Sensory studies, or when physics was psychophysics: Ernst Mach and physics between physiology and psychology, 1860-71.

04 Jul 2018

This paper highlights the significance of sensory studies and psychophysical investigations of the relations between psychic and physical phenomena for our understanding of the development of the physics discipline, by examining aspects of research on sense perception, physiology, esthetics, and psychology in the work of Gustav Theodor Fechner, Hermann von Helmholtz, Wilhelm Wundt, and Ernst Mach between 1860 and 1871. It complements previous approaches oriented around research on vision, Fechner's psychophysics, or the founding of experimental psychology, by charting Mach's engagement with psychophysical experiments in particular. Examining Mach's study of the senses and esthetics, his changing attitudes toward the mechanical worldview and atomism, and his articulation of comparative understandings of sensual, geometrical, and physical spaces helps set Mach's emerging epistemological views in the context of his teaching and research. Mach complemented an analytic strategy focused on parallel psychic and physical dimensions of sensation, with a synthetic comparative approach - building analogies between the retina, the individual, and social life, and moving between abstract and sensual spaces. An examination of the broadly based critique that Mach articulated in his 1871 lecture on the conservation of work shows how his historical approach helped Mach cast what he now saw as a narrowly limiting emphasis on mechanics as a phase yet to be overcome.