The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time

Author(s): Jimena Canales


On April 6, 1922, in Paris, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson publicly debated the nature of time. Einstein considered Bergson's theory of time to be a soft, psychological notion, irreconcilable with the quantitative realities of physics. Bergson, who gained fame as a philosopher by arguing that time should not be understood exclusively through the lens of science, criticized Einstein's theory of time for being a metaphysics grafted on to science, one that ignored the intuitive aspects of time. The Physicist and the Philosopher tells the remarkable story of how this explosive debate transformed our understanding of time and drove a rift between science and the humanities that persists today. Jimena Canales introduces readers to the revolutionary ideas of Einstein and Bergson, describes how they dramatically collided in Paris, and traces how this clash of worldviews reverberated across the twentieth century. She shows how it provoked responses from figures such as Bertrand Russell and Martin Heidegger, and carried repercussions for American pragmatism, logical positivism, phenomenology, and quantum mechanics.
Canales explains how the new technologies of the period--such as wristwatches, radio, and film--helped to shape people's conceptions of time and further polarized the public debate. She also discusses how Bergson and Einstein, toward the end of their lives, each reflected on his rival's legacy--Bergson during the Nazi occupation of Paris and Einstein in the context of the first hydrogen bomb explosion. The Physicist and the Philosopher reveals how scientific truth was placed on trial in a divided century marked by a new sense of time.


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Jimena Canales holds the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and was previously associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University. She is the author of A Tenth of a Second: A History.

Preface vii PART 1. THE DEBATE CHAPTER 1 Untimely 3 CHAPTER 2 "More Einsteinian than Einstein" 16 CHAPTER 3 Science or Philosophy? 38 PART 2. THE MEN CHAPTER 4 The Twin Paradox 53 CHAPTER 5 Bergson's Achilles' Heel 62 CHAPTER 6 Worth Mentioning? 73 CHAPTER 7 Bergson Writes to Lorentz 87 CHAPTER 8 Bergson Meets Michelson 98 CHAPTER 9 The Debate Spreads 114 CHAPTER 10 Back from Paris 131 CHAPTER 11 Two Months Later 139 CHAPTER 12 Logical Positivism 153 CHAPTER 13 The Immediate Aftermath 162 CHAPTER 14 An Imaginary Dialogue 172 CHAPTER 15 "Full-Blooded" Time 179 CHAPTER 16 The Previous Spring 195 CHAPTER 17 The Church 203 CHAPTER 18 The End of Universal Time 218 CHAPTER 19 Quantum Mechanics 230 PART 3. THE THINGS CHAPTER 20 Things 241 CHAPTER 21 Clocks and Wristwatches 252 CHAPTER 22 Telegraph, Telephone, and Radio 265 CHAPTER 23 Atoms and Molecules 274 CHAPTER 24 Einstein's Films: Reversible 283 CHAPTER 25 Bergson's Movies: Out of Control 292 CHAPTER 26 Microbes and Ghosts 303 CHAPTER 27 One New Point: Recording Devices 315 PART 4. THE WORDS CHAPTER 28 Bergson's Last Comments 327 CHAPTER 29 Einstein's Last Thoughts 337 Postface 349 Acknowledgments 359 Notes 363 Bibliography 423 Index 451

General Fields

  • : 9780691165349
  • : Princeton University Press
  • : Princeton University Press
  • : June 2015
  • : 229mm X 152mm X 38mm
  • : United States
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Jimena Canales
  • : Hardback
  • : 115
  • : 488