Henri Bergson Helped Ensure There Was No Nobel for Relativity

Jimena Canales in Nautilus:

9001_c3daba8ba04565423e12eb8cb6237b46On April 6, 1922, Einstein met a man he would never forget. He was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the century, widely known for espousing a theory of time that explained what clocks did not: memories, premonitions, expectations, and anticipations. Thanks to him, we now know that to act on the future one needs to start by changing the past. Why does one thing not always lead to the next? The meeting had been planned as a cordial and scholarly event. It was anything but that. The physicist and the philosopher clashed, each defending opposing, even irreconcilable, ways of understanding time. At the Société française de philosophie—one of the most venerable institutions in France—they confronted each other under the eyes of a select group of intellectuals. The “dialogue between the greatest philosopher and the greatest physicist of the 20th century” was dutifully written down.1 It was a script fit for the theater. The meeting, and the words they uttered, would be discussed for the rest of the century.

The philosopher’s name was Henri Bergson. In the early decades of the century, his fame, prestige, and influence surpassed that of the physicist—who, in contrast, is so well known today. Bergson was compared to Socrates, Copernicus, Kant, Simón Bolívar, and even Don Juan. The philosopher John Dewey claimed that “no philosophic problem will ever exhibit just the same face and aspect that it presented before Professor Bergson.” William James, the Harvard professor and famed psychologist, described Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907) as “a true miracle,” marking the “beginning of a new era.” For James, Matter and Memory (1896) created “a sort of Copernican revolution as much as Berkeley’s Principles or Kant’s Critique did.” The philosopher Jean Wahl once said that “if one had to name the four great philosophers one could say: Socrates, Plato—taking them together—Descartes, Kant, and Bergson.” The philosopher and historian of philosophy Étienne Gilson categorically claimed that the first third of the 20th century was “the age of Bergson.” He was simultaneously considered “the greatest thinker in the world” and “the most dangerous man in the world.” Many of his followers embarked on “mystical pilgrimages” to his summer home in Saint-Cergue, Switzerland.

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