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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/July 1913/Gustav Theodor Fechner



SOMEWHERE Huxley says that certain men are counted great because they represent the actuality of their own age and mirror it as it is.

Such a one was Voltaire, of whom it was said that he expressed everybody's thoughts better than anybody. But there are other men who are great because they embody the potentiality of their own day and magically reflect the future.

In both of these respects Gustav Theodor Fechner was one of the greatest men of his age and perhaps, as not a few psychologists feel, one of the greatest in the history of science.

But in reflecting the tendencies of his age Fechner's influence was less like that of a mirror than of a many-sided prism which bends and reflects light in all directions, sending it out tinged by the action of the medium through which it has passed. There are few divisions of the domain cultivated by natural science in the first half of the nineteenth century over which Fechner did not pass, and there are few on which he did not leave the imprint of his originality. In the second edition of the "Elements of Psychophysics," a work in which Fechner laid the foundations and built somewhat of the superstructure of the present science of psychology, the editor, Wundt of Leipzig, has appended a list of Fechner's published writings. Excluding editions other than the first, and including translations of physical and chemical works which with Fechner usually meant critical revisions, the list comprises 124 titles, and a classification of these under the headings of nonsensical, humorous, literary, chemical, physical, psychological, esthetic, statistical, physiological, encyclopædic, logical and philosophical, would perhaps more than anything else give a representative idea of Fechner's almost unparalleled many-sidedness.

His first published works were an inverted reflection of his university career as a student of medicine. The condition of medical study in the first quarter of the nineteenth century may be inferred from Fechner's objections to entering a profession in which he had taken his degree; although qualified by the examination to practise medicine, he remarks:

I could neither open a blood vessel, apply a bandage nor perform the simplest obstetrical operation.

Accordingly, the first use he makes of his medical knowledge is to satirize, in the main, with kindly humor, the medical disciplines, especially the materia medica, of his own day. For the medicine of that time was still in the bonds of authority, it still harked back to Galen and Hippocrates, though, as Fechner remarked, it had become what its adherents called so "rational" in its methods, that had Hippocrates himself come up for a medical degree, he would have "fallen through" as not knowing Greek and as being unacquainted with the "Hippocratic method."

These first publications of Fechner appeared under the pseudonym of Dr. Mises—a nom de plume which he used for many years in connection with what he perhaps thought were the Fliegende Blätter of his scientific and literary activity. But in whatever he published—literary criticism, riddle books, psychological investigations or philosophical treatises—Dr. Mises is always a co-worker. In his last controversial writing, "On the Principles of Psychological Measurement and Weber's Law," a subject with about as much affinity for the humorous as a table of logarithms, it is Dr. Mises who begins the article with a quotation from Wieland:

Noch einmal sattelt mir den Hippogryphen Ihr Musen
Zum Ritt ins alte romantische Land,

and so he goes on to say,

I once more saddle—and probably with my 86 years, it is for the last time
—my war-horse for a ride into the romance land of Psychophysics.

It was indeed his last ride, for that volume of Wundt's "Philosophic Studies," which contains this article, also contains the funeral oration which Wundt delivered over Fechner's bier on the twentyseventh of November, 1887.

But it is in the philosophical writings especially that it is at times not easy to distinguish between Dr. Mises and Fechner the philosopher, and it is the infusion of something dangerously akin to humor in the unconventional treatment of philosophic questions no less than a curious tendency towards a practical mysticism which made the cut and dried philosophers of Fechner's day shake their heads doubtfully at this philosophy which moreover was attached to no school and sprang from no accredited system.

It is perhaps not to be gainsaid that the fanciful Naturphilosophie of the early part of the nineteenth century for many years tinged faintly Fechner's speculative views, but it was too arbitrary in its methods and too vague in its conclusions to radically affect or infect a mind so incredibly ready as was Fechner's to submit its problems to the test of experiment. At any rate we find that in 1824 Fechner had undertaken the first of those translations of French physical and chemical text-books which busied him not a little in this period of his career. The work translated was Biot's "Traité de Physique," and the budding scientist sagely questions

If the Oken-Schelling Philosophy could have shown anything of that fine scientific correlation of optical phenomena which Biot presented with so much clearness.

What were the requirements for a lectureship in physics at Leipzig in the year of grace 1824, the writer can not say, but in that year, aged 23, Fechner began lecturing on that subject, his published work up to that time consisting of two essays by Dr. Mises, a cram-book of physiology and a text-book of logic for school use. But whatever Fechners qualifications when he took the lectureship, he speedily became a skillful experimentalist and investigator. It was a time when the scattered observations in electricity and magnetism were beginning to be bound up into connected theory. In 1824 Oersted discovered the attraction of the galvanic current for the magnet; it was in this decade that Faraday was making his classical researches on the action of induced electric currents and that Ohm announced the famous law of electric force which bears his name. Into this broad and rapid scientific movement Fechner threw himself with all his tireless zeal, and excluding his translations of French chemical and physical works, published in the period between 1828 and 1848 no less than 21 investigations on electricity and magnetism, devoted mostly to testing the laws and theories of the electric current, especially the fundamental facts underlying the great law of Ohm. The generous equipment of ingenious apparatus, which we are wont to find in German laboratories, was wanting in Fechner's day, so that he had in these investigations to patch out his equipment at his own expense and often with home-made devices, but "despite these drawbacks," says his biographer, Kurd Lassowitz, himself a physicist, he succeeded," through skillful and careful arrangements of his measurements, together with his tireless industry, in obtaining results of surprising accuracy, and Wundt testifies that, even to-day, Fechner's measurements of the galvanic battery may be safely commended to any one looking for a model of logical method in the domain of natural science.

But beside the electrical investigations, his activity in other kinds of work was unceasing; a bulky Haus Lexikon in 8 volumes, of which he wrote fully a third, a pharmaceutical journal, of which he was at once editor and chief contributor, so-called translations of which he was as much author as translator, text-books in physics and chemistry—his literary and scientific output in this period alone would have insured him no small amount of space in any future Haus or Konversations-Lexikon of his fatherland.

But the load was too heavy for him to carry, and the straw, or rather bale, which finally broke him down was the bulky Hauslexikon. In 1840 after premonitory symptoms of an overstrained nervous system, a three years' illness set in of so depressing, perhaps so desperate a character, that few could have weathered it and retained their reason. His illness was partly physical, a distaste for food, and partly mental, a distaste for work—the more alarming symptom in a man of Fechner's natural activity—together with an inability to control the course of his ideas or even to distinguish between the real and the imaginary. Added to these evils there developed such a supersensitiveness of the eyes that for almost three years Fechner had to live in darkness. Without means and without earning power, tortured by physical pain, sitting in darkness, anticipating total blindness and perhaps insanity, it is small wonder that his thoughts turned again and again to suicide as the only source of escape from his woes. That Fechner did not put an end to his life is perhaps due to certain traits which were his, by right of inheritance from his father—an almost ideal representative of the highminded, conscientious German village pastor—to wit, a keen sense of duty and a tough energy of will which set themselves against the unbridled flight of illusionary ideas. He wrote:

For almost a year I struggled the greater part of each day to banish these ideas from my thoughts, and-while this exercise served aa a distraction, it waa of the most painful nature that it was possible to conceive.

Few could have passed through an ordeal like this and have retained reason, and no one unchanged in his views of what makes life worth living; and so, when Fechner took up academic work again it was not with lectures on molar and molecular forces but with discourses on subjects of ethics, of psychophysics and of esthetics; "from the physicist had come forth the philosopher." But while his lectures were comparatively few in number and given seemingly as a quid pro quo for the 850 Thalers of salary allowed him yearly by the government during his illness, there was no falling off in his pristine zeal in speculation or industry in investigation.

Among Fechner's earliest writings, for which he made Dr. Mises sponsor, was a satire on the methods of reasoning of the natural philosophy of his day, entitled "The Comparative Anatomy of the Angels." Applying, for example, the much-used doctrine of continuity, he finds that the angels, as the highest and most perfect of created beings, can have no legs, for, "beginning with the lowest animals, we see the scolopenders have, God knows how many legs "; next above them come the butterflies and beetles with six; mammals have four; birds, which resemble angels in their free movement through space, together with human beings, who, by their own account are half animal, half angel, have but two. At each step towards angelism two legs disappear, with the step from man upwards all legs must have gone; ergo, angels have no legs. But this also follows a priori: for as the most perfect of created beings, angels have the most perfect shape, which is acknowledged to be the sphere with its perfect legless symmetry. Again passing along in ascending order the series of sense organs of human beings, we go from crude mechanical touch and pressure up through taste, smell and sight, to the refinement of vision which is capable of reaction at measureless distances. From this and many other chains of ingenious reasoning Dr. Mises concluded that the eye is the propotype of the angel in form and function, and by other reasoning, equally ingenious, he finds that the planets are conscious beings, to wit, angels. In the "Zend Avesta," published in Fechner's fiftieth year, the jest of Dr. Misses has become a matter of serious earnest. The earth is a higher being, possessed of higher consciousness, the vehicle itself of human consciousness and the connecting link between man and God. Similarly the remaining planets are conscious beings, while, at the other end of the scale of existence, the planets also have consciousness.

Now looking at such utterances, as they stand by themselves, one would naturally suppose physicist had disappeared in the mystic, and that the laboratory had given place to the oracle. But if this was the madness of mysticism, there still remained signs that the old Fechnerian spirit was still alive, for in the succeeding year we find him engaged in counting the steps of men and women passing by his house to serve as material for a statistical study on the ratio of the masculine to the feminine steps, published by the Saxon Academy of Sciences. As a matter of fact the coming of the "Zend Avesta" had been foreshadowed sometime before Fechner's illness in a little work entitled, "Das Büchlein des Lebens nach dem Tode," dedicated to the daughters of a dear friend who had passed away. The little book is rather a message of comfort than a didactic sermon, but in the doctrine that the soul after death becomes diffused into the general consciousness of nature we have the seed that later developed into the remarkable system of Fechner's metaphysics.

But if consciousness is a general attribute of nature it must be shared by plants, and so we find that the first work written by Fechner after his illness was the "Nana or The Conscious Life of Plants," necessary prolegomena to the "Zend Avesta." When the greater part of Thoreau's Week on the "Concord and Merrimac Rivers" had been turned over to him by the publishers as a waste product, Thoreau is reported to have said he had a library of about a thousand volumes, over 900 of which he had written himself. Almost a like fate awaited Fechner's publications of this period and for reasons that are obvious; the physicists could but shake their heads at a colleague who had given up his exact investigations in order to urge the phantastic tliesis of plant consciousness and the professional philosophers of that time were unable to reconcile the author of the psychophysics with the seer of the "Zendavesta."

But it was perhaps less the difference in value that he placed on the subjects of metaphysical speculation, than the different way in which he approached them that separates Fechner from the idealist of the early nineteenth century. Believing no less absolutely than Hegel, that the reality of the world must accord with what is reasonable, he saw clearly that this reality could not be deduced by dialectics, but that it must be worked out as one works out final questions in physics, namely, by generalization and by analogy. In other words the metaphysics of Fechner was an inductive metaphysics or "Metaphysik von Unten," as he enjoyed terming it, and as a philosophy of this kind must change with progress in positive science, it becomes a scientific philosophy, so that in this respect Fechner is the precursor of Lotze and Wundt. But it was chiefly with the weapon of analogy that Fechner attacked the problem of the ultimate nature of the cosmic world, and if in the history of philosophy, this logical weapon had ever before been used with such subtlety, such precision and with such bewildering variety of application the writer is unaware of it. The profusion of arguments in behalf of the thesis that plants have mental processes that differ in degree but not in kind from that of animals is overpowering and in many points unassailable, save by a fine old crusted prejudice against the doctrine in general, and whoever takes up the "Zend Avesta" with the expectation of finding there a mystic blend of "confusion, illusion and illation," will be speedily undeceived by the opening chapters which bear a closer resemblance to Newton's "Principia" than to the book of Revelations.

He asks, for example, that the scientific notion of force be extended from inorganic to organic matter, from physics to biology. For force in the scientific sense is not an immanent power residing in bodies by means of which they pull or push one another, but it is a simple phenomenon of motion, and is measured by rate of change of motion. Instead of saying "Here is a force at work" one should rather say "Here is a law of nature." This applies no less to growth of the cell than to atomic attraction and repulsion; to explain organic motion by an innate power of adaptation is logically as wrong as to attribute to the sun an innate gravitative force. In the case of combustion we have only to consider the direct interaction of the particles of the bodies present, but in organic bodies we have an extraordinary close and complicated combination of parts into a unity, so that the necessary change of the separate parts can only be determined with relation to the entire system.

The writer gives this not in any way as the beginning of an explanation of Fechner's metaphysics which would lead one far beyond the scope and limits on this paper, but merely as an illustration of the kind of argument to be met with in the "Zend Avesta," and to indicate how far removed in its methods was the "Philosophic von Unten" from the systematic philosophy of the time, even as its source—the deeply religious turn of Fechner's nature had little place among the conventional philosophizing motives.

Incidentally it may be said that the publication of Fechner of a little volume of riddles in rhythm for children between the appearance of the "Zend Avesta" and the work on the plant soul may throw some light on the failure of the professorial absolute idealist to understand the nature of the versatile founder of the "Philosophie von Unten."

But the year 1848 was a very unfavorable one in Germany for the reception of a new philosophy, particularly for a philosophy to which it was so tempting to attach the tag of mysticism. The German folk, wearied with the pretensions and dialectics of the rationalistic philosophers, aroused by vital questions of constitutional government and interested in the vigorous growth of natural science, had no time to waste on such questions as the mentality of plants and planets; the shallow materialism of Vogt and Büchner seemed to fall in easily with current theories of physical science; as a verbal proposition it seemed much easier to understand the statement that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile, than to work out Fechner's involved, if keen, reason in regard to the seat of the soul. And so the "Zend Avesta" rested quietly with the "Nana" on the book shelves of the publishers. But in no wise discouraged, Fechner once more attacked the question of the parallelism of soul and body as a special problem "von unten auf," and in 1859 published the famous treatise on psychophysics.

The motive for this work was to determine, if possible, exact relations existing between the mental acts, the "psyche," and the accompanying physical process, or, in short, to determine quantitative relations existing between mind and body. Considering the general disbelief in regard to the possibility of such determinations, which had been summed up by Kant in the dictum that psychology could never become a science because it could never be treated mathematically, Fechner's plan might reasonably be termed bold. But when one thinks of the practical difficulties of the undertaking that Fechner had to create new scientific concepts and name them, that he had to create and develop totally new methods of investigation and that he had to invent new apparatus or apply old to totally new uses, it might seem as if Fechner had passed from the region of the improbable to that of the impossible.

The occasion for the psychophysics was a simple investigation on our discriminative sensibility for lines and weights, made by the physiologist E. H. Weber, one of the "seven sages of Göttingen." Weber simply states that we have the power to distinguish between the lengths of two lines which are to each other as 39 to 40 and between weights with a ratio of 20 to 30. Moreover, these ratios are general, holding for centimeters or inches, and for pounds or ounces. Taking up these hints, Fechner ransacked the choir of heaven and the furniture of earth to see if this general relation which, with characteristic modesty, he called Weber's law, did not hold true for all kinds of impressions, for sounds, for colors, lights, temperature, short intervals of time; he even questioned if it did not hold for our feelings; in short, if it was not a fundamental law of human activity. With characteristic thoroughness he launched forth into new seas of experimentation. He tells us:

For several years I considered it a daily task to experiment about an hour for the purpose of testing Weber's Law and for elaborating new methods of research.

This daily task consisted in "hefting" and comparing pairs of small weights, in analyzing out the multifarious factors involved in judgments of likeness or difference and in noting the results. In so far as Weber's law is concerned it can not be said that the outcome of this vast accumulation of data is decisive, but so far as regards the working out of psychophysical methods of measurement, the experimentation was extraordinarily fertile. For the development of the Fechnerian methods meant that Fechner had founded a new science and reared somewhat of its superstructure in a domain whose only uniformity seemed boundless variability, and that later psychology has failed to find either the universality or the exactness in Weber's law which Fechner hoped to show is assuredly a matter of small importance in comparison with the birth of a quantitative psychology.

In the latter part of the treatise Fechner passes over to discuss what he calls "Inner Psychophysics," and here we strike a mine of acute and subtle psychological observations on sleep and dreams, on hallucination and illusions, on memory and after-images from which most writers of text-books and no small number of investigators up to the present day have "lifted" no small amount of ore. Taken as a whole, from the first remarkable chapter, remarkable at that day, on the conservation of force, through the mathematical treatment of methods of "mental measurement" up to the final discussion of psychophysical motion, the "Psychophysik" is a work which in the library of science one need not fear to place on the same shelf with the "Origin of Species."

If the importance of a work is to be measured by the number and repute of its critics, Fechner had no longer any cause for feeling that his theories were of no significance to the learned world, for among the cloud of witnesses who rose up to testify against the "Psychophysik" we find the names of v. Helmholtz, Hering and Mach, and later Wundt and G. E. Müller of Göttingen. Indeed so acute and penetrating was the criticism of Müller, that Fechner was obliged to defend himself in a new work entitled "Revision of the Main Points of Psychophysics." Later on he wrote a sort of omnibus reply to all his critics and up to the very year of his death he carried on the psychophysical war with unabated vigor. His last extensive article, written in his eighty-sixth year, was on "Weber's Law," and Wundt's judgment on it is that it was the clearest and most perfect presentation of the subject which Fechner had given in the course of his forty years work in psychophysics.

The seeming hopelessness of psychology as an exact science lies in the perplexing multiplicity of the variable factors perturbing every attempt to determine facts and laws—errors of memory, errors of observation, errors of contrast and expectation, the brood of errors hatched by the changing rhythms of attention—and it was to devise ways of sifting out these errors that Fechner for years devoted his tireless ingenuity. But a satisfactory treatment of such conditions means the accumulation of large numbers of observations, which in turn calls for statistical handling of the materials gathered. Here again Fechner's genius found a fresh field to cultivate, for in endeavoring to see if some general principles were not at work in shaping what may be broadly called esthetic proportions, such as those of picture frames, visiting cards, decorative crosses and the like, he found that these classes of objects varied in their dimensions like the variations in the sizes of races of men, species of animals, like variations in temperature and rainfall and countless other objects in art and nature termed by Fechner "Collective Objects," "Collective Gegenstnde." Mathematical analysis of the data in this field resulted in the formulation of a branch of statistics or applied mathematics which has become exceedingly useful in working out biological problems. Nor did he rest here; keenly interested in art (he contributed five articles to the cause célèbre of the genuineness of the Holbein Madonna, Dresden vs. Darmstadt), he followed up his investigation on simple esthetic proportions with a general investigation on esthetic laws carried out in the spirit of the psychophysics "von unten auf" by observation and by experiment. And here be it said that if there is any trait of Fechner which amazes a student of his work more than aught else, it is his incredible ingenuity in applying experimentation to problems where no one dreamed that experiment could be applied. "Well!" Kurz und gut." In his seventy-first year he published the "Vorschule der Aesthetik" in two volumes and therewith created the science of experimental esthetics—the third and last distinctive product of his creative genius. His last published work was a clever and witty critique of the Mendel Fountain in Leipzig.


What has so far been set down here got itself delivered substantially as it stands, some eleven years ago, on the occasion of the centennial of Fechner's birth. Since that time the tide of Fechner's fame has swollen until it has overflowed into the German popular magazines. The "Zend Avesta" has passed into the third edition, the soul-question has been born again with no less than Friedric Paulsen as accoucheur. Ebbinghaus lias dedicated to Fechner's memory his classical treatise on psycliology, and Möbius, the neurologist of Leipzig, has commemorated him in a volume of medical essays. Külpe, the philosopher and psychologist of Bonn, has been unwearied in critical appreciation of Fechner's achievements, and William James, who twenty-five years ago gave his official opinion that the "proper psychological outcome of Fechner's work was" just nothing," has made the amende honorable in a generously sympathetic essay in the "Pluralistic Universe." In glancing over the earlier pages of the present paper, the writer had the feeling that it resembled more a card catalogue of Fechner's publications than an appreciation of his work and works. If so, the fault lies somewhat in the faceted many-sidedness of Fechner's activities, as well as in the writer's deficiencies in power of interpretation. Perhaps the perspective of time now reaches far enough for us to view the outline of what he wrought in fairly true proportions. If so, one may say in brief that, able and ingenious physicist as he was it is doubtful if he could ever have risen to the stature of a Faraday; his philosophy will perhaps attract mainly those rare minds who, while working officially by the pale cold light of the intellect, are still prone to follow the promptings of the spirit into regions lying beyond the pale of syllogistic reasoning. His more solid and probably lasting achievements belong to the latter half of his life, to the period of the "Psychophysics" and the "Aesthetics."

As for the daily life itself, it was outwardly singularly uneventful even for a German "Gelehrter." He rarely left Leipzig, but, year in and year out, conscientiously fulfilled within its walls the duties of a public-spirited citizen. And the city responded by awarding him in his middle age an honorary citizenship, and at his death, with rare municipal good taste, erected a modest bust to his memory at the very turn of one of the winding walks in the Rosenthal where he had passed many a sunny afternoon of the long German summer days, discoursing with his friends on things that are little dreamed of by many a school philosopher. In accord with his scanty means was his dwelling in the Dresdener Strasse, fittingly called a nest; his study was furnished with a chair, a table, a stove and some bookshelves; a catalogue of the library resting on the shelves would usually indicate a stack of manuscript and a table of logarithms: sonst Nichts. Here there passed quietly away on the nineteenth day of November, 1887, almost exactly twenty-five years ago, the philosopher, the art critic, the humorist, the mathematician, the friend of children, the creative genius in science, Gustav Theodor Fechner. Verily, as Wundt said, in the funeral oration, "we shall not look upon his like again,"