Avenarius, Richard (1843–1896)

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Richard Avenarius, the German positivist philosopher, was born in Paris. He studied at the University of Leipzig, where he became a Privatdozent in philosophy in 1876. The following year he was appointed professor of philosophy at Zürich, where he taught until his death. His most influential work was the two-volume Kritik der reinen Erfahrung (18881890), which won him such followers as Joseph Petzoldt and such opponents as Vladimir Il'ich Lenin.

Avenarius was the founder of empiriocriticism, an epistemological theory according to which the task of philosophy is to develop a "natural concept of the world" based on "pure experience." To obtain such a coherent, consistent view of the world requires a positivistic restriction to that which is directly given by pure perception, together with the elimination of all metaphysical ingredients which man, through introjection, imports into experience in the act of knowing.

There is a close kinship between the ideas of Avenarius and those of Ernst Mach, especially as set forth in Mach's Analyse der Empfindungen. The two men never became personally acquainted, and they developed their points of view quite independently of one another; hence, it was only gradually that they became convinced of the profound agreement of their basic conceptions. They held the same fundamental view on the relationship between physical and mental phenomena, as well as on the significance of the principle of the "economy of thought." Above all, both were persuaded that pure experience must be recognized as the sole admissibleand thoroughly adequatesource of knowledge. Thus, the elimination of introjection by Avenarius is only a special form of that total elimination of the metaphysical which Mach sought.

In addition to Petzoldt and Lenin, others who dealt at length with the philosophy of Avenarius were Wilhelm Schuppe and Wilhelm Wundt. While Schuppe, the philosopher of immanence, agreed with Avenarius on essential points, Wundt criticized the scholastic character of Avenarius's expositions and sought to point out internal contradictions in his doctrines.


The two presuppositions of empiriocriticism are the empiriocritical axiom of the contents of cognition and the axiom of the forms of cognition. The first axiom states that the cognitive contents of all philosophical views of the world are merely modifications of the original assumption that every human being initially assumes himself to be confronted with an environment and with other human beings who make assertions and are dependent on the environment. The second axiom holds that scientific knowledge does not possess any forms and means essentially different from those of prescientific knowledge and that all the forms and means of knowledge in the special sciences are extensions of the prescientific (Kritik der reinen Erfahrung, Vol. I, Preface).

Especially characteristic of Avenarius' theory of human cognition was his biological approach. From this biological point of view, every process of knowledge is to be interpreted as a vital function, and only as such can it be understood. Avenarius' interest was directed chiefly to the pervasive relations of dependency between individuals and their surroundings, and he described these relations in an original terminology involving many symbols.

The point of departure for his investigations was the "natural" assumption of a "principal coordination" between self and environment, in consequence of which each individual finds himself facing both an environment with various component parts and other individuals who make assertions about this environment which also express a "finding." The initial principal coordination thus consists in the existence of a "central term" (the individual) and "opposite terms" about which he makes assertions. The encountering individual is represented and centralized in system C (the central nervous system, the cerebrum), the basic biological processes of which are nourishment and work.

System C is exposed to change in two ways; changes in it are dependent on two "partial-systematic factors": variations in the environment (R ) or stimuli from the external world (whatever can, as a stimulus, excite a nerve), and fluctuations in metabolism (S ), or absorption of food (whatever in the environment of system C conditions and constitutes its metabolism). System C constantly strives for a vital maximum conservation of its strength (V ), a state of rest in which the mutually opposed processes ƒ(R ) and ƒ(S )that is, the variations of system C as functions of R and S cancel each other out, and the two variations maintain an equilibrium (ƒ(R ) + ƒ(S ) = 0, or Σƒ(R ) + Σƒ(S ) = 0). If ƒ(R ) + ƒ(S ) > 0, then there arises in the state of rest or equilibrium state of system C a disturbance, a relationship of tension, "a vital difference." The system strives to diminish or cancel out and equalize this disturbance by passing over spontaneously to secondary reactions in order to reestablish its original state (the conservation maximum, or V ). These secondary reactions to deviations from V or to physiological fluctuations in system C are the so-called independent vital sequences (the vital functions in system C, the physiological processes in the brain), which run their course in three phases: the initial segment (appearance of the vital difference), the middle segment, and the final segment (reappearance of the earlier state). The canceling out of a vital difference is possible, of course, only in the manner and to the extent that system C exhibits a readiness for it. Among the changes preparatory to achieving readiness are hereditary dispositions, developmental factors, pathological variations, practice or exercise, and the like. The "dependent vital sequences" (experiences, or E -values) are functionally conditioned by the independent vital sequences. The dependent vital sequences, which, like the independent, proceed in three stages (pressure, work, release), are the conscious processes and cognitions ("assertions about contents"). For example, an instance of knowledge is present if in the initial segment the characterization reads "unknown" and in the final segment it reads "known."

Avenarius sought to explain the rise and disappearance of problems in general as follows. A disparity can arise between the stimulation from the environment and the energy at the disposal of the individual either (a ) because the stimulation is strengthened as a result of the individual's having found anomalies, exceptions, or contradictions in the given, or (b ) because an excess of energy is present. In the first case, problems arise that can, under favorable circumstances, be solved by knowledge; in the second case, practical-idealist goals arise. The latter are the positing of ideals and values (for example, ethical or aesthetic ideals and values), the testing of them (that is, the forming of new ones), and through them the alteration of the given.

The E -values, which depend on the fluctuations in the energy of system C, fall into two classes. The first are "elements," or simple contents of assertionscontents of sensation, such as green, hot, and sour, which depend on the objects of sensation or stimuli (whereby the "things" of experience are understood as nothing more than "complexes of elements"). The second are "characters," the subjective reactions to sensations, or the feelinglike modes of apprehension. Three groups of basic characters (kinds of awareness) are distinguished: the "affective," the "adaptive," and the "prevailing." Among the affective characters are the feelings proper (the "affectional," pleasure and aversion) and the feelings in a figurative sense (the "coaffectional," such as anxiety and relief, and the "virtual," such as feelings of movement). The adaptive characters include the "identical" (sameness or "tautote," difference or "heterote"); that is, the "fidential," the "existential" (being, appearance, nonbeing), the "secural" (certainty, uncertainty), and the "notal" (the being known, the being unknown), together with many modifications of these. For example, modifications of the "idential" include, among others, generality, law, whole, and part.

Pure Experience and the World

Avenarius constructed the concept of pure experience and related it to his theory of the natural concept of the world on the basis of his views on the biology and psychology of knowledge. The ideal of a natural concept of the world of pure experience is fulfilled in the complete elimination of metaphysical categories and of dualistic interpretations of reality, by means of his exclusion of introjection. The basic prerequisite for this is first to acknowledge the fundamental equivalence of everything that is encountered and that can be grasped, regardless of whether it is given through external or internal experience. As a consequence of the empiriocritical principal coordination between self and environment, individuals and environment are encountered in the same fashion, without distinction. "With respect to givenness, I and the environment are on completely the same footing. I come to know the environment in exactly the same sense that I come to know myselfas members of a single experience; and in every experience that is realized the two experience-values, the self and the environment, are in principle coordinated to each other and equivalent" (Der menschliche Weltbegriff ).

Likewise, the difference between R -values and E -values is conditional upon the mode of apprehension. Both values are equally accessible to description. They differ only in that the former are interpreted as constituents of the environment, while the latter are conceived of as the content of an assertion of another human individual. In the same way, there is no ontological distinction between the mental and the physical; rather, there is a logical functional relation between them. A process is mental insofar as it is dependent on a change in system C and has more than mechanical significance, that is, insofar as it signifies an experience. Psychology has no separate subject matter at its disposal; it is nothing other than the study of experience insofar as experience is dependent on system C. Avenarius rejected the usual interpretation of and distinction between mind and body. He recognized neither the mental nor the physical but only a single kind of being.

Economy of Thought

Of particular importance for the realization of the cognitive ideal of pure experience and for the notion of the natural concept of the world is the principle of the economy of thought. In the same way that thinking in conformity with the principle of least exertion is the root of the theoretical process of abstraction, so knowledge generally orients itself by the degree of exertion required to fulfill experience. Hence, one should exclude all elements of the mental image that are not contained in the given, in order to think about that which is encountered in experience with the least possible expenditure of energy, and thus to arrive at a pure experience. Experience, "cleansed of all adulterating additions," contains nothing but constituents of experience that presuppose constituents of the environment only. Whatever is not pure experience, and thus is not the content of an assertion (an E -value) subject to the environment itself, is to be eliminated. What we term "experience" (or "existing things") stands in a certain relationship of dependence to system C and to the environment; and experience is pure when it is cleansed of all those contents of assertions that do not depend on the environment.

A world concept relates to the "sum total of the constituents of the environment" and is dependent on the final character of the C -system. It is natural if it avoids the error of introjection and is not falsified by animistic "insertions." Introjection transfers the perceptual object into the perceiving person. It splits our natural world into inner and outer, subject and object, mind and matter. This is the origin of metaphysical problems (like immortality and the mind-body problem) and metaphysical categories (like substance). All of these must therefore be eliminated. Introjection, with its unwarranted duplication of reality, must be replaced by the empiriocritical principal coordination and the natural concept of the world that rests on it. Thus, at the end of its development the world concept returns to that natural form with which it began: a purely descriptive comprehension of the world, with the least expenditure of energy.

See also Cognitive Science; Experience; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Mach, Ernst; Petzoldt, Joseph; Schuppe, Ernst Julius Wilhelm; Wundt, Wilhelm.


works by avenarius

Philosophie als Denken der Welt gemäss dem Prinzip des kleinsten Kraftmasses. Prolegomena zu einer Kritik der reinen Erfahrung ("Philosophy as Thinking of the World in Accordance with the Principle of the Least Amount of Energy. Prolegomena to a Critique of Pure Experience"). Leipzig: R. Reisland, 1876.

Kritik der reinen Erfahrung ("Critique of Pure Experience"), 2 vols. Leipzig: R. Reisland, 18881890.

Der menschliche Weltbegriff ("The Human Concept of the World"). Leipzig: R. Reisland, 1891.

works on avenarius

Ewald, Oskar. Richard Avenarius als Begründer des Empiriokritizimus. Berlin, 1905.

Lenin, V. I. Materializm i Empiriokritizism. Moscow, 1909. Translated as Materialism and Empirio-criticism. New York: International Publishers, 1927.

Raab, Friedrich. Die Philosophie von Richard Avenarius. Leipzig: Meiner, 1912.

Schuppe, Wilhelm. "Die Bestätigung des naiven Realismus." Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 17 (1893): 364388.

Suter, Jules. Die Philosophie von Richard Avenarius. Zürich, 1910.

Wundt, Wilhelm. "Über naiven und kritischen Realismus." Philosophische Studien 12 (1896): 307408, and 13 (1897): 1105 and 323433.

Franz Austeda (1967)

Translated by Albert E. Blumberg