (Prague and Vienna: Tempsky, 1891); Grundriß der Naturlehre für die unteren Classen der Mittelschulen, with Joh. Odstrcil (Prague: Tempsky, 1887); Grundriß der Physik für die höheren Schulen des Deutschen Reiches (Leipzig: G. Freytag, 1893); and Lehrbuch der Physik für das Gymnasium (Leipzig: G. Freytag, 1894).Google Scholar
  40. 24.
    For a useful biographical sketch on Mach, see “Ernst Mach: Eine bisher unveröfentlichte Autobiographie,” ed. Fr. Herneck, Physikalische Blätter 14.9 (1958): 385–90; and a short sketch in Floyd Ratliff, Mach Bands: Quantitative Studies on Neural Networks in the Retina (San Francisco: Holden-Day, 1965): 14 [for Prague era].Google Scholar
  41. 26.
    This discussion is in the initial chapters of Die Principien der Wärmelehre: Historisch-kritisch entwickelt (Leipzig: 1896).Google Scholar
  42. 27.
    These correspond to chapter titles in the history volumes. Cf. Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung historisch-kritisch dargestellt (Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1896); Die Geschichte und die Wurzel des Satzes von der Erhaltung der Arbeit (Prag: Calve, 1872); Die Prinzipien der physikalischen Optik: Historisch und erkenntnispsychologisch entwickelt (Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1921).Google Scholar
  43. 28.
    The first edition of the Analysis of the Sensations was published in 1886; the second, 1900; the third, 1902; the fourth, 1903; the fifth, 1906; the sixth, 1911; the seventh, 1918; the eighth, 1919. All editions through the sixth were designated “expanded.” This publishing history indicates an upswing in popularity for Mach’s work after the turn of the century.Google Scholar
  44. 29.
    See Bahr, “Das unrettbare Ich.” Bahr is chosen as a representative of a very popular cause at the turn of the cnetury. For other presentations about the relativity of the ego, see also Robert S. Cohen, and Erwin Hiebert, op. cit., and Erkenntnis oder Dogmatismus: Kritik des psychologischen “Dogmatismus”-Konzepts, eds. Peter Keiler and Michael Stadler (Köln: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1978).Google Scholar
  45. 33.
    See Franz Brentano, Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt, vol. 1 [no vol. 2 appeared] (Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot, 1874).Google Scholar
  46. 34.
    For a concise exposition of the program of phenomenology in its classic formulation, see Edmund Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973).Google Scholar
  47. 40.
    Jean Piaget, Genetic Epistemology (New York: Norton, 1971).Google Scholar
  48. 47.
    See Wilhelm Dilthey, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970) for a definition of a human science as a systematic discipline of principles, with recreatability and verifiability.Google Scholar
  49. 48.
    For an overview of Dilthey’s program, especially with reference to poetics/aesthetics, see Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, Towards a Phenomenological Theory of Literature (The Hague: Mouton, 1963). Otto Neurath and the Vienna School attempt to enact Mach’s program to a limited degreeGoogle Scholar
  50. 48a.
    see Viktor Kraft, The Vienna Circle, trans. Arthur Pap (New York: n.p., 1953). For Mach’s influence in psychology, see also Kurt Danziger, “The Positivist Repudiation of Wundt,”op. cit.Google Scholar
  51. 52.
    From one perspective, his pervasive assumptions about the relation of physical data and the structure of the psyche resemble the tenets of psychophysics as described by Gustav Fechner (see first Max Dessoir, Outlines of the History of Psychology [New York: Macmillan, 1912]: 251, and the section on Fechner above), focusing on the study of nerve excitation as it relates to sensations and to physical stimuli. However, Fechner’s work was not concentrated on higher-order thought as it influenced individual mind, but only as products of mind.Google Scholar
  52. 53.
    Mach acknowledged that his thought was profoundly influenced by a reading of Kant’s Prolegomena; see “Ernst Mach: Eine bisher unveröffentlichte Autobiographie,” by Fr. Herneck, Physikalische Blätter, 14, No. 9 (1958): 387.Google Scholar
  53. 54.
    “Wahrscheinlichkeit” is normally translated as “probability” (see Hiebert’s translation of Knowledge and Error). Here, however, that translation is inadequate to Mach’s purpose of differentiating what might be ontologically real (and hence subject to probability of existence) from what is utilitarian in a particular frame (and hence what seems real in accounting for a determinate frame of reference). See also the essay by Lorraine Daston on “The Theory of Will versus the Science of Mind,” in Woodward and Ash, eds., The Problematic Science, for a description of associationism, which also uses this term.Google Scholar
  54. 56.
    This summary is drawn up with reference to J.B. Stallo, The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics (1882), for which Mach wrote the foreword to the German edition in 1901.Google Scholar
  55. 57.
    This definition is provided in Course in General Linguistics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966): Part One, I.Google Scholar
  56. 58.
    On thought experiments, see Laurens Laudens, “The Methodological Foundations of Mach’s Anti-Atomism and Their Historical Roots,” in Motion and Time, Space and Matter: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and Science, Peter K. Machamer and Robert G. Turnbull, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976): 390–417.Google Scholar
  57. 59.
    These, then, correspond loosely to induction and deduction in general logic.Google Scholar
  58. 60.
    The Logics of Wundt (1880) and Lotze (1874) did this as well.Google Scholar
  59. 61.
    The term is used first in relation to the work of Wilhelm Dilthey and his followers; the more modern “science of culture” is represented in the work of the French, particularly Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), and Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Harper, 1972). Google Scholar
  60. 62.
    For a model of Darwinism appropriate to psychology, see Robert J. Richards, “Natural Selection and Other Models in the Historiography of Science,” in Scientific Inquiry and the Social Sciences, Marilynn B. Brewer and Barry E. Collins, eds. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981): 37–76, A Defense of Evolutionary Ethics," Biology and Philosophy, 1 (1986): 265–293.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katherine Arens
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Germanic LanguagesUniversity of TexasAustinUSA

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