Avenarius, Richard (1843–96)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2023, from

Article Summary

Richard Avenarius, a German philosopher, is known as a proponent of ‘empiriocriticism’ and the principle of economy of thinking. Empiriocriticism is a modern version of empiricism which attempts to restore the concept of the natural world and ‘pure experience’ through the elimination of ‘introjection’, understood as an insertion of redundant or distorted ideas and images into the objects of our knowledge. Avenarius traced back the origin of introjection to the cultural stages dominated by magic and mythology, yet his criticism applied also to traditional philosophy and science. His position is usually classified as a version of positivism, closely resembling the empiricist doctrine of Ernst Mach. Although his influence on some members of the Vienna Circle, especially Moritz Schlick, was considerable, the impact of his contribution has been hampered by his idiosyncratic use of language, especially in his masterpiece Kritik der reinen Erfahrung (The Critique of Pure Experience) (1888–90).

Avenarius was born in Paris, where his father owned a German publishing house. However, he spent his formative years in Leipzig and Berlin and received his Ph.D. in 1868 for a dissertation concerned with aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy. Avenarius’ Habilitationsschrift, presented in Leipzig under the title Philosophie als Denken der Welt gemäss dem Prinzip des kleinsten Kraftmasses (Philosophy as Thinking of the World in Accordance with the Principle of the Least Amount of Energy Expenditure) (1876), contributed to his fame and facilitated his appointment as Professor for Inductive Philosophy in Zurich, Switzerland. Avenarius held this position until his untimely death in 1896. During this period he published his significant works: Kritik der reinen Erfahrung (The Critique of Pure Experience) (1888–90) and Der menschliche Weltbegriff (The Human Concept of the World) (1891). In 1877 Avenarius founded an important philosophical journal, Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie (A Quarterly for Scientific Philosophy), which he edited until his death. Perhaps the most famous of his disciples is Joseph Petzoldt, who edited posthumous editions of Avenarius’ works.

Avenarius combines his version of empiriocriticism with the concept of the natural world which he wanted to restore. His method comes very close to Husserl’s phenomenological technique of pure description (see Husserl, E.). ‘Findings’ (phenomena) are the point of departure for such pure description, and they encompass environmental components including the bodies of other persons. To distinguish human persons from other environmental components, Avenarius employs a linguistically founded hypothesis amounting to the interpretation of certain movements and sounds of fellow humans as statements. Accordingly, the endorsement of the natural concept of the world assumes that fellow human beings are not mere thoughtless and emotionless mechanisms. This principle offers then an opportunity to treat the empirical (verifiable) content of human knowledge through an appropriate analysis of meaningful statement-components – a very modern method indeed. Avenarius underscores another basic interpretative principle of empiriocriticism: the ‘democratic’ supposition of ‘human equality’. This principle enables him to make short-cut inferences (by analogy) to similar experiences in other persons, as long as their statement-contents are meaningfully interpreted by the observer. It is through the contents of statements made by other persons that the so-called E-values are recognized; the E-values are then divided into ‘elements’ (for example, ‘green’, ‘warm’ and so on) and ‘characters’ (such as ‘pleasant’, ‘ugly’ and so on). It seems that Avenarius anticipates here the distinction between cognitive and noncognitive (emotive) constituents of statements, so dear to the later positivists. The E-values ultimately depend on the environmental components – on the so-called R-values (for example, trees, rivers, the sun). These are the things within the natural environment which a person (called M) finds as ‘given’ – the ‘independent factors’ of the first kind. Among the environmental components one must further distinguish the physical bodies of other persons, for whom Avenarius reserves the symbol T. His empiriocritical triad MRT symbolizes the presence and relationship between these three factors. The dependence of the E-values on the R-values is mediated by the brain and the entire central nervous system of the person in question. This empirical system C is then regarded as the ‘independent factor’ of the second kind. Impressed by the optimistic results of neurophysiology in his time, Avenarius strongly emphasizes this system C. He assumes that there is an obvious dependence relation between an E-value (say, of the person M) and some change in the person’s system C, symbolized by Δ. The complete account of these dependencies yields the following:


We read this: a certain environmental component R is affecting the body of the person M and further, through the proper nervous channels, the brain of the person M who then produces the respective E-value (expressed in statements). In Kritik der reinen Erfahrung Avenarius offers the following explanation: ‘In every case, in which E is regarded as dependent upon R, E is taken as immediately dependent upon a change of C (1888–90: 1, 80). Yet the indirect dependence relation of EM upon R is treated by Avenarius as a purely logical functional relation, in accord with his positivistic rejection of causality. Avenarius undertook a grandiose programme of biological reductionism, supported by his principle of economy of energy expenditure: the limited amount of energy possessed by human organisms should not be wasted beyond necessity. Actively or passively, the human organism (governed by its system C) participates in a multitude of processes which are arranged into time-dependent ‘vital series’ of two basic types: independent and dependent. Avenarius characterizes the vital preservation maximum of an organism as the equality of its partial systematic factors:


In this equation, the sum of environmental factors R equals the (negatively prefixed) sum of the bodily factors S. Variations in these interactions are responsible for a variety of ‘vital differences’ expressed in inequalities. The organism tends to reduce or eliminate such differences if they weaken its preservation value. Allegedly, the system C of the organism is setting up an idealized goal of perfect vital series and it affects variations of the actual vital series in this direction.

This biologically founded teleological doctrine is related to Avenarius’ rejection of ‘introjection’ as an unwarranted insertion of something which distorts the purity of the original experience. Avenarius believed that the elimination of introjection will lead to restoration or ‘restitution’ of the natural concept of the world, with beneficial results for human knowledge and action. His ideals of ‘pure experience’ demanded the rejection of any philosophical dualism and a positivistic revision of traditional metaphysical beliefs. Thus he got close to the ‘neutral monism’ of Ernst Mach (§4), William James (§6) or the early Bertrand Russell (§13) (see Neutral monism). In the Preface to Kritik der reinen Erfahrung, Avenarius programmatically declared his intention to go directly to things as such (‘an die Sachen anzuknüpfen’), thus foreshadowing the later goals of Husserl and Heidegger.

Citing this article:
Riska, Augustin. Avenarius, Richard (1843–96), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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