(1) In a narrow sense, the philosophical ideas of the Austrian physicist and philosopher E. Mach.
(2) In a broad sense, a subjective-idealist current in the philosophy and methodology of science, elaborated in the early 20th century by Mach, R. Avenarius (Switzerland), and their students, as well as by K. Pearson in Great Britain and P. Duhem in France. In some respects the philosophical views of H. Poincare (France) and W. Ostwald (Germany) resemble Machism. Machism is a variant of positivism. In Russia its followers included V. Chernov, P. lushkevich, V. Bazarov, and A. Bogdanov, who attempted to “reconcile” Marxism with Machism. V. I. Lenin’s classic Materialism and Empiriocriticism gave a comprehensive critique of Machism.
Although the basic theoretical principles of Machism were elaborated almost simultaneously and independently by Mach and Avenarius, the spread of Machism is associated with the work of Mach because his works were written as an immediate response to the crisis of classical mechanics. Mach claimed that he could explain this crisis and propose a solution.
The basis of Mach’s subjective-idealist doctrine is his theory of economy of thought and his ideal of “purely descriptive” science. “If the principle of economy of thought is really made ’the basis of the theory of knowledge,’ it can lead to nothing but subjective idealism. It is more ’economical’ to ’think’ that only I and my sensations exist” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, pp. 175-76). Mach declared that economy of thought was the primary characteristic of knowledge in general, resulting from the organism’s fundamental biological need for self-preservation, which according to Mach, requires the organism to “adapt” to facts. Avenarius expressed the same idea in his “principle of the least expenditure of energy.” Mach’s thesis that science should aim at description is based on the principle of economy of thought. For Mach, explanation is superfluous and parasitic in mature science and must be eliminated in order to achieve economy of thought. Mach considers one such parasitic element to be the concept of causality, which he discards together with the mechanistic interpretation of causality. In their place he proposes the concept of the functional dependence of characteristics of phenomena.
Mach attempted to apply the methodological principles of economy of thought and pure description to the theory of knowledge. His criticism of the Newtonian concepts of mass and absolute space was linked with his philosophical thesis that both the concept of substance and object and the problem of the relationship of substance to its properties are mere thought. The idea that concepts must be defined through observable data led Mach to identify basic “elements,” which are immediately perceptible and which constitute the basis of all knowledge inasmuch as they are the limit to which empirical experience can be reduced. The concept of the object and the concept of the self are merely arbitrary names for complexes of elements, or sensations.
Lenin showed the subjective-idealist nature of Mach’s theory of elements. Mach’s “overcoming” of the dualism of mind and body was later taken up and developed by many “realistic” trends in modern bourgeois philosophy, including “neutral monism” and new realism. Mach’s and Avenarius’ criticism of the substantialist concept of the self and the soul influenced the American philosopher W. James in his criticism of the concept of consciousness and through James the new realists and the development of the philosophical principles of behaviorism.
V. I. Lenin sharply criticized Mach, his views on the role of the “philosophy of contemporary natural science,” and his attempt to take a nonpartisan attitude toward materialism and idealism (Ibid., p. 38).
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Bogdanov, A. A. Empiriomonizm, books 1-3. Moscow, 1904-06.
Duhem, P. Fizicheskaia teoriia. St. Petersburg, 1910.
Pearson, K. Grammatika nauki St. Petersburg [no date].
Blonskii, P. P. Sovremennaia filosofiia, part 1. Moscow, 1918. Pages 20-36,48-112.
Bakradze, K. S. Ocherki po istorii noveishei i sovremennoi burzhuaznoi filosofii. Tbilisi, 1960. Pages 56-123.
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V. A. LEKTORSKII