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The Critical Positivism Of Mach And Avenarius
The influences of Hume and of Comte were also manifest in important developments in German positivism, just prior to World War I. The outstanding representatives of this school were Ernst Mach—a philosophical critic of the physics of Isaac Newton, an original thinker as a physicist, and a historian of mechanics, thermodynamics, and optics—and Richard Avenarius, founder of a philosophy known as empiriocriticism.

Mach, in the introductory chapter of his book Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (1886; Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations), reviving Humean antimetaphysics, contended that all factual knowledge consists of a conceptual organization and elaboration of what is given in the elements—i.e., in the data of immediate experience. Very much in keeping with the spirit of Comte, he repudiated the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant. For Mach, the most objectionable feature in Kant’s philosophy was the doctrine of the Dinge an sich—i.e., of the “thing in itself”—the ultimate entities underlying phenomena, which Kant had declared to be absolutely unknowable though they must nevertheless be conceived as partial causes of human perceptions. By contrast, Hermann von Helmholtz, a wide-ranging scientist and philosopher and one of the great minds of the 19th century, held that the theoretical entities of physics are, precisely, the things-in-themselves—a view which, though generally empiricist, was thus clearly opposed to positivist doctrine. Theories and theoretical concepts, according to positivist understanding, were merely instruments of prediction. From one set of observable data, theories formed a bridge over which the investigator could pass to another set of observable data. Positivists generally maintained that theories might come and go, whereas the facts of observation and their empirical regularities constituted a firm ground from which scientific reasoning could start and to which it must always return in order to test its validity. In consequence, most positivists were reluctant to call theories true or false but preferred to consider them merely as more or less useful.