Gustav Theodor Fechner

FECHNER, GUSTAV THEODOR (1801-1887), German experimental psychologist, was born on the 19th of April 1801 at Gross-Sgrchen, near Muskau, in Lower Lusatia, where his father was pastor. He was educated at Sorau and Dresden and at the university of Leipzig, in which city he spent the rest of his life. In 1834 he was appointed professor of physics, but ill 1839 contracted an affection of the eyes while studying the phenomena of color and vision, and, after much suffering, resigned. Subsequently recovering, he turned to the study of mind and the relations between body and mind, giving public lectures on the subjects of which his books treat. He died at Leipzig on the x8th of November 1887. Among his works may be mentioned:

Das Bchlein vom Leben nach dein Tode (1836, 5th ed., 1903), which has been translated into English; Nanna, oder ber das Seelenleben der Pftanzen (1848, 3rd ed., 5903); Zendavestab oder ber die Dinge des flimmeis und des Jenseits (1851, 2nd ed. by Lasswitz, 1901); Uber die physikalische und philosophische Atomenlehre (1853, 2nd ed., 1864); Elemente der Psychophysik (2860, 2nd ed., 1889); Vorschule der Asthetik (1876, 2nd ed., 1898); Die Tagesansicht gegenuber der Nachtansicht (1879). He also published chemical and physical papers, and translated chemicalworks by J. B. Biot and L. J. Thnard from the French. A different but essential side of his character is seen in his poems and humorous pieces, such as the Vergleichende Anatomic der Engel (1825), written under the pseudonym of Dr Mises. Fechners epoch-making work was his Elemente der Psychophysik (1860). He starts from the Spinozistic thought that bodily facts and conscious facts, though not reducible one to the other, are different sides of one reality. His originality lies in trying to discover an exact mathematical relation between them. The most famous outcome of his inquiries is the law known as Webers or Fechners law which may be expressed as follows: In order that the intensity of a sensation may increase in arithmetical progression, the stimulus must increase in geometrical progression. Though holding good within certain limits only, the law has been found immensely useful. Unfortunately, from the tenable theory that the intensity of a sensation increases by definite additions of stimulus, Fechner was led on to postulate a unit of sensation, so that any sensation s might be regarded as composed of n units. Sensations, he argued, thus being represeiitable by numbers, psychology may become an exact science, susceptible of mathematical treatment. His general formula for getting at the number of units in any sensation is s = c log R, where S stands for the sensation, R for the stimulus numerically estimated, and c for a constant that must be separately determined by experiment in each particular order of sensibility. This reasoning of Fechners has given rise to a great mass of controversy, but the fundamental mistake in it is simple. Though stimuli are composite, sensations are not. Every sensation, says Professor James, presents itself as an indivisible unit; and it is quite impossible to read any clear meaning into the notion that they are masses of units combined. Still, the idea of the exact measurement of sensation has been a fruitful one, and mainly through his influence on Wundt, Fechner was the father of that new psychology of laboratories which investigates human faculties with the aid of exact scientific apparatus. Though he has had a vast influence in this special department, the disciples of his general philosophy are few. His world-conception is highly animistic. He feels the thrill of life everywhere, in plants, earth, stars, the total universe. Man stands midway between the souls of plants and the souls of stars, who are angels. God, the soul of the universe, must be conceived as having an existence analogous to men. Natural laws are just the modes of the unfolding of Gods perfection. In his last work Fechner, aged but full of hope, contrasts this joyous daylight view of the world with the dead, dreary night view of materialism. Fechners work in aesthetics is also important. He conducted experiments to show that certain abstract forms and proportions are naturally pleasing to our senses, and gave some new illustrations of the working of aesthetic association. Fechners position in reference to predecessors and contemporaries is not very sharply defined. He was remotely a disciple of Schelling, learnt much from Herbart and Weisse, and decidedly rejected Hegel and the monadism of Lotze.

See V. Wundt, G. Th. Fechner (Leipzig, 1901); A. Elsas, Zum Andenken G. Th. Fechners, in Grenzbote, 1888; J. E. Kuntze, G. Th. Fechner (Leipzig, 1892); Karl Lasswitz, G. Th. Fec/seer (Stuttgart, 1896 and 1902); E. B. Titchener, Experimental Psychology (New York, - 1905); G. F. Stout, Manual of Psychology (1898), bk. ii. ch. vii.; R. Falckenberg, Hist. of Mod. Phil. (Eng. trans., 1895), pp. 601 foIl.; H. Hoffding, Hist, of Mod. Phil. (Eng. trans., 1900), vol. ii. pp. 524 foll.; Liebe, Fechners Mctaphysik, im Umr!ss dargestellt (1903). (H. ST.)

The 1911 Encyclopedia

Revised 9 June 2005