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Hegeler Institute

FACTS AND MENTAL SYMBOLS


Author(s): Ernst Mach
Source: The Monist, Vol. 2, No. 2 (January, 1892), pp. 198-208
Published by: Hegeler Institute
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FACTSANDMENTALSYMBOLS.
from Dr.

IPERCEIVE
Vol.

I of The Monist,
a material

endeavors
important

question

answer to my letter in No. 3


Carus's
that amid all the agreement of our mutual
of

difference

exists

opinion

character.

of special

As

us

between

I was

not

on

an

successful

in

rendering my thought clear on this point, I shall endeavor on the


to explain what itwas that forced me to abandon
present occasion
my old position
a new

to assume
ion

is merely

is very near to that of Dr. Carus,

(1863), which
one.

The
and

apparent

that

supposition
can

be

adjusted

our
by

difference
a

precise

and

of opin
agreement

as to the terms employed is a very natural one in philosophical


dis
It
when
the
is hardly tenable, though,
cussions.
divergent views
arise

in question

I must

subsequently

to one

another

in the

same

person.

state, in starting, that I pursued

inmy youth physical


and philosophical
studies, particularly psychology, with equal ardor.
There was hardly the question at that time of an experimental psy
to physiological
research.
chology, of a relation of psychological
so did physics at that day think of a psychological
analysis
How
the notions of
of the notions itwas constantly employing.

No more

"body,"

"matter,"

Objects
gated.
the inviolability

"atom,"

were

etc.,

were

come

by,

was

not

investi

physicists never questioned


they unconcernedly pursued their

of which

given
and with which

labors.

research thus stood un~


The fields of physical and psychological
conciliated the one by the side of the other, each having its own par
in
ticular concepts, methods, and theories. No one questioned,

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that

deed,

two

the

way, however,

MENTAL

AND

FACTS

were

departments

appeared

SYMBOLS.

an

I99
in some

connected

insoluble

riddle ; as

The

way.

to

it yet appears

Dubois-Reymond.

although this condition of things was not such as to satisfy


my mind, it was nevertheless natural that as a student I should
seek to acquire tentatively the prevailing views of both provinces
Now

and

into

them

put

consistent

connection

the view

I thus formed provisorily


a physical and a psychological

one

with

another.

has two sides?

that Nature

If psychical life is to be har


monised at all with the theories of physics we are obliged, I thought,
to conceive of the atoms as feeling (ensouled). The various dynamic
side.

of the atoms would then represent the physical pro


phenomena
cesses, while the internal states connected therewith would be the
of psychic life. If we accept in faith and seriousness
phenomena
the atomistic speculations of the physicists and of the early psychol
ogists (on the unity of the soul),
at a half-way

to arrive

our

the artificial

conception.

to set forth at length here what a prominent


scaffolding we employ in the construction of

assumes

knowledge

monistic

supportable

It is unnecessary
place

I still see hardly any other course

in

these

monadic

theories

as

contradistin

guished from the facts that deserve knowledge, and how poorly such
As a fact, em
theories satisfy in the long run a vigorous mind.
with

ployment

this
soon

effected

very

latently

present.*

* A Greek
percussion

cumbrous
the

appearance

was

in my

of my

better

artifice

case

the means

conviction,

that
already

to whom change of spatial configuration,


pressure, and
natural
he
the
of
which
had
processes
any intimate
only
probably
theory we retain to-day, though
thought out the atomistic theory. This

were

philosopher

knowledge,
it be in a modified

in fact natural phenomena


form. And
really do exist that act
as if the pressure and impact of very small particles were involved in their produc
that admit therefore by this con
tion (the dynamical
theory of gases), phenomena
this conception,
like that of
ception of being more clearly viewed. However,
calorie^
know to-day that pressure
and impact
value only in certain fields. We
possesses
are by no means
than are for example
the phenomena
of gravi
simpler phenomena

to the motion
of
contention
that in physics everything can be reduced
than improper draft on the future.
is, taken at its best, a more
particles
to the solution of burning special ques
Utterances
of this kind afford no assistance
value as the utter
tions, but only confound, and have about the same explanatory
The

tation.

smallest

ances

of the late ph)'sical

philosophy

of Oken which

prescribe

for example

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with

the

THE

200

MONIST.

In the further progress of my physical work I soon discovered


that itwas very necessary sharply to distinguish between what we see
for example, I imagine heat
and what we mentally supply. When,
as a substance
ease

with

follow

(a fluid)
the

idea led Black,

This

same

idea

the other hand

of conduction

phenomena

compensation.

established

of a constant

Black's

and

it, to the discovery of specific


of fusion and vaporisation,
and so forth.

who

heat, of the latent heat


This

from one body into another,

that passes

quantity

successors

of heat-substance

prevented

on

no

from using their eyes.

They
every savage knows, that heat isproduced
follows
by friction. By the help of his undulatory theory Huygens
of the reflexion and refraction of light.
with ease the phenomena
the factwhich

longer mark

same theory prevents him, for he thinks solely of the longitud


inal waves with which he was familiar, from marking the fact of
polarisation which he himself discovered, but which Newton on

The

The
the other hand, undisturbed by theories, perceives at once.
on
a
at
conductors
with
distance
charged
conception of fluids acting
electricity facilitates our view of the behavior of the objects charged,
but it stood in the ivay of the discovery of the specific inductive ca
pacity, which was reserved for the eye of Faraday undimmed by
any

traditional

theories.

a division of zero-quantities
greatest ease the course of the creation of the world by
a and ? a (o= 4- a ? a).
into +
indeed appear simpler at first
The motion
of a single body as a totality does
of attempts at a physical
other
than
any
process, and this is the justification
glance

together ; the thoughts


theory. The thoughts of a single man are connected
can the processes
How
of the different parts of the
of two different men are not.
the connection
? In order to make
brain of one man be connected
very intimate,
to be psychically
in a single point,
connected
we collect everything which requires
the psychological
is not explained
Thus
the connection
by this procedure.
although

monadic

monadic
on which

theory is created on the basis


rests.
the physical

of a motive

and of an

illusion

similar

to that

for a moment

in the text; viz., that the atoms


the proposition
,x', y', z'...
of the
the space coordinates
x, y,
By
feeling.
in the atoms internal conditions
atoms are determined
a, ?, y, a', ?', y'. . ., and vice
and our physical
in
versa.
For we feel by our senses our physical
environment,
are conditioned
The
idea is then at
vasions of our environment
by our sensations.
. . .
of x, y,
hand, a ? y. . . alone being directly given, to set up by the elimination
a ? y, a' ?' y'. . . . This
latter point of view would be
directly between
equations
Let

are

us assume

endowed

very near

physical

with

to my present
considerations.

one, aside

from the fact that the latter wholly

rejects meta

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FACTS

AND

MENTAL

20I

SYMBOLS.

therefore as the conceptions may be which we men


tally (theoretically) supply in our pursuit of facts, briniging to bear,
as they do, older, richer, more general, and more familar experiences
Valuable

on facts that stand alone,


the

nevertheless,
our

own

same

thus affording us a broader field of view,

conceptions

lead

demonstrate,

experience

as

may,
us

classical

astray.

and

examples
For

theory,

in

deed, always puts in the place of a fact something different, something


more simple, which is qualified to represent it in some certain as
pect, but for the very reason that it is different does not represent it
in the place of lightHuygens mentally put
in other aspects. When
the familiar phenomenon of sound, light itself appeared to him as a
thing that he knew, but with respect to polarisation, which sound
waves lack, as a thing with which he was doubly unacquainted.
Our
theories are abstractions, which, while they place in relief thatwhich
is important for certain fixed cases, neglect almost necessarily, or
even disguise, what is important for other cases.
The law of re
fraction looks upon rays of light as homogeneous
straight lines, and
that is sufficient for the comprehension of the geometrical aspect of
the matter. But the propositions that relate to refraction will never
lead us to the fact that the rays of light are periodical, that they in
terfere. Just the contrary, the favorite and familiar conception of
a ray as a smooth straight line will rather render this discovery diffi
cult.

Only
theoretical

Then
facts,

in rare cases will the resemblance


extend

conception

the theoretical
of which

conical

further

conception
refraction,

than

may
circular

between
we

ourselves

a fact and
postulate.

lead to the discovery


polarisation,

its

and

of new
Hertz's

electric waves

that stand in opposition to those


furnish examples
as
a
But
given above.
general rule we have every reason to distin
guish sharply between our theoretical conceptions of phenomena
and that which we observe.
The former must be regarded merely
as auxiliary instruments that have been created for a definite pur
pose and which possess permanent value only with respect to that
No one will seriously imagine for a moment that a real
purpose.
circle with angles
fraction of light.

and

actually performs functions in the re


one, on the contrary, regards the formula

sines

Every

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THE

202

MONIST.

=
as a kind of geometrical model that imitates inform
sin^/sin/?
In this sense,
the refraction of light and takes itsplace in our mind.
elec
I take it, all the theoretical conceptions of physics?caloric,
molecules,

light-waves,

tricity,

atoms,

and

energy?must

be

regarded

as mere helps or expedients to facilitate our viewing things. Even


within the domain of physics itself the greatest care must be exer
to another, and
in transferring theories from one department
above all more instruction is not to be expected from a theory than

cised

the

from

facts

themselves.

to me, how
instances were not lacking that demonstrated
was
was
which
much greater the confusion
produced by the direct
transference of theories, methods, and inquiries that were legitimate
But

in physics,

into the field of psychology.


to illustrate this by a few examples.
A physicist observes an image on the retina of an excised
Allow me

eye,

that it is turned upside down with respect to the objects


imaged, and puts to himself very naturally the question, How
does a luminous point situated at the top come to be reflected on the

notices

answers this question by the aid of diop


this
If, now,
question, which is perfectly legitimate
of physics, be transferred to the domain of psychol

retina at the bottom ? He


trical studies.
in the province

The question why we see


ogy, only obscurity will be produced.
no
the inverted retina-image upright, has
meaning as a psychological
The light-sensations of the separate spots of the retina
problem.
are connected with

sensations of locality from the very beginning,


name the places
to the parts down, up.
that correspond
Such a question cannot present itself to the perceiving subject.
The
It is the same with the well-known
theory of projection.
and we

of the physicist is, to seek the luminous object-point of a


imaged on the retina of the eye in the backward prolonged

problem
point

through the point of intersection of the eye. For the


as the light-sensations
perceiving subject this problem does not exist,
of the retinal spots are connected from the beginning with determi
ray passing

The
entire theory of the psychological
space-sensations.
world by the projection of sensations out
origin of the "external"
is founded in my opinion on a mistaken transference of a
wards
nate

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FACTS

AND

MENTAL

SYMBOLS.

203

physically formulated inquiry into the province of psychology. Our


sensations of sight and touch are bound up with, are connected
with, various different sensations of space, that is to say these sen
sations have an existence by the side of one another or outside of one
another, exist in other words in a spatial field, in which our body
outside ofmy body.
fills but a part. That table is thus
self-evidently
A projection-problem
does not present itself, is neither consciously
nor

solved.

unconsciously

A physicist (Mariotte) makes the discovery that a certain spot


on the retina is blind.
to associating with every
He is accustomed
an
imaged point, and with every imaged point a sen
spatial point
do we see at the points
the question arises, What
that correspond to the blind spots, and how is the gap in the image
filled out?
If the unfounded influence of the physicist's method of
Hence

sation.

procedure on the discussion of psychological questions be excluded,


see nothing
itwill be found that no problem exists at all here. We
at the blind spots, the gap in the image is not filled out. The gap,
moreover, is not felt, for the reason that a defect of light-sensation
blind from the beginning can no more be perceived as a
s?ot
in
the
gap
image than the blindness say of the skin of the back can
at a

be

so

perceived.

I have chosen
as

render

it clear

intentionally simple and obvious

what

confusion

unnecessary

or mode

less transference of a conception


and

in one

serviceable

domain,

into

examples,

is caused

by

the

of thought which

such
care

is valid

another.

I read re
ethnographer
"This
tribe of people deeply de
cently the following sentence:
of
cannibalism."
the
itself
practise
By its side lay the
by
graded
same
an
The
book of
subject.
English
inquirer who deals with the
In the work

of a celebrated German

islanders eat
latter simply puts the question why certain South-Sea
human beings, finds out in the course of his inquiries that our own
ancestors

also

were

once

cannibals,

and

comes

to

understand

the

take in the matter?a


point of view that oc
position the Hindus
once
who
to
while
curred
my five-year-old boy
eating a piece of meat
stopped suddenly shocked and cried out, "We are cannibals to the
"
"
is a very beautiful
"Thou
shalt not eat human beings
animals !

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THE

maxim

MONIST.

of the ethnographer
lustre of unprepossession
by which we

; but

in the mouth

it sullies the calm

so gladly discover
the true inquirer. But a step further and we will say, " Man must
not be descended
from monkeys/'
"The
earth shall not rotate,"
<(Matter
not
to
fill
space," "Energy must be con
ought
everywhere
I believe that our procedure differs from that
stant," and so on.
and noble

just characterised only in degree and not in kind, when we transfer


views reached in the province of physics with the dictum of sover
eign validity into the domain of psychology, where they should be
In such cases we
tested anew with respect to their serviceability.
are subject to dogma, if not to that which is forced upon us by a
power from without like our scholastic forefathers, yet to that which
we have made

ourselves.

And what

result of research

is there that

a dogma by long habit of use, since the very skill


we
have acquired in familiar intellectual situations, deprives
which
us of the freshness and unprepossession which are so requisite in a
could not become

new

situation.

that I have set forth in general outlines the position I take,


I may be able perhaps to establish my opposition to the dualism of
feeling and motion. This dualism is to my mind an artificial and an
Now

unnecessary

one.

The

way

it has

arisen

is

to

analogous

that

in

the imaginary solutions of certain mathematical


problems
have arisen?by
the improper formulation of the questions involved.

which

In the investigation of purely physical processes we generally


employ notions so abstract that as a rule we only think cursorily or
not at all of the sensations that lie at and constitute their foundation.
Por

example, when

I establish

the fact that an electric

current of

Amp?re develops
10^ cubic centimetres oxyhydrogen gas at oQ C.
mm
and 760
mercury pressure in a minute, I am easily disposed to
attribute to the objects defined a reality wholly independent of my
sensations.

But

I am obliged in order to arrive at what I have de


the current through a circular wire having a
radius, so that the current, the intensity of terres

termined to conduct
definite measured

trial magnetism
being given, shall turn the magnetic
centre a certain angular distance out of the meridian.
sity of terrestrial magnetism must have been disclosed

needle
The

at its
inten

by a definite

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AND

FACTS

MENTAL

SYMBOLS.

205

period of vibration of a magnetic needle of measured di


mensions, known weight, and so forth. The determination of the
observed

is no

gas

oxyhydrogen

less

intricate.

The

whole

statement,

so

sim

is based upon an almost unending series of


ple in its appearance,
observations
simple sensory
(sensations), particularly so when the
observations are added that guarantee the adjustment of the appa
ratus, which may have been performed in part long before the actual
to the physicist who does
itmay easily happen
Now
experiment.
not study the psychology of his operations, that he does not (to re
verse a well-known saying) see the trees for the woods, and that he
slurs over the sensory elements at the foundation of his work. Now
I maintain, that every physical notion is nothing more than a definite
connection

and that every physical


These

C . .
by A
fact rests therefore on such a connection.

of the sensory elements which


in the

elements?elements

sense

I denote

that

no

further

resolution

has

themost ultimate building


we
that
have as yet been able to seize.

for the present been effected of them?are

stones of the physical world


research also may have a purely physical charac
Physiological
ter. I can follow the course of a physical process as it propagates
itself through a sensitive nerve to the spinal column and brain of an
and returns by various paths to the muscles of the animal,
contraction produces further events in the environment of the
I need not think, in so doing, of any feeling on the part of
animal.
the animal ; what I investigate is a purely physical object.
Very
animal
whose

is lacking, it is true, to our complete comprehension of the de


that it is all motion can
tails of this process, and the assurance

much

neither

console

me

before

nor

deceive

me

with

respect

to my

ignorance.

there was

Long
ceived that the behavior

any scientific physiology people per


of an animal confronted by physical influ

ences

is much better viewed, that is understood, by attributing to


the animal sensations like our own. To that which I see, to my sen

sations, I have to supply mentally the sensations of the animal, which


are not to be found in the province of my own sensation. This con:
trariety appears still more abrupt to the scientific inquirer who is
investigating a nervous process by the aid of colorless abstract no
tions, and is required for example to add mentally to that process

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THE

the

sensation

This

green.

MONIST.
can

last

actually

entirely novel, and we can ask ourselves


lous

from

is produced

thing

chemical

as

appear

something

how it is that this miracu


electrical

processes,

currents,

and the like.*


Psychological
analysis has taught us that this surprise is un
since
the
justified,
physicist deals with sensations in everything on
which he employs himself.
This analysis is also able to render it
to us that the mental

clear

addition

by analogy of sensations and


at the time being are not present in

complexes of sensations which


the field of sense or cannot even come

into it, is also daily practised


for example he imagines the moon an

by the physicist, as when


inert heavy mass although he cannot touch the moon but only see it.
The
totally strange character of the intellectual situation above
is therefore an illusion.

described

illusion disappears when I make observations (psycholog


on
my own person which are limited to the sensory sphere.
ically)
Before me lies the leaf of a plant.
The green (A) of the leaf is
The

united with a certain optical sensation of space (B) and sensation of


touch (C), with the visibility of the sun or the lamp ?D).
If the

yellow (E) of a sodium flame takes the place of the sun, the green
If the chlorophyl granules be re
(A) will pass into brown (E).
moved,?an

operation

ments,?the
are physical
certain

representable

like

the

preceding

one

by

ele

green (A) will pass intowhite (G). All these observations


observations.
But the green (?) is also united with a

process

on my

retina.

There

is

nothing

to prevent

me

in

* The
: To what kind of nervous processes
is
following is a legitimate question
can be solved only by
added.
the sensation green to be mentally
Such questions
inquiry, and not by a reference in a general way to motion and electric cur
special
our remaining
rents.
How disadvantageous
satisfied with such general conceptions

is, can be seen from the fact that inquirers have been repeatedly on the brink of
we have made,
the specific energies, one of the greatest acquisitions
abandoning
to discover
any difference in the currents of dif
they were unable
simply because
as early as 1863 in my lectures on psycho
I was impelled
ferent sensory nerves.

to call attention
physics
can conceal
themselves

to the fact that the most diverse

kinds of nervous

processes
in relief
and places
but one feature of the process?the
of energy though a transverse section.
passage
A current in diluted sulphuric acid is something entirely different from a current in
copper. We must therefore also expect that a current in the acoustic nerve is some
thing entirely

different

in a current.

from a current

Current

is an abstraction

in the optic nerve.

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AND

FACTS

from physically

principle
in exactly
from

same

the

MENTAL

as

cases

in the
X

207

on my own eye

this process

investigating

manner

it to its elements

reducing

SYMBOLS.

set

previously

. . . If this were

Y Z.

and

forth,

not

possible

in the case of my own eye, it might be accomplished with that of


another, and the gap filled out by analogy exactly as in physical in
in

element,

physical

The

in

Now

vestigations.

its

its

our.

to

attention

on X

dependence

C D
. . . it

Y Z

the

one

or

to

the

other

form

of

I see, therefore, no opposition of physical and psychical,


In

identity.

simply

is a

., A

is

sensation.

is not altered at all in itself, whether we di

green (A) however

rect

upon

dependence

the

sensory

of my

sphere

dependence.

no duality, but

consciousness

every

thing is at once physical and psychical.


The obscurity of this intellectual situation has arisen according
to my

conviction

session

into the domain


bodies

everywhere
sensation

of

portion

there

this

The

to physical

physicist

bodies

no

only,

it

him,

is true,

must

be

the second
is given,
which

something

sensa

from

different

;
the

from

sensation

physical

prepossession

sensations

accepts

psychologist

I find

says:

diferent

entirely

it a mysterious

prepos

physical

The

something

To
to

of

But what

Physis
pear
Or

be

declaration.

corresponds

conformably

tion.

must

of

transference

the motions

I deal with.

objects

the

of psychology.

and

therefore

physical
but

from

solely

so,
does

is it that is the really mysterious thing ? Is it the


or the Psyche ? or is it perhaps both?
It would almost ap
as

it is now

the whole

I believe
ignated
for me

they

siderations

* It

B
can

which

is the

them as mere

one

C.

latter

. . are

never
are

transitoriness
appearances

is the

all based

For
and

be

is intangible.

that

fallacious

me

the

case

that so easily

permanent

hodies.

by

their

the body
11nn f(A

and

any

con

existence.*

leads us
I have

states do not exist in nature,


permanent
pointed out that unconditioned
manences
A body
is for me the same complex
of connection
only exist.
in the same circumstances
and-touch-sensations
every time that it is placed
mination,

des

given,

away
on

circle

elements

indubitably

volatilised

in every

with

other
on

rest

of sense-perceptions
as contrasted

the

case.

immediately

afterwards
after

now

and

involved

reasoning
the

that

by A

the

to regard
repeatedly
that per
of sight
of illu

in space, temperature,
and so forth. The supposed
of
constancy
position
. . or the constancy of the
is the constancy of the union of A, B, C.
egua
B,R C.\

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the

monist.

To

the department of special research having for its subject the


sensory, physical, and psychical province which is not made super
fluous by this general orientation and which cannot be forestalled,
the

of A

relations

. ?. .

remain

only

to

be

ascertained.

This

may be expressed symbolically by saying that it is the purpose and


of the formf{A, B, C,
end of special research to find equations
. .

.)

o.

I hope with this to have designated


the point inwhich I am
in opposition to Dr. Carus, with whom I agree so much in other re
the latter fact, to regard
I am obliged, notwithstanding
spects.
as
as
this point
essential, inasmuch
my whole mode of thinking and
direction of inquiry have been changed by the view it involves, and
because, moreover, I do not believe that the difference in question
can be dissipated by any verbal explanations however exact.
This whole train of reasoning has forme simply the significance
of

orientation

negative

restrict

myself,

moreover

for

the

avoidance

intentionally

here,

of

pseudo-problems.

to the question

of

for the reason

that at the start exact special


perceptions,
will find here alone a safe basis of operations.
Ernst

research

Mach.

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sense