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Mach, Ernst (1838–1916)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Mach was an Austrian physicist and philosopher. Though not one of the great philosophers, he was tremendously influential in the development of ‘scientific philosophy’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A vigorous opponent of ‘metaphysics’, he was celebrated as a progenitor of logical positivism. His work is regarded as a limiting case of pure empiricism; he stands between the empiricism of Hume and J.S. Mill, and that of the Vienna Circle.

Mach’s positivist conception of science saw its aims as descriptive and predictive; explanation is downgraded. Scientific laws and theories are economical means of describing phenomena. Theories that refer to unobservable entities – including atomic theory – may impede inquiry. They should be eliminated where possible in favour of theories involving ‘direct descriptions’ of phenomena. Mach claimed to be a scientist, not a philosopher, but the ‘Machian philosophy’ was ‘neutral monism’. Close to phenomenalism, it saw the world as functionally related complexes of sensations, and aspired to anti-metaphysical neutrality.

Citing this article:
Hamilton, Andy. Mach, Ernst (1838–1916), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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