The Doctors of Soul: Gustav Fechner

The Doctors of Soul: Gustav Fechner

Gustav Fechner

I thought I had ended my Doctors of Soul series, but I keep coming across remarkable individuals like Gustav Fechner who have contributed so much to modern depth psychology. Therefore, from time to time, I’ll post another installment in the series. I have other subjects in mind for future articles. For instance, one must say something about Henry Corbin. As James Hillman said there are “even more branches which have yet to be traced” (Hillman xvii) in the ancestry of psychology.

Gustav Theodor Fechner was born in 1801 in Groß Särchen, a village in western Poland, Fechner rose to prominence in the nineteenth century as a brilliant philosopher, physicist, and experimental psychologist. He was the founder of psychophysics, the quantitative investigation of “the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they affect” (Wikipedia). He was not born to wealth, but his father was a respected pastor who raised him to be religious. He was educated at Sorau in western Poland, Medizinisch-Chirurgische Akademie in Dresden, where he studied medicine, and at the University of Leipzig. In 1834, he was made professor of physics at the University of Leipzig. He remained in the city of Leipzig until his death in 1887.

Becoming disillusioned with his medical studies, in 1820 Fechner discovered the thinking of Lorenz Oken, and then later, Friedrich Schelling. These thinkers were focusing their energies on Naturphilosophie, the philosophy of nature. Prior to this, Fechner’s studies in medicine had convinced him the world was merely “a set of mechanical workings” (qtd. in Heidelberger 22), thus bringing him to an atheistic worldview. The revelation of the philosophy of nature revolutionized his thinking at that time. Michael Heidelberger, in his book on Fechner, comments,

It is important to keep in mind that…Fechner interpreted his conversion to philosophy of nature indirectly as alienation from inanimate mechanism and materialism and returning to religious notions, perhaps even as recapturing the religion of his youth on a higher level (Heidelberger 22).

The kind of maverick thinking that brought about a religious-like conversion in Fechner is voiced by Schelling in these famous words:

Nature is to be visible mind (Geist), mind invisible nature. Here, therefore, in the absolute identity of the mind in us and the nature outside us, the problem of how a nature outside ourselves is possible must dissolve (qtd. in Bowie 39).

Also, there are these thoughts from Oken, which were in tune with Fechner’s fecund mind:

The philosophy of nature is the science of God’s own eternal transformation within the world. It must show the stages of development of the world from its beginning in primeval nothingness; it must show how the heavenly bodies and elements originated, how these rose to a higher level and eventually became organic and developed into reason in mankind (qtd. in  Heidelberger 23).

In 1823, Fechner earned his master’s degree, which was much like today’s doctoral degree. He was granted the right to teach. He planned to give lectures on Oken’s and Schelling’s ideas. Fechner was convinced that Naturphilosophie was the correct intellectual path to trod, but it was short-lived. Before too long, Fechner grew weary of the philosophy of nature. In his zeal to find answers, the quest metamorphosed into

a struggle I had always contained within myself that denied me satisfaction in my endeavors. I believed myself to be headed in the right direction, but never reached a sure goal. I racked my brain from dawn to dusk and sometimes on into the night searching for solid ground, but I was never happy with what I accomplished (qtd. in Heidelberger 26).

Eventually, Fechner abandoned working in Naturphilosophie. Partly out of financial necessity, he turned to writing and translating to secure a decent income. He wrote on logic and physiology, and translated French science books. Because of his excellent work in translating French scientific texts into German, Fechner brought new scientific methodologies to the German-speaking world, thereby reforming physics. He was granted the chair of physics at the University of Leipzig in 1834.

In the role of professor of physics, Fechner carried out important work on electricity, electrical chemistry, and electrical magnetism. He also conducted work on subjective optical phenomena. By this time, Fechner had returned fully to the fold of materialism and scientism.

In 1835, Fechner published a curious book entitled, The Little Book on Life After Death, under a pseudonym he used often, Dr. Mises. Apparently, during the days of late German Idealism, the immortality of the soul was a hot topic of debate, so this little book was Fechner’s contribution. Even though he was a scientist with strong leanings toward materialism, he attempted to fuse his interests in philosophy, religion, art, and literature, as well as science into a coherent whole. In the book, Fechner lays out his theory of three stages of human life: a prenatal stage, a stage of life on earth, and then life after death.

Man lives upon the earth not once, but three times. His first stage of life is a continuous sleep; the second is an alternation between sleeping and waking; the third is an eternal wakening.

In the first stage man lives alone in darkness; in the second he lives with companions, near and among others, but detached and in a light which pictures for him the exterior; in the third his life is merged with that of other souls into the higher life of the Supreme Spirit, and he discerns the reality of ultimate things. […] The passing from the first to the second stage is called birth; the transition from the second to the third is called death. (Fechner 1-2).

So, here we have Fechner, an avowed materialist and scientist, writing about birth and death as if he were authoring a mystical treatise! This man is more complicated than just your run-of-the-mill materialist. His dabbling in Schelling’s and Oken’s Naturphilosophie has left an indelible mark upon his inner life. Apparently, as Jung did, Fechner possessed two personalities, one of which follows the “light” of reason, the other the “darkness” of mysticism. In the first stage of life humans, in the prenatal state, are engulfed in unconsciousness; in the second stage, our lives upon this earth, we alternate between consciousness and unconsciousness; and in the third stage, death, we become engulfed in pure consciousness, “an eternal wakening.”

Now, Fechner’s ideas, here, are totally in conformity with his idea of a materialistic worldview. He is not referring to a purely conscious state after death that takes places in some far off, transcendental realm of spirit. This state of consciousness in the “hereafter,” which includes more than simply just the particular individual’s consciousness, still has its locality as that of this earth.

This reflects the immense justice of creation, namely, that each person himself creates the conditions for his future being. One’s actions are not requited by reward or punishment; there is neither heaven nor hell in the normal Christian, Jewish, and Heathen sense of the word, where a soul goes after death; the soul neither ascends nor descends, nor does it remain idle; it neither bursts nor does it flow into the universal; instead, after surviving the transitional illness called death, it continues to grow calmly according to the permanent logical consistency of nature on earth that erects each phase on the foundation of an earlier phase, and leads to a higher form of being (qtd. in Heidelberger 46).

I don’t know about you, but I find this prospect extremely exciting!

Fechner also had some very intriguing ideas about the dream state that influenced Freud to believe the unconscious has a distinct psychic locality. Fechner wrote,

If the scene of action of psychophysical activity were the same in sleeping and waking, dreams could, in my view, only be a prolongation at a lower degree of intensity of waking ideational life, and, moreover, would necessarily be of the same material and form. But the facts are quite otherwise (qtd. in Hillman Dream 16).

Of this passage, Freud said, “What is presented to us in these words is the idea of psychical locality” (Freud 969). This is a very important turn of events in the history of psychology, a watershed event. Fechner is basically saying that there is a topography of dream life and a topography of waking life. Henry Corbin would later call this topography of the dream state the mundus imaginalis.

As with many other Doctors of the Soul, Fechner experienced a breakdown in his health, which brought about his own nekyia, or descent into the Underworld. When he was thirty-nine years of age, Fechner suffered a state of blindess that was said to be because of his intense experimentation with color perception. James Hillman writes about this event:

He fell into a melancholic isolation, lost control over his thoughts, hallucinated tortures, and his alimentary tract broke down. Fechner remained in this tormented nighworld state for three years. Twice he was miraculously healed: once when a woman friend dreamed of preparing him a meal of Bauernschinken, heavily spiced raw ham cured in lemon juice and Rhine wine. This she did, took it to him, and he, against his better judgment, ate it, which restored his appetite and digestion. The second and final time came suddenly one morning at dawn when he found he was able to bear the light and even hungered for it, and then he began recuperating. He lived another forty-four years, until age eighty-six.

With his recovery Fechner was a converted man. He exchanged his university chair in physics for one in philosophy. Dayworld and nightworld took on a meaning different from his romantic forbears. Dayworld was the realm of light, spirit, God, and beauty; nightworld, of matter, pessimism, godless secularism. The idea of the unconscious he put into the nightworld. Despite shifting the valences, the archetypal fantasy of the two regimes remained fundamental to him, as it still remains fundamental in all depth psychologies (Hillman Dream 15).

So, Fechner, after navigating through the Underworld and returning, earned a place in the annals of depth psychology. Because of his great contributions to the furtherance of psychology, I consider him a true Doctor of the Soul.

Works Cited

Bowie, Andrew. Schelling and Modern European Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Fechner, Gustav. The Little Book of Life After Death. Boston: Weiser, 2005

Freud, Sigmund. Complete Works. Ed. Ivan Smith. 2000. ,>

Heidelberger, Michael. Nature From Within. Trans. Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2004. 

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper, 1979.

Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper Collins, 1975.

Schelling, Friedrich. Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1988.

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