What do clocks have to do with it?

John Banville

  • The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time by Jimena Canales
    Princeton, 429 pp, £24.95, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 16534 9

Fama is a fickle goddess. In the early decades of the 20th century the French philosopher Henri Bergson was a worldwide celebrity, ranked as a thinker alongside Plato, Socrates, Descartes and Kant. William James thought Bergson’s work had wrought a Copernican revolution in philosophy. Lord Balfour read him with great care and attention; Teddy Roosevelt went so far as to write an article on his work. People climbed ladders merely to catch a glimpse of the great Frenchman through the windows of university halls, and Parisian society figures sent their servants ahead to secure seats at his lectures. When he gave a talk at City College in New York in 1913, so many people turned up in the hope of hearing him that the Manhattan traffic was brought to a standstill.

Yet who now reads Bergson, apart from a few lonely specialists? He is remembered by Proust scholars – Proust was Bergson’s cousin-in-law, and the best man at his wedding – since A la recherche du temps perdu was said to have been influenced by Bergson’s theory of time. But very few contemporary philosophers consider him of any importance, and it would be a rare schoolboy nowadays who would know his name. Albert Einstein, on the other hand, is as famous today as he was when his theory of relativity first set the public’s imagination alight. His status as the greatest scientist since Newton was acknowledged in 1920 when Arthur Eddington presented the results of observations made during a total eclipse of the sun the previous year, which showed that light does indeed ‘bend’ in the vicinity of stars and planets, thus confirming the general theory of relativity.

On 6 April 1922, Bergson and Einstein met in Paris, under the auspices of the Société française de philosophie, and engaged in a debate on the nature of time. The occasion, attended by a number of eminent scientists and philosophers, had been intended, as Jimena Canales tells us, ‘as a cordial and scholarly event’; as it transpired, although much scholarship was on display, the supply of cordiality quickly ran out. From the outset Einstein was at a disadvantage, since the debate was conducted in French, a language of which he had only a shaky grasp. For all his renown, he needed to emerge as the victor of that day’s clash of the titans. The world at large may have believed that the Newtonian order had been overturned and that from now on everything was ‘relative’, but there were many who were still sceptical of the implications of relativity, not only philosophers but scientists too, among them even some of Einstein’s most enthusiastic admirers. And when Einstein received the Nobel Prize, a few months after the debate with Bergson, it was given not for his two revolutionary papers on relativity – in 1905 and 1915 – but for his work on the photoelectric effect. There was an added sting when the president of the Nobel Committee, presenting the prize, remarked: ‘It will be no secret that the famous philosopher Bergson in Paris has challenged this theory [of relativity].’

The point in question was whether Einstein’s theory was a description of reality as it is, or just another hypothesis – although a hypothesis of genius – that fitted the facts more neatly and in a more aesthetically pleasing fashion than any theory that had gone before, including Newton’s mechanistic conception of the world and how it works. This is a sensitive issue for cosmologists. The stargazers of old had a nice formulation whereby they spoke of this or that theory of the heavens ‘saving the phenomena’: that is, agreeing with what was to be observed of planetary motions, but not necessarily claiming to be a direct representation of what actually happens out there in those infinite spaces the thought of which so disturbed Pascal’s peace of mind. Hence, for instance, the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (d. 168 ce) accounted for the anomalies of planetary orbits as viewed from Earth by adding epicycles to them, and epicycles to epicycles, so that in his model of the world the planets were made to perform impossibly complicated loop-the-loops. All the same, Ptolemy’s treatise the Almagest remained every astronomer’s handbook throughout the Middle Ages and up to, even beyond, Copernicus.

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[*] John Ziman reviewed Subtle is the Lord in the LRB of 3 May 1984.