“Beyond the Conventional Boundaries of Physics”: On Relating Ernst Mach’s Philosophy to His Teaching and Research in the 1870s and 1880s

Richard Staley

Abstract Ernst Mach’s most well known critiques of mechanics concern mass, inertia and space and time. Conceptually motivated towards avoiding unnecessary assumptions and basing physical concepts on measured relations, they were first published in the years around 1870 (for mass and inertia) and in his well known 1883 book Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwickelung historisch-kritisch dargestellt, later translated as The Science of Mechanics: A Critical and Historical Account of its Development. Philosophical discussion of Mach’s critiques has reflected these conceptual concerns, connecting them to Mach’s account of science as the economical description of phenomena. Yet manuscript records of his teaching in the 1870s show that Mach was also animated by psychophysics and the relations between inner and outer worlds. His publications attest to these broader interests as well. In the 1870s, for example, Mach developed physiological studies of the sense of motion. Soon after completing his critical history of mechanics he took up the relations between physiology and psychology in his 1886 Beitrage zur Analyse der Empfindungen. By investigating Mach’s research across subject matter that has usually been treated separately, and integrating his teaching with his research, this chapter aims to offer a study of Mach’s philosophy as it is revealed in practice. Mach presents a highly unusual example of someone whose primary aim was to reform his own discipline of physics through the concerns of other disciplines, something he alluded to in 1886 when stating that he expected the next great enlightenments of the foundations of physics to come at the hands of biology.

R. Staley (*)

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH, UK e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

F. Stadler (ed.), Integrated History and Philosophy of Science, Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 20, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-53258-5_6

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