The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time
How the debris of a landmark disagreement became the foundation of our present ideas about the fabric of existence.
By Maria Popova
“It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. A generation earlier, Virginia Woolf contemplated how this insertion engenders the astonishing elasticity of time; a generation later, Patti Smith pondered the subjectivity of how we experience time’s continuous flow. These reflections, once so radical and now so woven into the cultural fabric, wouldn’t have been possible without a fateful conversation that took place on April 6, 1922, which steered the course of twentieth-century science and shaped our experience of time.
So argues science historian Jimena Canales in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) — a masterwork of cultural forensics, dissecting the many dimensions of the landmark conversation between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson.
What makes the encounter particularly notable is that unlike the canon of great public conversations between intellectual titans — including those between David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, and Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel — where surface disagreements are undergirded by and ultimately reveal a larger shared ethos, Einstein and Bergson clashed completely and vehemently on the subject of their conversation: the nature of time. Einstein insisted that only two types of time existed: physical, the kind measured by clocks, and psychological, the subjective kind Virginia Woolf would later observe. For Bergson, this was a barbaric and reductionist perspective robbing time of the philosophical dimension that permeates nearly every aspect of how we experience its flow.
The debris of that disagreement became the foundation of our present ideas about the fabric of existence.
What the encounter also reveals is the astounding amount of humanity upon which science, with all of its presumed rationalism and universal objectivity, is built. How pause-giving to think that our present understanding of time is largely the function of the personal differences between two men. Canales writes:
While Einstein searched for consistency and simplicity, Bergson focused on inconsistencies and complexities.
Bergson was the paradigmatic philosopher of memories, dreams, and laughter.
Time, he argued, was not something out there, separate from those who perceived it. It did not exist independently from us. It involved us at every level.
Bergson found Einstein’s definition of time in terms of clocks completely aberrant. The philosopher did not understand why one would opt to describe the timing of a significant event, such as the arrival of a train, in terms of how that event matched against a watch. He did not understand why Einstein tried to establish this particular procedure as a privileged way to determine simultaneity. Bergson searched for a more basic definition of simultaneity, one that would not stop at the watch but that would explain why clocks were used in the first place.
At that point, Einstein was busy rattling our understanding of time with his relativity theory. Bergson, one of the most prominent philosophers of the century and a major influence on such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Elliot, and William Faulkner, had advanced a theory of time that explained what the mechanics of clock-time could not, from the malleability of memory to the perplexities of premonitions. A staunch defender of intuition over the intellect, Bergson was sometimes accused, most famously by Bertrand Russell, of anti-intellectualism — but he was undeniably one of the most intelligent and incisive minds of his time. Although today Einstein is the better-known of the two, the opposite was true at the time of their confrontation, the consequences of which were profound and rippled out not only across the scientific community but across all of culture.
Bergson was associated with metaphysics, antirationalism, and vitalism, the idea that life permeates everything. Einstein with their opposites: with physics, rationality, and the idea that the universe (and our knowledge of it) could stand just as well without us. Each man represented one side of salient, irreconcilable dichotomies that characterized modernity.
This period consolidated a world largely split into science and the rest. What is unique about the appearance of these divisions and subsequent incarnations is that after the Einstein and Bergson encounter, science frequently appeared firmly on one side of the dichotomy. Other areas of culture appeared on the other side — including philosophy, politics, and art.
Although Bergson was largely considered to have lost the debate — a defeat interpreted as the triumph of reason over intuition — the situation was far more nuanced, especially as far as Einstein’s “victory” was concerned. Canales writes:
When the Nobel Prize was awarded to Einstein a few months later, it was not given for the theory that had made the physicist famous: relativity. Instead, it was given “for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect” — an area of science that hardly jolted the public’s imagination to the degree that relativity did. The reasons behind the decision to focus on work other than relativity were directly traced to what Bergson said that day in Paris.
The president of the Nobel Committee explained that although “most discussion centers on his theory of relativity,” it did not merit the prize. Why not? The reasons were surely varied and complex, but the culprit mentioned that evening was clear: “It will be no secret that the famous philosopher Bergson in Paris has challenged this theory.” Bergson had shown that relativity “pertains to epistemology” rather than to physics — and so it “has therefore been the subject of lively debate in philosophical circles.”
In his acceptance speech, Einstein remained stubborn. He delivered a lecture that was not about the photoelectric effect, for which he had been officially granted the prize, but about relativity — the work that had made him a star worldwide but which was now in question.
At bottom, the debate illustrated the need for a more nuanced understanding of the phenomena which science all too often seeks to frame in binary terms — a need that would grow exponentially in the century that followed. Echoing Susan Sontag’s timeless wisdom on how polarities rob life of dimension, Canales writes:
What happens to our understanding of science and of history if we shelve these binary categories — such as objectivity-subjectivity and nature-politics—and study instead how these categories strengthened at certain moments? For one, the outcome of the Bergson and Einstein confrontation no longer appears as clear-cut as before. Our reasons for continuing to fight vanish. Instead of simply siding with one over the other, we can consider our universe filled with clocks, equations, and science as much as with dreams, memories, and laughter.
Complement the enormously stimulating The Physicist and the Philosopher with T.S. Eliot’s exquisite ode to time, Thomas Mann on how time confers meaning upon existence, and Sarah Manguso on living with ongoingness.
Published December 9, 2015