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Richard Heinrich Ludwig Avenarius (November 19, 1843 – August 18, 1896) was a German-Swiss philosopher. He formulated the radical positivist doctrine of "empirical criticism" or empirio-criticism.
Avenarius believed that scientific philosophy must be concerned with purely descriptive definitions of experience, which must be free of both metaphysics and materialism. His opposition to the materialist assertions of Karl Vogt resulted in an attack upon empirio-criticism by Vladimir Lenin in the latter's Materialism and Empirio-criticism.
Avenarius' principal work is the famously difficult "Kritik der reinen Erfahrung" (Critique of Pure Experience, 1888-1890) and The Human Concept of the World (1891) which influenced Ernst Mach, Ber Borochov and, William James.
To read the works of Avenarius, and especially the one mentioned above is not an easy task. His terminology presents an almost insurmountable difficulty for most students of philosophy. In spite of this, Avenarius formed a school—a small one, but composed of men devoted to his ideals. He produced a complete system of philosophy, new methods of investigation of the laws of knowledge, and consequently he grouped around him a number of students, who are working in the field which he explored. The terminology that he used was partly necessary for the denomination of the new phenomena that he pointed out, but partly resulted from the extreme care which he took to prevent all possible changes as well in physiological as in psychological theories; and in consequence of this last-named peculiarity it becomes a real burden to read his books. This was, perhaps, the chief reason why his theory did not have at once a great success. His philosophy is not to be read, but to be studied like a treatise on mathematics or physics. But any one who undertakes this hard work will be sufficiently recompensed by the enormous wealth of ideas, new perspectives and methods, which are contained in this work.
The first philosophical paper that Avenarius published was in 1868. It was an investigation of Spinoza's system: 'Uber die beiden ersten Phasen des Spinosischen Pantheismus.' From the time of his study of the system of this philosopher he maintained the tendency to seek for one single principle in the multiplicity of our experiences. This principle Avenarius believed was to be found in the laws of knowledge. Therefore, it was not an objective but a subjective principle on which he based his monism. Philosophy became for him a means to obtain 'a central position toward the world.' Therefore one strong and closed system of ideas, subordinate one to another, must necessarily result from this point of view.
His next paper, which was published in 1876, 'Philosophic als Denken der Welt, gemass dem principe des kleinsten Kraftmasses,' shows three most important developments:
1. Being brought up in the psychological theories of Herbart, he endeavors to give to the facts discovered in psychical life by Herbart a biological basis. He explains the laws of assimilation of the new groups of representations by the older ones, the laws of subordination of notions one to another, etc., by the vital processes of the organism, which processes consist in the preservation, as far as possible, of the state of equilibrium, or, in other words, in the economy of the organism.
2. The general notions being formed, according to Avenarius on the same biological principle, he considers them not as entities, but rather as means directed toward the formation of our knowledge of the world. In so far as they fulfill this purpose, they are good; when they do not serve this end, they have to be transformed to correspond to our experiences. He undertakes the analyses of some of the notions considered as most fundamental in modern philosophy, such for example, as notions of substance, matter, 'Ding an sich,' etc., and finds them constructed on a false basis and rather obstructive than helpful to the development of knowledge. The notion of movement and the notion of sensation are alone sufficient to explain all phenomena. This is a kind of objective idealism, which Avenarius afterwards abandoned for realism, conserving always his critical attitude toward the general notions and trying to find the laws of the 'natural history' of their development.
3. The most important point in this paper is the subordination of psychical phenomena, as a part of life-phenomena, to general mechanical rules. Therefore it considers the biological fact of self-preservation of living organisms within certain limits as being a case of the law of stability (Beharrungsprincip). The whole psychical life is considered by Avenarius from this point of view, namely, as a function of...