Gustav Fechner

Gustav Fechner

Infobox Scientist
name =Gustav Fechner
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caption =Gustav Fechner
birth_date = April 19, 1801 [Fancher, R. E. (1996). "Pioneers of psychology" (3rd Ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.]
birth_place = Muskau
death_date = November 28, 1887
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nationality = German
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field = psychology
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Gustav Theodor Fechner (April 19, 1801 – November 28, 1887), [Fancher, R. E. (1996). "Pioneers of psychology" (3rd Ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.] was a German experimental psychologist. An early pioneer in experimental psychology and founder of psychophysics, he inspired many 20th century scientists and philosophers. He is also credited to have created the formula "S = K Log I" that proved the existence of a scientific connection between the body and the mind.

He was born at Groß-Särchen, near Muskau, in Lower Lusatia, where his father was pastor. He was educated at Sorau and Dresden and at the University of Leipzig, the city in which he spent the rest of his life. In 1834 he was appointed professor of physics, but in 1839 contracted an eye disorder while studying the phenomena of color and vision, and, after much suffering, resigned. Subsequently recovering, he turned to the study of the mind and its relations with the body, giving public lectures on the subjects dealt with in his books.


Gustav Fechner published chemical and physical papers, and translated chemical works by J. B. Biot and Louis Jacques Thénard from the French language. A different but essential side of his character is seen in his poems and humorous pieces, such as the "Vergleichende Anatomie der Engel" (1825), written under the pseudonym of "Dr. Mises."

Fechner's epoch-making work was his "Elemente der Psychophysik" (1860). He starts from the monistic 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 the Weber–Fechner 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 to be immensely useful. Fechner's law implies that sensation is a logarithmic function of physical intensity, which is impossible due to the logarithm's singularity at zero; therefore, S. S. Stevens proposed the more mathematically plausible power-law relation of sensation to intensity in his famous paper entitled "To Honor Fechner and Repeal His Law."

Fechner's 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. Fechner's reasoning has been criticized on the grounds that although stimuli are composite, sensations are not. "Every sensation," says William 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."

He also studied the still-mysterious perceptual illusion of Fechner color, whereby colors are seen in a moving pattern of black and white.


Fechner, along with Wilhelm Wundt and Hermann Helmholtz is recognized as one of the founders of modern, experimental psychology. His clearest contribution was the demonstration that because the mind was susceptible to measurement and mathematical treatment, psychology had the potential to become a quantified science. Theorists such as Immanuel Kant had long stated that this was impossible, and that therefore, a science of psychology was also impossible. Fechner's psychophysics influenced Sigmund Freud, who attended Fechner's 1874 lectures in Leipzig, and the subsequent development of psychodynamics. Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari credit Fechner as the discoverer of a "differential unconscious" that offers a powerful alternative to the "conflictual unconscious" posited by Freud.

Though he had a vast influence on psychophysics, the disciples of his general philosophy were few. Among them, however, was William James, who, in 1904, wrote an admiring introduction to the English translation of Fechner's "Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode" ("Little Book of Life After Death"). Fechner's world concept was highly animistic. He felt 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 God's 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. Fechner's 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.

Fechner's position in reference to predecessors and contemporaries is not very sharply defined. He was remotely a disciple of Schelling, learnt much from Benedict de Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Johann Friedrich Herbart, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Christian Hermann Weisse, and decidedly rejected Georg Hegel and the monadism of Rudolf Hermann Lotze.


* "Praemissae ad theoriam organismi generalem" (1823).
* [Dr. Mises] "Stapelia mixta" (1824). [ Google (Harvard)]
* "Resultate der bis jetzt unternommenen Pflanzenanalysen" (1829). [ Google (Stanford)]
* "Maassbestimmungen über die galvanische Kette" (1831).
* [Dr. Mises] "Schutzmittel für die Cholera" (1832). [ Google (Harvard)] — [ Google (UWisc)]
* "Repertorium der Experimentalphysik" (1832). 3 volumes.
**Volume 1. [ Google (NYPL)] — [ Google (Oxford)]
**Volume 2. [ Google (NYPL)] — [ Google (Oxford)]
**Volume 3. [ Google (NYPL)] — [ Google (Oxford)]
* (ed.) "Das Hauslexicon. Vollständiges Handbuch praktischer Lebenskenntnisse für alle Stände" (1834-38). 8 volumes.
* "Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode" (1836). 6th ed., 1906. [ Google (Harvard)] — [ Google (NYPL)]
** (English) "On Life After Death" (1882). [ Google (Oxford)] — [ IA (UToronto)] 2nd ed., 1906. [ Google (UMich)] 3rd ed., 1914. [ IA (UIllinois)]
** (English) "The Little Book of Life After Death" (1904). [ IA (UToronto)] 1905, [ Google (UCal)] — [ IA (Ucal)] — [ IA (UToronto)]
* [Dr. Mises] "Gedichte" (1841). [ Google (Oxford)]
* "Ueber das höchste Gut" (1846). [ Google (Stanford)]
* [Dr. Mises] "Nanna oder über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen" (1848). 2nd ed., 1899. 3rd ed., 1903. [ Google (UMich)] 4th ed., 1908. [ Google (Harvard)]
* "Zend-Avesta oder über die Dinge des Himmels und des Jenseits" (1851). 3 volumes. 3rd ed., 1906. [ Google (Harvard)]
* "Ueber die physikalische und philosophische Atomenlehre" (1855). 2nd ed., 1864. [ Google (Stanford)]
* "Professor Schleiden und der Mond" (1856). [ Google (UMich)]
* "Elemente der Psychophysik" (1860). 2 volumes. Volume 1. [ Google (ULausanne)] Volume 2. [ Google (NYPL)]
* "Ueber die Seelenfrage" (1861). [ Google (NYPL)] — [ Google (UCal)] — [ Google (UMich)] 2nd ed., 1907. [ Google (Harvard)]
* "Die drei Motive und Gründe des Glaubens" (1863). [ Google (Harvard)] — [ Google (NYPL)]
* "Einige Ideen zur Schöpfungs- und Entwickelungsgeschichte der Organismen" (1873). [ Google (UMich)]
* [Dr. Mises] "Kleine Schriften" (1875). [ Google (UMich)]
* "Erinnerungen an die letzen Tage der Odlehre und ihres Urhebers" (1876). [ Google (Harvard)]
* "Vorschule der Aesthetik" (1876). 2 Volumes. [ Google (Harvard)]
* "In Sachen der Psychophysik" (1877). [ Google (Stanford)]
* "Die Tagesansicht gegenüber der Nachtansicht" (1879). [ Google (Oxford)] 2nd ed., 1904. [ Google (Stanford)]
* "Revision der Hauptpuncte der Psychophysik" (1882). [ Google (Harvard)]
*"Kollektivmasslehre" (1897). [ Google (NYPL)]


Integral Psychology by Ken Wilber
id = PMID:15171801
publication-date=2004 May
title=Fechner as a statistician.
issue=Pt 1
periodical=The British journal of mathematical and statistical psychology
doi = 10.1348/000711004849196

id = PMID:3327076
first=G T
title=My own viewpoint on mental measurement (1887). By Gustav Theodor Fechner (translation)
periodical=Psychological research

id = PMID:3327075
first=G T
title=Some thoughts on the psychophysical representation of memories (1882). By Gustav Theodor Fechner (translation)
periodical=Psychological research

id = PMID:3327074
first=G T
title=Outline of a new principle of mathematical psychology (1851). By Gustav Theodor Fechner (translation)
periodical=Psychological research

id = PMID:4917765
publication-date=1969 Dec
title= [Gustav Theodor Fechner and the psychoanalytical model concepts of Sigmund Freud. Influences and parallels]
periodical=Archiv für die gesamte Psychologie

id = PMID:11610088
first=M E
publication-date=1969 Jan
title=Gustav Fechner, Dr. Mises, and the comparative anatomy of angels.
periodical=Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences


Modern discussions

Fechner's introduction of quantitative methods into psychology is discussed by
* Heidelberger, M. (2001) Gustav Theodor Fechner, "Statisticians of the Centuries" (ed. C. C. Heyde and E. Seneta) pp. 142-147. New York: Springer.

* Stephen M Stigler. "The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty before 1900", Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1986. pp. 242-254.

The standard intellectual biography of Fechner and his work in English is
*Michael Heidelberger. "Nature From Within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his Psychophysical Worldview" Trans. Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.

External links

* Works of [ Gustav Theodor Fechner] at Projekt Gutenberg-DE. (German)
* Excerpt from [ "Elements of Psychophysics"] from the Classics in the History of Psychology website.
* Robert H. Wozniak’s [ Introduction to "Elemente der Psychophysik".]
* [ Biography, bibliography and digitized sources] in the Virtual Laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

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