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Ernst Mach February 18, — February 19, made major contributions to physics, philosophy, and physiological psychology. In physics, the speed of sound bears his name, as he was the first to systematically study super-sonic motion. He also made important contributions to understanding the Doppler effect.

His critique of Newtonian ideas of absolute space and time were an inspiration to the young Einstein, who credited Mach as being the philosophical forerunner of relativity theory. His systematic skepticism of the old physics was similarly important to a generation of young German physicists. In philosophy, he is best known for his influence upon the Vienna Circle a predecessor of which was named the Ernst Mach Verein , for his famous anti-metaphysical attitude which developed into the verifiability theory of meaning , for his anti-realist stance in opposition to atomism, and in general for his positivist-empiricist approach to epistemology.

It is important to note that some of these influences are currently being re-examined, and are now thought to be both more tenuous and more complicated than was once assumed. He was also an important historian of science, and occupied the Chair for the Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences at the University of Vienna. Although previous philosophers had commented on science and many scientists had influenced philosophy, Mach more than anyone else bridged the divide; he is a founder of the philosophy of science.

In psychology, he studied the relationship of our sensations to external stimuli. Space, time, color, sound, once the domain of physics, were now also being studied by psychologists and conceived of as not only the stuff of the physical external world but also the elements of our inner experience.

Psychologists today regard him as a founder of Gestalt theory as well as the discoverer of neural inhibition. Importantly, although in the twentieth century he was better known to philosophers for his influence upon physics and the philosophy of physics, it was psychology that was the primary driving force behind his philosophy of science.

In his later years , Mach was appointed to the Austrian Parliament, where he was known as a reformer. His intellectual influence amongst leftists was so great that Lenin wrote a book, Materialism and Empirico-Criticism, criticizing Machian anti-materialism. Mach was a naturalist and a monist, as well as an anti-materialist in the sense of being an anti-mechanist.

The connection between naturalism and materialism is an important one for Mach. Naturalism, in its simplest sense, is the doctrine that there is nothing beyond nature, not even the organic or mental, and evolution is thus generally a crucial component of it.

The materialism of the mechanical philosophy is the further view that this nature consists of matter in motion, and in particular that psychic phenomena can be reduced to matter in motion. Mach is part of the empiricist tradition, but he also believed in something like a priori truths.

But it is a biologized a priori : what is a priori to an individual organism was a posteriori to its ancestors; not only does the a priori pre-form experience, but the a priori is itself formed from experience.

It was simultaneously the contradiction and confirmation of Kantian epistemology. In as much as Kant used the a priori to explain how knowledge is possible, Mach uses the knowledge of the new sciences to explain how an a priori is possible. One more patch of philosophy, it was thought, yielded to science.

It has its roots in the belief that knowledge is a product of evolution, that our senses, minds, and cultures have an evolutionary history. It was simple experience to which early organisms responded, and it was out of simple experiences that the first images of the world were constructed. These constructions became a priori , allowing new and more complicated understandings, and so forth. This process is in a sense repeated in development; individual development begins through a process of the interaction of simple sensations with those innate capacities formed in our ancestors.

Out of this, more complex understandings arise; the process continues. Science furthers this biological process by bringing our primitive conceptions into contact with new environments, thus causing mental adaptation.

The one and same process unites all features of activity in nature: the adaptation of early life to primordial environments and the adaptation of modern science to new data are unified under the principle of experience forcing adaptation in memory. He is not in the least a traditional empiricist. However, this tells us little, as positivism is really a collection of traditions, connected often by misunderstandings as much as by actual intellectual agreement.

Furthermore, the word today has come to mean something so far removed from its nineteenth century origins as to be practically harmful in understanding the how it was used in the nineteenth century. Comte was a Positivist. Mach, too, was a Positivist, but Mach probably has more in common with Husserl than Comte, and certainly more in common with James. Mach is not a phenomenalist under normal uses of this term, but this certainly requires investigation.

This was clearly meant as a methodological suggestion, arising out of the way he thought physics could best respond to the challenges presented to it by the life sciences.

Thirdly, he writes that his ideas were the same as Avenarius who had approached questions of the relationship between the psychical and the physical from a physicalistic perspective. Although Mach undoubtedly adopts a sensationalist basis, this foundation is not crucial for Mach. He recognizes the possibility of other foundations:. Experimental psychology had just been founded. Mach was part of the first generation of physiological psychologists that thought they had broken through the primeval walls dividing the physical from the mental.

They thought they had solved this ancient problem through a scientific, monistic unification. The physical was characterized by its ability to be quantified: it was part of science. Now, the realm of Geist was falling under the same methods used so successfully in physics.

Following the pioneering work of Fechner, they had measured sensation and found that the relationship of external stimulus to inner response followed mathematical law.

Fueled further by developments in evolutionary theory, their optimism soared, perhaps a bit too high. As so often happens in periods of scientific optimism, these new discoveries called for a philosophy in which they would be at home. Mach not only took up this challenge, but as a physicist also applied the results of this tradition to the categories of physics. Modern psychologists regard Mach as the forerunner of the idea of neural nets in perception. He discovered that the eye has a mind of its own; we perceive not direct stimuli but relations of stimuli.

The visual system operates through a process of continual adaptation of the present sensation to previous ones. Furthermore, from an evolutionary perspective, it was necessary that this relational nature of perception be so. What were once thought of as errors of the brain, Mach showed to be adaptations. His argument is brilliant and he is cited even today in psychology textbooks for these contributions.

Furthermore, his work in physiology influenced his epistemology. If we perceive not things directly but contrasts of things, then the world is a biological construction formed through the process of our nervous system adapting to new sensations.

Representationalist theories of perception, which posit a direct correspondence between appearance and reality, become untenable. Mach is also considered by Gestalt theorists to be one of their forerunners. These ideas arose in the context of his research on Mach bands where he realized that the mind and senses actively contribute to sensation.

The Analysis of Sensations is full of examples of this sort; its central concern is to understand the dynamic relation between our cognitive structure and experience. Our cognitive structure is itself formed through previous experience, and our current experience is structured by it in turn. Mach was born in Moravia on Feb 18, In his family moved to a farm in Untersiebenbrunn, Lower Austria. He studied physics at the University of Vienna from to , continuing on as a lecturer until After spending three years as Professor of Mathematics at Graz, he received a Chair at Prague where he stayed until He suffered a stroke in and retired in He died near Munich in Mach attended an Austrian Gymnasium in Moravia, graduating at seventeen, entering the University of Vienna as a student of mathematics and physics in , and matriculating in After graduation, he stayed in Vienna as a privat dozent , supporting himself through giving lectures paid for directly by students which means he made very little money.

It was in these years at Vienna that Mach began his interest in physiology. Although his degree was in physics, Mach enrolled as a student of the Medical Faculty, taking 22 hours of classes in physiology, chemistry, and anatomy. During the next years in Vienna, he also taught classes in psychophysics and a class entitled Die Principien der Mechanik und mechanischen Physik in ihrer historischen Entwicklung , which possibly marks the start of his interest in the history of science though we do not know the actual contents of the lectures.

In , Christian Doppler noticed that sound changes in frequency as a source moves toward and away from an observer. By he had generalized this to include all wave phenomena, including light. Mach devised a simple apparatus that demonstrated that the Doppler effect was real, at least for sound. A six-foot tube with a whistle at one end was mounted so as to rotate in a vertical plane. When the listener stood in the plane of the axis of rotation no changes in pitch could be heard.

But if the observer stood in the plane of rotation, fluctuations in pitch that corresponded to the speed of rotation could be heard. As his interests shifted to physiology and psychology, the mechanical models remained, but the atomism became less important.

Eventually, the mechanical approach to physiology gave way to an evolutionary approach, and as the mechanical approach lost ground here atomism did as well. Mach makes little mention of Herbart in his later writings; for instance, only two brief references are made to Herbart in Analysis of Sensations , both in the context of reflections on his intellectual development.

In Mach received an appointment in mathematics at Graz. For the first time he had the money and freedom to carry out his own experiments. In he exchanged his math chair for one in physics.

While at Graz he had personal contact with Fechner and carried out his important work on Mach Bands. It was in this work that Mach first made use of evolutionary theory. He returned to this work twenty years later, after further developing his own ideas. In Mach went to Prague as a professor of physics. He stayed in Prague for twenty-eight years, until , whereupon he returned to Vienna.

It was in Prague that his mature thought developed. Since the speed of sound varies with the density of the medium it is traveling through, Mach numbers are not absolute quantities but relational ones.

In the late s developments in gun and artillery technology produced projectiles that traveled faster than sound vibrations. In warring European powers had signed The St.

Various theories over their cause were put forward, leading Mach to investigate. By Mach had worked out the details of supersonic motion, along the way developing high-speed photographic techniques. Whereas a generation before, there existed only one truly mature science, physics, by the early s both psychology and biology had entered the scientific scene. Previously, scientifically based views on reality were essentially Newtonian-mechanistic.

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Ernst Mach

Ernst Mach: Physicist and Philosopher pp Cite as. But most of us have seen only one, or — at most — only a very few of the many facets of his work. Physiologists who study the history of their subject know about the Mach-Breuer-Brown theory of the function of the semicircular canals in the labyrinth of the internal ear. Psychologists working in the field of visual sensation and perception are familiar with the contrast phenomenon known as Mach bands.


Analysis of Sensations: Works in the Philosophy of Science 1830-1914

The ratio of one's speed to that of sound is named the Mach number in his honour. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and American pragmatism. His grandfather, Wenzl Lanhaus, an administrator of the Chirlitz estate, was also master builder of the streets there. His activities in that field later influenced the theoretical work of Ernst Mach.

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