Working with Instruments: Ernst Mach as Material Epistemologist, a Short Introduction.

Research paper by Christoph C Hoffmann, Alexandre A Métraux

Indexed on: 13 Jan '17Published on: 13 Jan '17Published in: Science in context


With the death of Ernst Mach on February 19, 1916, one day after his seventy-eighth birthday, a question finally became explicit that had been looming for some time. It was as simple as it was fundamental: who, in the end, was this man, a scientist or a philosopher? The importance of this question for contemporaries can easily be gleaned from the obituaries that appeared in the weeks following Mach's death: one in the Physikalische Zeitschrift, written by Albert Einstein, and another in the Archiv für die Geschichte der Philosophie, written by Mach's former student Heinrich Gomperz. They both addressed this critical issue in plain words. Einstein stressed that Mach "was not a philosopher who chose the natural sciences as the object of his speculation, but a many-sided, interested, diligent scientist who also took visible pleasure in detailed questions outside the burning issues of general interest" (Einstein 1916, 104; translation cited in Blackmore 1992, 158). Gomperz in turn first emphasized the great loss science had experienced with Mach's death, asking subsequently whether "the suffering science is physics or philosophy?" (Gomperz 1916, 321). His answer broadly followed Einstein's conclusion; relying on Mach's own words, he reminded his readers that Mach never claimed to be a philosopher, but merely was looking for a viewpoint that transcended the disciplinary constraints of particular scientific activities.