Science historian tells a timely story about Einstein and his most dangerous critic

Science historian tells a timely story about Einstein and his most dangerous critic
"The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time," will be published in June by Princeton University Press. Credit: Princeton University Press

Two of the 20th century's greatest minds, one of them physicist Albert Einstein, came to intellectual blows one day in Paris in 1922. Their dispute, before a learned audience, was about the nature of time - mostly in connection with Einstein's most famous work, the theory of relativity, which marks its centennial this year.

One immediate result of the controversy: There would be no mention of in Einstein's Nobel Prize, awarded a few months later.

One long-term result: a split between and the humanities that continues to this day.

Jimena Canales, the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science at the University of Illinois, tells the tale of that day and the debate that followed in the new book "The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time."

The philosopher in the title, and Einstein's adversary that day, was Henri Bergson, a French philosopher who was much more famous at the time than the German-born Einstein. Presidents and prime ministers carefully read Bergson's work, and his public lectures often were filled to capacity. He was perhaps the pre-eminent public intellectual of his time, Canales said.

Bergson did not challenge Einstein's scientific claims about relativity, including the then-startling claim of time dilation, in which time slows down for objects traveling at higher speeds, Canales said.

What he challenged instead was Einstein's interpretation of those claims, saying it went beyond science and was "a metaphysics grafted upon science." He said that Einstein's theory did not consider time as it was lived in human experience, the aspects of time that could not be captured by clocks or formulas.

Einstein quickly dismissed the philosopher's criticism. To an audience that day of mostly philosophers, he made the incendiary statement that "the time of the philosophers does not exist."

In the aftermath, Bergson published a book in which he thoroughly laid out his criticism of Einstein's relativity and his theory of time. Both men and their supporters also spread their views through publications and letters, some of which employed "highly effective backbiting," Canales said.

Bergson and Einstein also seemed to be on opposite ends of almost every pertinent issue of the time, from war and peace to race and faith, she said. "They seemed to take opposite stances in everything."

Einstein supporters claimed that Bergson, though a gifted mathematician, did not completely understand Einstein's theory. Bergson thought his theory of time was misunderstood by Einstein.

Science historian tells a timely story about Einstein and his most dangerous critic
A 1922 clash between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson, both celebrated thinkers of the early 20th century, caused a split between science and the humanities that has never healed, says science historian Jimena Canales, in a new book. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois News Bureau

Bergson's influence has been most prominent in novels and film, in their use of narrative twists and breaks and in -shifting between past and future, Canales said. He also has had support among scientists, among them leading physicists who had helped develop relativity, as well as experts on quantum mechanics.

It was Einstein's ideas that gained prominence, however, in part because later research only reinforced the science of relativity, but also because Bergson was effectively discredited by scientists, Canales said. Outside of philosophy, Bergson has been largely forgotten and is rarely even mentioned in Einstein biographies.

Canales said her book tells a "backstory of the rise of science" in the 20th century. It's a story of "misunderstanding and mistrust," she said.

"I took a pessimistic view of human nature and of our capacity to understand each other, and I think that view actually illuminates why so many humanists cannot talk to scientists, and scientists cannot talk to humanists."

Canales said she sought to give an even-handed treatment to the two men and their views. In the process, however, she also sought to rehabilitate Bergson.

Just as Bergson was painted by some as anti-science, Canales said she knows she takes a similar risk in trying to give him his due in the dispute with Einstein, though it is not her intent. Being against science in the modern world, "makes no sense," she said. "Clearly we should be for science."

But we also need to think about science critically, Canales said. "We're not taught to see science as it really is, as it really is practiced, as it really is done." She said she hopes her book might help scientists and others understand the place of science "in more realistic terms."

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More information: Her book, "The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time," will be published in June by Princeton University Press. Her previous book, "A Tenth of a Second," also dealt with the nature and measurement of time.
Citation: Science historian tells a timely story about Einstein and his most dangerous critic (2015, May 26) retrieved 18 October 2019 from
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May 26, 2015
If I remember rightly, Einstein was a humanist, and took a firm stance against the war, leading a failed bid to counter it in a peaceful manner. He was unable to gain the full support of academia.

May 27, 2015
Science must possess balance, and scientists must balance themselves with humanist accents and expressions.

Science is but one language, it is one of the moment, not of all things human.

The most literal minded scientists/minds, are the most dangerous, the most weak in universality, they are off balance.

The most scientific are almost, to a person, difficult to hypnotize, the most unlikely to find the inner door of the conscious-subconscious divide. They cannot easily let go of the literal, which makes them incapable of finding greater truths. Destructive and reckless children, with only a half/muted view. They preach to the like minded, the holistically illiterate.

Einstein understood this - a subtext, in all his writings and expressions -- the inward and outward view.

"All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force... We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter." -Max Planck

May 27, 2015
The problem with the humanities is that its interpretations mean different things to different people, and indeed, the same person at different times. Worse, they are rarely aware that such differences exist. Science through mathematical interpretation makes such differences obvious and empirical.

May 27, 2015
The problem with the humanities is that its interpretations mean different things to different people, and indeed, the same person at different times.

Always happens when there is no actual grounding in hard data. Philosophy (as it is practiced then - and to a certain extent now) is navel gazing. We should take note that the first philosophers were also avid experimentors and thatthis somehow got lost from the profession.

While experiment doesn't ensure you that you will get it right, just following your intuition without it will ascertain that you get it wrong.

Simple reason being: Intuition is not some all-encompassing trait. It is an evolved trait to let us fill in the blanks in _very_ limited circumstances (macroscopic, short timespans) with middling to fair success. Trying to make it out as if one could grasp the intricacies of the universe by intuition is completely missing regard for all of humanity's biological history.

May 27, 2015
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May 27, 2015
Philosophers - and the Church, since many philosophers have worn the Cloth over the centuries - were once the go-to guys for explaining natural phenomena. In the 20th Century, they were ejected from this role rather decisively, confined instead to the subjective. They've been resentful ever since.

Humans have a vast subjective terrain which they have invented with their imaginations. And there is a large lexicon of words which we use every day, drawn from philosophy. Our social structures and hierarchies, legality and criminality, 'good' and 'bad' are all things we made up. They are 'real' in the sense that we conform to or violate them and rain consequences down on each other for either.

Philosophy still thrives in this subjective terrain. But philosophers want more. They want science to be shackled to philosophy as a subordinate discipline. They want to be the 'go-to' guys again.

Good luck with that.

The natural world is, without regard for our opinions.

May 27, 2015
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May 27, 2015
Einstein didn't got the Nobel prize for general relativity with respect to some time controversy, but because the fact, he essentially did stole it to his opponent, German mathematician Hilbert.

Funnily enough Hilbert disagrees:
"Hilbert freely admitted, and frequently stated in lectures, that the great idea was Einstein's."Every boy in the streets of Gottingen understands more about four dimensional geometry than Einstein," he once remarked. "Yet, in spite of that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians"
-- (Reid 1996, pp. 141-142, also Isaacson 2007:222 quoting Thorne p. 119).

Hilbert and Einstein never had a disagreement over this (and were never opponents)

May 27, 2015
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May 27, 2015
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May 27, 2015
It has always bugged me that both SR and GR are 'special cases' (frames of reference) with no 'general case' being permitted.

Yet we know from GPS satellites that *both* GR and SR affect time dilation on the satellites: GR speeds things up for the satellites, since they're further out of Earth's gravity well, and slows time down for the satellites, since they're in relative motion.

Thing is, on Earth, different parts of the surface are moving at different relative velocities compared to the satellites. Yet a simple clock change on board the satellites suffices to generate exquisite geopositioning precision (unless deliberately fogged by nation-states, as the US has done to its GPS constellation). How does that observation fit with SR's reciprocal time dilation?

The universe, in other words, routinely solves multiple body problems with a single time dilation answer for a given body.

That violates SR. So... where is the evidence that SR's reciprocal time dilation is true?

May 27, 2015
I'm pretty sure, Mr Hilbert wouldn't repeat his unselfish proclamations in 1917 after publishing the general relativity theory, during development of which Einstein openly cheated him in private correspondence.

Nope. Hilbert didn't even take up the problem of GR until after hearing a lecture given by Einstein in 1915, ....which gave Hilbert the impression that Einstein was already 'nearly there'.

By that time, it was merely a mathematical problem..... [of finding the general covariant form of the 1st and 2nd derivatives of the metric components].

May 27, 2015
Hilbert submitted his paper with the field equations five days priori to Einstein, only because Einstein was working on the physical implications of the theory [Mercury's precession], ….while Hilbert was only concerned about solving the mathematical problem,… and yet Hilbert made several revisions and did not actually publish until weeks after Einstein.

Einstein read Hilbert's draft, and wrote to him,… "The difficulty was not in finding generally covariant equations for the [metric components]; for this is easily achieved with the aid of Riemann's tensor. Rather, it was hard to recognize that these equations are a generalization [of gravitation]"

IOW, the discovery was not in the particular mathematical problem above [many of the differential geometry equations were already known],…. but rather in conceiving that it represented a viable theory of gravitation (equivalence principle).

Hilbert subsequently always referred to GR as Einstein's theory.

May 27, 2015
The relativistic transformation is equivalent to the Fresnel Dragging Coefficient -- a "drag" which was first described mathematically (and referred to as an "aether drag".) Poincare' and later the Lorentz Transformation were devised to explain the discrepancy. The only difference between those and Einstein's special relativity is that he posited the idea that nothing can go faster than light, rather than the actual status that c, the velocity of light, is the CHARACTERISTIC velocity of E-M radiation. (BTW, the identity of the various portions of the electromagnetic spectrum being the SAME THING, although with different energies, was not known at the time Einstein made this claim.) The dragging is now understood to NOT be a remnant of the old discredited Aether theory, but rather is due to coriolis forces from the rotational structure of the photon.

May 27, 2015
With respect to SR, just because Lorentz, Poincare, and Minkowski discovered or added mathematical pieces or structure to SR, does not mean that they are co-discoverers along side Einstein of SR, as some suggest.

As Lorentz wrote,…

"Einstein simply postulates what we have deduced... from the equations of the electromagnetic field".

However, the entire point of Einstein's SR paper made it clear that the Lorentz transformations within the context of Maxwell's equations was merely an application of SR, which transcended that application as a general kinematical theory of space and time.

May 27, 2015
Indeed, that c is the characteristic velocity of EM was a discovery of Maxwell,... that there is an upper velocity limit intrinsic to the kinematical nature of space and time, was Einstein's.

BTW, the identity of the various portions of the electromagnetic spectrum being the SAME THING, although with different energies, was not known at the time Einstein made this claim.

It may be true with for example x-rays, purely due to limits of experimental apparatus at the time,…. but I find this hard to believe as a general statement, given that Einstein's paper on the photoelectric effect was published before his paper on SR,... and of course that even Newton identified colours from mixed light, and there after light extended beyond colours was conceived, and discovered,.. i.e. in 1800 by Herschel.

May 27, 2015
With respect to Time, it is actually only a metrical representation of prior "states of the universe" as well a predicted states. The motion of charge interactions at the micro quantum level initiates the changing positions which this metric describes, and then manifests at larger and larger scales.

May 29, 2015
With respect to GR/SR and reciprocal time dilation: that is only valid between two inertial frames of reference (non-accellerated). The Earth surface and satellites in orbit are not inertial frames, so reciprocal time-dilation does not apply. You must work the math instead of simply regurgitating words as so many who consistently think they "see" the flaws.

May 30, 2015
gbutler69, GPS satellites are affected by *both* SR (which slows the satellites' clocks) and GR (which accelerates them). GR dominates in this, but there *is* an SR component.

SR's reciprocal time dilation suggests that different points on the Earth, moving at different relative velocities as compared to a GPS satellite, ought to produce some small reciprocal time dilation effect on Earth clocks compared to the satellites. There *should* be a small geopositional error introduced by these different comparative velocities.

There is not. A simple clock change on board the satellite suffices regardless of where the GPS receiver is on the surface.

We can't prove reciprocal time dilation is even a thing using GPS. It *looks* like both GR and SR time dilation effects are directional.

Worse, there are no experiments demonstrating reciprocity in time dilation. Lots of experiments prove time dilation. Aside from GPS, none tease out reciprocity versus directionality for SR.

Jun 17, 2015
The greatest weakness of science is the tendency of scientists to ignore the aspects of the world that are opaque to the scientific method. Science is at home with processes that can be described with mathematical functions, or are at least monotonic. As research over the past 50 years has shown, many processes in the natural world are governed by non-linear dynamics (chaotic systems) in which small variations of the independent variables result in large fluctuations of the dependent variables. These situations cannot generally be described by the monotonic relationships so familiar in most domains of science, and have even been dismissed in research as random fluctuations.

Even in fields, like meteorology, that are dominated by non-linear dynamics, scientists focus on the less-complex aspects of issues because the scientific method requires a falsifiable hypothesis, something that can be difficult to come up with when dealing with a system governed by non-linear dynamics.

Jun 17, 2015
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