Gustav Theodor Fechner Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Fechner is widely regarded as the founder of psychophysics, or the science of the mind-body relation, and as a pioneer in experimental psychology. His most important contributions are a number of quantitative methods for measuring absolute and differential thresholds that are still employed by psychologists to study sensitivity to stimulation.

Early Life

Gustav Theodor Fechner was born in the village of Gross-Särchen, near Halle in southeastern Germany, the second of five children of Samuel Traugott Fechner and Johanna Dorothea Fischer Fechner. His father was a progressive Lutheran preacher, who is said to have astounded the local villagers by mounting a lightning rod on the church tower and by adopting the unorthodox practice of preaching without a wig. Although he died when Gustav was only five years old, already the young Fechner was infused with his father’s fierce intellectual independence and his passion for the human spirit.

Fechner attended the Gymnasium at Soran, near Dresden, and was matriculated in medicine at the University of Leipzig in 1817. He was not a model student, opting to read on his own rather than attend lectures. During this period, Fechner became disenchanted with establishment views: He professed atheism and was never able to complete the doctorate which would have entitled him to practice medicine. His studies were not a waste of time, however, since he began composing satires on medicine and the materialism which flourished in Germany during this period. Some fourteen satirical works were published by Fechner under the pseudonym “Dr. Mises” between 1821 and 1876.

In 1824, Fechner began to lecture on physics and mathematics at the University of Leipzig without any remuneration. Translating scientific treatises from French into German (about a dozen volumes in six years), although onerous work, helped him to make a living. He managed to publish numerous scientific papers during this period, and a particularly important paper on quantitative measurements of direct currents finally secured for him an appointment with a substantial salary as professor of physics in 1834.

This period marked the happiest time in Fechner’s life. The year before his appointment, he had married Clara Volkmann, the sister of a colleague at the university. The security of a permanent position and marital bliss did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for hard work; an enviable social life was simply incorporated into his already cramped schedule. Evenings at the local symphony conducted by Felix Mendelssohn were regular events to which, on occasion, the Fechners were accompanied by Robert and Clara Schumann, his niece by marriage.

Fechner’s idyllic life was shattered in 1839 by an illness that forced him to resign his position at the university. At first, he experienced partial blindness caused by gazing at the sun through colored glasses as part of a series of experiments on colors and afterimages; depression, severe headaches, and loss of appetite soon followed. For three years, Fechner sheltered himself in a darkened room, and his promising career seemed to be over. One day, however, he wandered into his garden and removed the bandages that had adorned his eyes since the onset of his illness. He reported that his vision not only was restored but also was more powerful than before because he could now experience the souls of flowers. After the initial trauma of restored eyesight faded, Fechner recovered with a revitalized religious consciousness. It was this newfound awareness of the importance of the human spirit that marked the beginning of Fechner’s mature period.

Life’s Work

The focal point of Fechner’s work was a deep-seated antipathy toward materialism, or the view that nothing exists except for matter and its modifications. His first volley against materialism was the enigmatic Nanna: Oder, Über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen (1848; Nanna, or the soul life of plants), which advanced the notion that even plants have a mental life. Three years later, his Zend-Avesta: Oder, Über die Dinge des Himmels und des Jenseits (1851; Zend-Avesta: On the Things of Heaven and the Hereafter, 1882) proclaimed a new gospel based on the notion that the entire material universe is consciously animated and alive in every particular. The phenomenal world explored by physics, Fechner asserted, is merely the form in which inner experiences appear to one another. Since consciousness and the physical world are coeternal aspects of the same reality, materialism (or what Fechner referred to as the “night view”) must be repudiated because it examines the universe in only one of its aspects.

More pertinent, Fechner submitted that his...

(The entire section is 1967 words.)