“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Bifurcations between Bergson and Einstein

Thanks to Adam for bringing this video to my attention.

Bruno Latour speaks above about how contemporary philosophy should re-interpret the verdict of the 1922 exchange between the metaphysician Henri Bergson and the physicist Albert Einstein. He finds a re-interpretation of this debate important especially in light of the new ecological constraints upon 21st century thinking.

Traditionally, it is reported that Einstein won out over Bergson, dealing a swift scientific blow to the authority of philosophical intuition in cosmological discussions. Most came away from the exchange between these early 20th century thinkers of “time” believing that Bergson had been unveiled as a psychologist or an artist pretending to understand science. For Einstein, there is no such thing as “philosopher’s time”–the living duration in which subject and object co-emerge, as Bergson might say; instead, Einstein marks two kinds of time: psychological time, which is a subjective illusion generated by relative motion, and physical time, which is objective reality existing eternally in the mind of God. He does exactly what Latour urges us not to: that is, he opposes theory to lived experience, the universal to the local.

The asymmetrical time of conscious existence, where egg shells only shatter and never reassemble, is deemed by Einstein to be illusory. The flow of physical time is deemed reversible, no matter what the psyche seems to suggest about the steady aging of the body and the inevitable approach of death. From Einstein’s geometer God’s perspective, the regret of living bodies in response to their past, and the anxiety in the face of their future, is for naught: the truth is, the future has already taken place, and at no moment along the way did a “hesitation” or a “decision” ever occur.

There is no “life” in Einstein’s cosmos: no possibility of growth toward novelty and no actuality of achieved habituality or decay; there is only the illusion of freedom amidst the stasis of eternity. Latour argues that Einstein represents a renewed attempt at Cartesian reductionism of nature, just this time with a more complex coordinate geometry of curved time-space. Einstein didn’t want to admit that the bifurcation he enacted between psyche and cosmos constitutes a set of metaphysical wagers. He backgrounded the metaphysical commitments of techno-science, since it was necessary to appear properly disinterested in an age of positivistic hyperbole. Nowadays, under the constraints of our ecological crisis, where the facts of nature and the values of psyche cannot be so easily separated, philosophy can regain its authority relative to techno-science by foregrounding the bifurcation of nature enacted by the latter and attempting to construct viable–by which I quite literally mean to say livable–metaphysical alternatives.

A relevant paper on Bergson’s argument with Einstein concerning special relativity and perception.

A.N. Whitehead, another process thinker heavily influenced by Bergson, also critiqued  Einstein’s interpretation of relativity. For more on this, see the section on space-time in my essay on contemporary physical cosmology (HERE: “Physics of the World-Soul”).







13 responses to “Bifurcations between Bergson and Einstein”

  1. to have done with life (Audio) | Minimal ve Maksimal Yazılar Avatar

    […] Bifurcations between Bergson and Einstein […]

  2. mary Avatar

    Click to access during_whitehead.pdf

    (Elie During was Bergson for this re-enactment)

  3. Time + Dignity « Flickr Comments by FrizzText Avatar

    […] Bifurcations between Bergson and Einstein (footnotes2plato.com) […]

  4. Louis Brassard Avatar

    Science is essentially the geometrization of the world. Geometry means measuring the earth. The biggest scientific revolutions correspond to the biggest progress in the geometrical method. Descartes invention of analytical geometry has merged algebra with geometry. With analytical geometry, and precise mechanical clocks, geometry entered the realm of movement and change. But did it? Change does not exist in the static world of geometry. It is a frozen world, it is a world of Pythagoras, Pamenides, Plato and Einstein. If the real world is essentially mathematic in nature then time/change does not exist. Bergson have argued that rationality mathematically grasp the world, it cannot do otherwise and it is why it cannot grasp change. Bergson argued that the time of clocks was a spatialized time that was very different from the time of real change, the time of creation. Recently Julian Barbour has recently showed that the variable t can be removed from the fundamental equations of classical dynamic and of general relativity. Making even more concrete tthe notion that the world of physics, the geometrized world is frozen. But all of us act in our life as if the world is changing, as if our choices change it. Is it illusionary or is the frozen world an illusion. We cannot presently settle the Heraclitus/Pamenides debate.

  5. Time as Creative Potency | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] regarding the philosophical implications of his equations. Bruno Latour spoke about this issue HERE. For Bergson, “time is invention or it is nothing at all,” while for Einstein, time is […]

  6. Latour’s 2nd Gifford Lecture – “A Shift in Agency, With Apologies to Hume” | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] Practicing the art of philosophical fiction, Latour re-constructs the history of philosophy (in much the same way that he helped reconstruct the Bergson-Einstein debate), wondering if Hume’s reflection on natural theology was really enough to stir the sage of […]

  7. Latour’s Space-Time Experiment: Thinking with Whitehead | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] Though I first heard about Latour’s re-enactment of the Einstein-Bergson debate several years …, I only uncovered the videos of this conversation while engaging in a FaceBook thread yesterday about Einstein’s bloc universe. Einstein famously claimed that time as we experience it is a mere psychological illusion. If we want the fact of the matter regarding real time, we must accept the verdict of the positive sciences. Einstein didn’t fess up to the covert metaphysic of bifurcation he was employing, and although Bergson wasn’t unable to get through to him on this point during their debate in 1922, other philosophers were listening. […]

  8. Philomath Avatar

    I still believe there is such a thing as absolute space and time. General relativity is a good and accurate interpretation, which helps in understanding certain aspects of reality, but not a full representation of reality. I’ve tried to explain my reasoning about absolute space and time in a blog. Below if the link.


    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Interesting questions. I look forward to trying to think through these issues with you!

      1. Philomath Avatar

        Still going through some of the matrial, but I do like the fact that some people are challenging the status quo, and looking at science from outside the box, albeit sometimes against hostile reception from the scientific community. However every new paradigm goes through the same process, so it doesn’t say very much.

        A book by Thomas Kuhn “the structure of scientific revolutions” explains this very well. When enough holes are found in a theory (paradigm), it becomes unattainable, and new ideas are proposed from outside the accepted parameters. Unfortunately as Max Plank once said, these new ideas don’t change the old one, it’s just people who believe the old ones die off.

        Also in most cases these new ideas are old ones circulated and revived based on new observation. The aether as an example may not introduce itself in the same way, but may be redefined to apply to new phenomena.

Leave a Reply to franiel32 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: