Ernst Mach


next level

Ernst Mach is considered both a physicist and presensationalist philosopher, but in his own mind he thought of himself as only a physicist. Pursuing the concept that all knowledge originates with sensation, Mach has been influential in both scientific and philosophical thought. Born in Moravia on February 18, 1838, he studied at the University of Vienna and went on to teach mechanics and physics there until 1864. He then became a professor of mathematics at the University of Graz. It was there that he began to develop his ideas about psychology and the physiology of sensation. Mach left Graz in 1867 to become a professor of experimental physics at Charles University in Prague. Mach ended his career in Vienna, serving as Professor of Inductive Philosophy from 1895-1901.

Over the course of his career, Mach’s ideas were both influential and controversial. Himself influenced by the likes of Berkeley, Hume and Kant; Mach sought to push basic modern physics as a presensationalist epistemology. He pursued rigorous scientific methodology, impressing his contemporaries with his epistemological assumptions. Mach was also one of the pioneering figures of Gestalt phenomena. Late in his service at Prague he wrote Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations, thus proving his positivist view of science. He surmised that scientific investigation can only be understood by thorough observation, as phenomena cannot be analyzed without such experiences or sensations. Mach held that nothing in science can be postulated that is not empirically verifiable. This led him to reject metaphysical concepts such as absolute space and time, as well as incorporating atoms and molecules into physical theory. His strong adherence to these ideas brought him into many contests and philosophical wars with many of his contemporaries including Carl Stumpf, Max Planck, and Vladimir Lenin.

The range of Mach’s influence on the intellectual community was profound. Although he stirred up criticism from fellow physicists such as Ludwig Boltzmann, he also affected many writers in the Viennese circles. Arthur Schnitzler looked at how Mach’s theories could be understood in a social context in his play, La Ronde, and Robert Musil wrote his dissertation on Mach’s theoretical ideas. Though he greatly influenced Albert Einstein, paving the way for his theory of relativity, Mach remains a relatively unknown thinker. Currently, most people know him only for the term "Mach I or II", which became a popular expression for airplanes breaking the sound barrier. When Mach died of heart disease in February of 1916, he left behind an interesting body of work and ideas that have remained with us over the years, even if Mach himself has been lost to obscurity.

-Christina Weber