Einstein and the philosophers

Einstein has recorded that in the years before he published his paper on Special Relativity in 1905, he was fortified in his speculations by the sceptical remarks of David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature, where Hume stated that the idea of a perfect connection of imperfect real measures ‘is a mere fiction of the mind, as well as useless and incomprehensible.’ Hume extended his scrutiny from considerations of spatial measure to notions of the duration of time: ‘… where though it is evident that we have no exact method of determining the proportion of parts, not even so exact as in extension, yet the various corrections of our measures, and their different degrees of exactness, have given us an obscure and implicit notion of a perfect and exact equality.’ And in Ernst Mach, Einstein found a warning against the use of concepts disconnected from their experiential grounding.
Einstein was, I suppose, throwing off the immense prestige of Newton, who had insisted on the priority of space and time in experience, and hence their absolute inviolability. In these reflections about the origins of his theory of Special Relativity, it is perhaps surprising that Einstein does not mention Leibniz, but that is perhaps an historical accident, and relates to the activities of the reading group of which he was a member in Bern during the first years of the twentieth century. Leibniz, after all, was of the opinion that space was an order of co-existing phenomena, and time an order of successive phenomena, and emphasised the relational aspect rather than fixed distances and durations.
Kant’s mature views on space and time are set out in the Transcendental Aesthetic of the Critique of Pure Reason. With extraordinary originality he preserves Newton’s views on the absoluteness of space and time, by regarding them as the forms of outer and inner sense, and therefore pre-conditions of any experience at all. We now know that this won’t do. Einstein’s theoretical considerations predicted that space and time are not absolute, and mirabile dictu, quantitative observational confirmation of his predictions has been found. Unsurprisingly Einstein was not a neo-Kantian. For example he wrote in his essay The Problem of Space: ‘ …concepts have reference to sensible experience, but they are never, in a logical sense, deducible from them. For this reason I have never been able to understand the quest of the a priori, in the Kantian sense. In any ontological question, the only possible procedure is to seek out these characteristics in the complex of sense experience to which these concepts refer.’ Bertrand Russell shared Einstein’s view that Kant was overrated for similar reasons. Personally I think they missed an important insight in Kant, and that there are straws in the wind which suggest the problem of consciousness, so central to him and addressed above all in his profound account of the nature of self, will haunt the philosophy of science in the decades to come.
Let me add a little more about Einstein. If he sounds at times like a realist (a description he rejected as describing him in contrast to other ‘isms) or with an intellectual bias towards empiricism, he had opinions which were not wholly consistent. For instance he said, ‘So far as the theories of mathematics are about reality they are not certain, so far as they are certain they are not about reality’. And yet in the Herbert Spencer Lecture of 1933 he said, ‘But the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed.’ In his address in Berlin on the occasion of Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday in 1918, he said, ‘Nobody who has gone really deeply into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles; this is what Leibniz described so happily as a ‘pre-established harmony.’


Planck and Einstein became close friends in Berlin, so it is perhaps appropriate to conclude with two quotations by Planck which have a Kantian feel. ‘I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing presupposes consciousness.’ (1931). And ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature, and therefore part of the mystery we are trying to solve’. (1932).

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

2 thoughts on “Einstein and the philosophers

  1. Dear David Einstein and the Philosophers

    This impressive piece sent me scurrying to my copy of History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. I wanted to crack once and for all the teachings of Kant—- only to be disappointed. Russell just ‘takes on’ Kant and ends with the withering comment that Kant’s theory was ambiguous: as a result when he died his followers subsided into a ‘state of solipsism’. Russell’s arguments themselves i found difficult to follow, so I ended up none the wiser. His word ornamentation for me touched on pomposity. I think I would have found him a difficult seminar supervisor. I was given his book by relatives when I left school and I have never made much sense of it since. As I have said to you before, I have to acknowledge though that I do have a personal problem with understanding abstract concepts, and the difficulty I experienced in grasping what Russell wrote might be just due to me.

    You mention Newton . An interesting article in this month’s Literary Review focusses on his later life. Apparently he was very intolerant of others and was a real pain when President of the Royal Society. He also ran the Mint and hounded down anyone who was found to have defrauded the coinage, pursuing them in the Courts. Unless i am mistaken it was a capital offence to meddle with the coinage of the day. Nice man!!!!

    Gethin >

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  2. Thank you, Gethin for your comments. I asked for Russell’s History of Western Philosophy as a 21sr birthday present. As an overview it served a purpose, and I did think he pointed up a contradiction in Nietzsche rather well, an obsession with power in someone who can only be described as a weakling. This of course does not address his arguments, but since I regard him as deeply unsound, it is worth bearing in mind from the outset. I have gpneard it said that there is evidence Newton suffered from a paranois illness in his final years, but I have never looked into this myself.
    I have never read a short book on Kant and thought yes, that is a excellent introduction. But two of his leading ideas are whether synthetic a priori proposions are possible, and the categorical imperative. They are however embedded in a formidable body of thought which some scholars devote their lives to studying. DC

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