Jimena Canales: Einstein, Bergson, and the Great Debate about Time


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Once upon a time, Henri Bergson had the world at his feet. In the early part of the 20th century, he was the philosopher du jour—celebrated in popular culture, his advice trusted by powerful figures of the day, his lectures attended by thousands, and his writings studied in the salons for which Paris was famed. Yet today, people hardly remember him. And the reason for his diminishment in the annals of history? In a word, Einstein.

I have been an admirer of Bergson for many years, and featured his ideas in my book Evolutionaries, but it was only when I recently came across a book by historian of science Jimena Canales that I fully understood why he gets so little love these days. In The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time, Canales tells the story of a very public clash between the then-respected philosopher and the brilliant young physicist, which culminated in a 1922 debate. The specific topic of their disagreement was the nature of time, but the underlying schism was between two fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. In fact, in some sense it represented the key intellectual fault lines of the twentieth century: between science and the humanities, physics and metaphysics, objective and subjective. In our fascinating conversation, Canales explained to me why the questions Bergson was raising are still so relevant today; how she hopes a new relationship can emerge between the sciences and the humanities; and why—even a hundred years after the infamous debate—taking Bergson seriously is still a risky career move.

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