Fechner Day Interview with David Robinson

October 22nd is Fechner Day, marking the anniversary of Gustav Theodor Fechner’s formulation of psychophysics on the morning of October 22nd, 1860. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of psychophysics, AHP brings you a sneak peak into the forthcoming November issue of History of Psychology (HoP), via an interview with Fechner authority David Robinson (left).

AHP: The forthcoming November issue of History of Psychology, features a special section celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Gustav Theodor Fechner’s (1801-1887) Elemente der Psychophysik or Elements of Psychophysics. As guest co-editor of this section, can you briefly summarize the importance of this work in the history of psychology?

DR: Fechner was a prominent German physicist, when eye injury (and apparently mental collapse) forced him to retire from experimental physics at Leipzig University. As he slowly recovered from illness, he indulged his naturphilosophisch, pantheistic inclinations and sought to establish firm quantitative relationships between stimuli and sensation (or perhaps better, perception), indeed between matter and spirit. This was the 1850s, and several other physicists and sensory physiologists were making inroads in empirical and quantitative studies of perception. Fechner’s long two-volume book, Elemente, did not please them all, but it is fair to say that he successfully coined the term, psychophysics, and gave those studies and experimental psychology a lot of early momentum. Indeed Fechner was still there in Leipzig, when Wilhelm Wundt founded the Institute of Experimental Psychology in 1879.

AHP: What can we look forward to reading about in HoP‘s section celebrating the anniversary of Fechner’s Psychophysics?

DR: Anneros Meischner-Metge, of Leipzig University, will explore Fechner’s diaries, for what they tell us about his conception and his development of psychophysics before publication, as well as his disappointment in the reception of the book, at least in the first decade or so after publication. She has edited and published Fechner’s diaries (published in 2004).

I myself offer a short look into what Fechner meant by “inner psychophysics,” which is discussed in volume two. I briefly explain how he proposed to study it, and what he hoped to gain in that study.

AHP: When did you begin your project (with Robert Reiber) to translate Fechner’s Psychophysics into English, including the as yet untranslated second volume of this work? What kinds of challenges does such a project face?

DR: The first volume of Elements was published in English by Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1966, edited by Edwin G. Boring and Davis H. Howes, translated by Helmut E. Adler. Boring and Howes had begun the project in the 1950s, hoping to publish the two volumes by the centennial of the work in 1960. Indeed there were difficulties: it took a long time to finish volume one; Howes moved on from Harvard, and Boring fell ill and died in 1968. Still, Howes tried to carry out the project, though the rough manuscript translation eventually languished in the file cabinet, untouched since the early 1980s. In summer of 2005, Howes turned the project over to Rieber and me. Actually, Davis Howes is still with us on the project, though his advanced age (mid-eighties) and declining health makes it impossible for him to contribute to translating any more.

AHP: What other attempts have been made to translate the second volume of Fechner’s Psychophysics into English? Why did such translations never appear?

DR: Anneros Meischner-Metge recently told me that her colleague at Leipzig University, Hans-Georg Geissler, has been working on a translation with Stephen W. Link, of McMaster University. I did not know that, probably because I am not a psychophysicist or psychologist, so I will try to contact them soon. I am, of course, familiar with their important volume of articles (which they edited with James T. Townsend), Cognition, Information Processing, and Psychophysics: Basic Issues (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992).

I still need to translate about 100 pages more, so that Rieber and I can get everything checked against the original German and proofed, and the entire Elements of Psychophysics can be available in English sometime in 2011 (Springer Press). Not that many people can translate nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical German into good modern English. I have been working at this sort of thing for 35 years now, so now is the time. Some of my renderings may displease today’s psychophysicists or philologists of the earlier period. We shall see.

AHP: Is there anything else you would like to tell AHP‘s readers?

DR: I hope that everyone will enjoy the special section in HOP; it was such a pleasure to work with the journal’s editor, Wade Pickren, and with my teacher in Leipzig, Anneros (I researched my dissertation on Wundt there in 1983). Our publication will feature a portrait of the young Fechner, painted by his brother, and never published before, as far as I know.

AHP thanks David Robinson for agreeing to be interviewed.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.