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Accepted paper:

Between the commonplace and the cosmic: Ernst Mach's relational geographies of mass, time, space and self


Richard Staley (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the role of the deliberately commonplace in Ernst Mach's critical approach to the geographies/cosmographies of mass and self, showing how his methodological commitments to psychophysics underwrote his much better known treatment of the relativities of time and space.

Paper long abstract:

Ernst Mach's work was foundational for the development of relativistic approaches to space and time from Einstein and other physicists, and this is usually related to his positivist insistence on measurable relations and seen as an attack on Newtonian absolutes. Returning to Mach's early work in the 1860s and 70s to better understand his famous 1880s books on mechanics and sensations, this paper explores the significance of two other aspects that Mach drew from the psychophysical endeavour to relate the inner and the outer that had been pioneered by Gustav Fechner. The first was Mach's deliberate pursuit of methodological inversions of perspective, which meant that his lectures on the critical problems of physics began with the poetry of Schiller, and that he questioned the significance of boundaries to the soul (relating self and environment) as well as to mass (relating the inertial motion of the earth to the presence of the stars). The second was his systematic attempt to relate commonplace thought and the sciences in an epistemological approach that denied mechanistic foundations in favour of economic description, and sought evidence in the insights of mothers and home economics as well as in the experimental apparatus of the laboratory sciences. Understanding Mach's work better will help show how relativity could be deliberately commonplace philosophically as well as sharply critical of everyday assumptions about the nature of mass, time, space and self. It also suggests fruitful relations between physics and anthropology mediated by psychophysics and descriptive explanatory economies of the sciences.

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Commonplace relativities of geography, anthropology and physics in the fin de si├Ęcle