¿Quién fue Christian von Ehrenfels?
The only significant source on Christian von Ehrenfels’ (1859-1932) life is the essay written about him by Friedrich Waismann, which appeared in the encyclopedia of phenomenology*. Ehrenfels studied in Vienna, receiving a doctorate in 1886 with a thesis entitled “Allgemeine Gestaltbetrachtungen.” Shortly after his graduation, he became an inmate of the Hollburg asylum and remained there until 1920. During those years, Ehrenfels avoided the scientific community, with the exception of his friend Waismann, and never published a book, though many of his ideas can be found in his essays, including those that appear in Rundschau, a journal edited by Heinrich Gomperz. One of his ephemeral pieces of writing, fashioned according to the accepted models used by research psychologists of the time (using a questionnaire), was included in the famous work by Paul Pocket, a well-known psychologist ( die Gestalt des Menschen nach seinen antworten “The human being’s form according to his responses”, Vienna, 1906).
With my very limited knowledge of psychoanalysis, I will refrain from making sure pronouncements on the effects of his thirty-year confinement in an asylum had on Ehrenfels. As he mentioned in the essay about him by his friend Waismann, it is as if Ehrenfels had developed a “Parsley conscience”. But, even though his ideas were found in the articles written under the supervision of Waismann, and could also be dated well before he went to the asylum, his thinking went against the dominant ideas within the various naturalist currents of his time. In the simplest terms, one can say that Ehrenfels was a. philosopher of “values” and a psychological anthropologist. Their mutual attraction is clear in his concepts of the gestalt and gestalt value (Valuegestalt: Vorlesungen über Ehrenfels’ pneumatische Theorie der natürlichen Value, “Value gestalt: Lectures on Ehrenfels’ pneumatic theory of natural value,” a few lectures given by Edmund Husserl at Freiburg at the end of 1914). In the manuscript and notes that have managed to survive, Ehrenfels’ interest in anthropology can also been seen in his focus on “patterns of behavior” and “collective norms.”
Ehrenfels was a psychologist who based his research on the study of sensations, and considered two fundamental notions in this regard: “sensory sensation” and “sensory awareness.” There were two ways to differentiate the two concepts. The following two examples will help to make those differences clear. Let’s begin with the following example: you feel the sensation of heat in your hands when you touch a piece of ice. This is a “sensory sensation.” However, when you start to work hard in a cool room, this warmth sensation is different. This is an example of “sensual awareness.” Under these circumstances, the feeling of warmth is not a sensation but an awareness of the effect of the surrounding coolness on your body, in which you are aware of the sensation of heat.
As with many other concepts,Ehrenfels borrowed the terms “sensory sensation” and “sensory awareness” from Ernst Mach, having been one of his students before embarking on a philology degree. Mach remarked in his Contributions to the Analysis of Sense that such sensation should be the “normal occurrence and those that develop under unusual circumstances should mark the object’s difference from the others (Henry Pearce Gudger, The Psychologically Unique Sensation. A phenomenological study of the primary components of sensation, 1969, p. 18). Compared to Mach and Addams’ books, which weren’t well received at the time,Ehrenfels’ dissertation didn’t stir much fuss when it was published. Perhaps, the reason for this lack of attention to this work was because the intellectual scene of the time didn’t identify with what he was doing. The closest analog in today’s social phenomena was the way the world reacted to someone who started thinking that everything that is in their brain happens in the outside world: they assumed that Ehrenfels suffered from a mental disorder and ended up in an asylum.
Ehrenfels never referred to his own personality disorder, or his own ideas. What we do know is that after publishing his book in German, which he later translated into English with the title, The Law of Whole Values in Psychology, Aesthetics and Ethics (Natalie Clifford Barney and Peterhans G. Windisch, The Friend (“L’am.