Gustav Theodor Fechner

Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) was a bril- liant, complex, and unusual individual. Fechner’s father had succeeded his grandfather as village pastor and created a stir when he placed a light- ning rod atop his church. After his father died, Fechner, his brother, and his mother spent the next nine years with Fechner’s uncle, who was also a pastor. At the age of 16, Fechner began his studies in medicine at the University of Leipzig (where Weber was) and obtained his medical degree in 1822 at the age of 21. Upon receiving his medical degree, Fechner’s interest shifted from biological science to physics and mathematics. At this time, he made a meager living by translating into German certain French handbooks of phys- ics and chemistry, by tutoring, and by lecturing occasionally. Fechner was interested in the prop- erties of electric currents and in 1831 published a significant article on the topic, which established his reputation as a physicist. In 1834, when he was 33 years old, Fechner was appointed profes- sor of physics at Leipzig. Soon his interests began to turn to the problems of sensation, and by 1840 he had published articles on color vision and afterimages.

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Around 1840, Fechner had a “nervous break- down,” resigned his position at Leipzig, and became a recluse. Additionally, Fechner had been almost blinded, presumably while looking at the sun through colored glasses during his research on afterimages. At this time, Fechner entered a state of severe depression that was to last several years and that resulted in his interests turning from phys- ics to philosophy. The shift was in emphasis only, however, because throughout his adult life he was uncomfortable with materialism, which he called the “nightview”; it contrasted with the “dayview,” which emphasized mind, spirit, and consciousness. He accepted Spinoza’s double-aspect view of mind and body, and therefore believed that consciousness is as prevalent in the universe as is matter. Because he believed that consciousness cannot be sepa- rated from physical things, his position represents panpsychism; that is, all things that are physical are also conscious.

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