Time doesn’t belong to physics

When Bergson met Einstein

It has become a dominant view in the philosophy of time that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity showed that the passage of time is an illusion, and that in fact the past, present, and future all coexist. But the philosopher Henri Bergson, a contemporary of Einstein’s, was a strong critic of the theory’s portrayal of time. Bergson emphasised the cultural and technological context in which Einstein formulated relativity and argued that a theory of time that relies on clocks but doesn’t understand their history and significance, is incomplete, writes Jimena Canales.



As you explore in your book The Physicist and The Philosopher, there was a contemporary of Einstein’s, the philosopher Henri Bergson, who didn’t buy the relativistic picture of time. What was Bergson’s main objection?

The relation between Einstein and Bergson is a complicated one with many wrinkles. It was personal, political, and philosophical. When I began writing my book, the accepted historical narrative claimed that Bergson had misunderstood Einstein’s theory of relativity and that he had made a crucial mistake in his book Duration and Simultaneity in his interpretation of what became known as the “twin paradox” in the theory of relativity. Bergson indeed repeatedly ascribed a “fictional” and “phantasmagoric” status to one the traveling twins/clocks. If one reads Bergson’s book in terms of physics, then one can certainly claim that he made a mistake in it.

But there was much more to Bergson’s critique of relativity than this reading allows for. Bergson repeatedly claimed that he had no objections to any of the facts of Einstein’s theory and that his contributions were of a philosophical nature. (Einstein himself wrote numerous letters promoting the view that the philosopher was mistaken.)


Bergson’s objections were therefore more than simply objections about the Einsteinian notion of time. They were about the role of science vis-à-vis other forms of knowledge.


Bergson’s main objection against Einstein’s work was that it was smuggling in a certain metaphysics into science, without acknowledging its presence. This metaphysics was nothing extraordinary—just the contrary—it was basically run-off-the-mill materialistic. Bergson ended his controversial and complex book with a simple sentence, “Einstein is the continuator of Descartes.” Bergson’s objections were therefore more than simply objections about the Einsteinian notion of time. They were about the role of science vis-à-vis other forms of knowledge. Bergson felt he had a “duty” to defend these other forms of knowledge from being snuffed out by some of the claims made in the name of science. “The idea that science and philosophy are different disciplines meant to complement each other,” he wrote, “arouses the desire and also imposes on us the duty to proceed to a confrontation.”

Philosophy has a long tradition, going at least as far as Plato, that argues that the way the world appears to us isn’t the way the world really is. Why should we take Bergson’s complaint that Einstein’s time makes a fool of our pre-scientific view of time seriously? Why isn’t it the case that Einstein somehow revealed the true nature of time, underneath this illusory, everyday view of time?

Of course, one of the most successful aspects of science has been to describe the world in a sense that is true without relying on appearances. For example, Descartes very successfully describes the moon illusion (why it appears larger closer to the horizon) in his book on optics. As science progressed, it continued to correct for more and more illusions that were not limited to the realm of the visual. Thus Laplace corrected illusions of a mathematical nature, such as the commonly held belief that if a coin had landed heads many times in a row it will have a greater probability to land tails. Einstein was part if this tradition, taking it to a new level. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer celebrated Einstein for taking science “a step further by freeing it still more from the presuppositions of the naïvely sensuous ‘substantialistic’ view of the world.”


Does Bergson in your view have anything to say about the tendency of the scientific image to undermine our everyday concepts? And how does his critique of Einstein relate to this idea of science as uncovering an ultimate reality, beyond the illusions of everyday experience?

Yes, Bergson laments that science typically undermines one very important everyday concept: change and movement. “Our entire belief in objects,” he wrote in Creative Evolution (1907), “indeed rests upon the idea that time does not bite into them.” In Creative Evolution his targets were certain interpretations of Darwinian evolutionary theory, such as Thomas Huxley and defenders of determinism such as Laplace: “For time here is stripped of all efficacy, and, from the moment that it does nothing, it is nothing.” In that early work we already see some of the ideas that he uses to criticize Einstein’s work.

Bergson was a phenomenologist of sorts, and like Husserl he emphasised the context within which science takes place - Husserl called it the life-world. Is part of Bergson’s argument that if the end results of scientific inquiry seem to undermine our concepts and experience that we have in the life-world – the place where the activity of science take place – then science isn’t revealing the whole truth about reality?

Husserl, Bergson, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty sketch out very different "phenomenological" philosophical programs. When Bergson is read as a phenomenologist it is usually because of his early work “Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience” (1889), yet even that work is very different from Husserl’s “The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness.” By the time Bergson composed “Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion” (1932) it was clear that he had moved completely away from a “phenomenological” focus on experience and that he was interested in exploring how it intersected with social, political and even moral questions. The “really real,” which Bergson defined as “that which is perceived or can be,” was interesting to him, but he always understood it as playing a minor role in a much more complex process through which reality comes to be determined.



Bergson was interested in investigating the area where the subjective and the objective meet and the area where life and matter connect.



Did Bergson's phenomenology play any role in his critique of Einstein's theory of time? Or do you see his critique of Einstein as being independent of his philosophy of phenomenology?

Bergson has been frequently interpreted as aiming to recuperate the feeling of time’s passage which Einstein considered illusory. Einstein, in an entry of his travel diary commenting on Bergson’s Duration and Simultaneity read him as a philosopher who “objectivized” psychological aspects of time. Heidegger also portrayed him this way when he explained that the term “time” in Being and Time “means neither the calculated time of the ‘clock,’ nor ‘lived time’ in the sense of Bergson and others.” Those interpretations are much too simplistic. Bergson was interested in investigating the area where the subjective and the objective meet and the area where life and matter connect. He did not want to stand on either dichotomy. His most significant contribution was to analyse how those concepts were “riveted” to each other and why.


Bergson seems to argue that even Einstein’s concept of time, as what’s measured by a clock, is based on some more fundamental, more real, non-mathematical view of time, time as we perceive it, which might defy exact mathematical expression. What sense of time does Bergson have in mind here?

It is a mistake to ask Bergson for a single unchanging definition of time, because time changes throughout time: “time is what happens, and also what makes everything happen”. (“Le temps est ce qui se fait, et même ce qui fait que tout se fait.”)

Consider, for example, how different pre-modern notions of time are from ours. When I write about the history of time in contemporary times, I always have in the back of my mind the image of Saturn devouring his son. In it, the passage, keeping and telling of time occurs be reference to love, violence, anthropophagy and reproduction. Throughout time, it is clear that we are dealing with radically different beasts. Bergson did not draw such stark distinctions, but in Duration and Simultaneity he asked us not to forget how time was a precondition for effective action. “Le temps est pour moi ce qu'il y a de plus réel et de plus nécessaire ; c'est la condition fondamentale de l'action ; – que dis-je ? c'est l'action même.”

Einstein’s definition of time has none of these radical elements and might even be responsible for leading us to forget about them. In his work, time is closely tied to what clocks measure. To Bergson’s dismay, it did not include clock makers, clock users and those events external to the clock that make time meaningful. Without these other aspects of Time, Bergson argued that clocks would only be “bits of machinery with which we would amuse ourselves by comparing them with one another; they would not be employed in classifying events; in short, they would exist for their own sake and not serve us. They would lose their raison d’être for the theoretician of relativity as for everybody else, for he too calls them in only to designate the time of an event.”

Bergson warns followers of relativity theory not to confuse “the real from the symbolic” and to avoid identifying “a mathematical representation with transcendental reality”. Does Bergson’s arguments against Einstein extent beyond just a critique of relativity theory to a broader critique of scientism – the view that science reveals the ultimate nature of reality?

You are right: Bergson did inspire later thinkers who denounced “scientism,” such as Jacques Maritain and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. But his position was different from theirs in that he did not criticize science in general or denounce its place in modern society. Even a cursory look at his books shows how they contain numerous scientific facts and are based on the scientific knowledge of his era. What separates his work from those who denounced “scientism” is that he did not want to take it down but to build on it to get to a fuller understanding of knowledge in relation to reality. “If you define reality by a mathematical convention, you end up with a conventional reality,” he explained, but he fully accepted and valued (drawing from Henri Poincaré) the importance of these tools and conventions.


The technological revolution that provided the conditions of possibility for Einstein’s theory of relativity to emerge has been completely ignored.


In one of your talks you mention that the correct way to understand Einstein’s revolution is not as a theoretical, but as a technological revolution. Can you explain what you mean by that?

It is both—but the technological revolution that provided the conditions of possibility for Einstein’s theory of relativity to emerge has been completely ignored. When Einstein talked about “signals” he meant signals in the sense of those that were actually being sent across space by new wireless technologies. When he talked about “the speed of light” he meant the speed of light as it was measured by engineers who sent electromagnetic waves across long distances on the surface of the Earth. When Einstein talked about “light sources”, he included new powerful means of illumination developed at the time. All the lowly objects that populate Einstein’s scientific papers and his popular writings, such as rulers, clocks, trains, bullets, flashes, stations were part of a new technological universe that arose at the turn of the century. The theory of relativity provided a general framework to understand these new communication, transportation and media networks. In my essay “The Media of Relativity” I describe the changing technological environment that led Einstein to build a new comprehensive theory of the universe and led many others to adopt it. A very interesting question is why and how Einstein’s work was able to shed its mundane origins and parade itself as theoretical, cosmological and universal. That undertaking was a complicated accomplishment that took decades and involved many collaborators. Part of the process included shaping Einstein’s persona into that of an otherworldly genius.

Do you think contemporary philosophers should, like Bergson, question the picture of reality that theoretical physics is offering us, and focus on the conceptual and perceptual preconditions of science?

A central motivation of my work is to point out that in addition to knowledge, we need knowledge about knowledge—the latter can help us obtain a better understanding that includes the sciences, arts and humanities. We have first order knowledge of things, a second order one about things, but we can also begin to develop a third order knowledge that includes knowledge about itself.

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I'm neither a philosopher nor a scientist, but this line rang some kind of bell in my aging brain: "Heidegger also portrayed him [Bergson] this way when he explained that the term “time” in Being and Time “means neither the calculated time of the ‘clock,’ nor ‘lived time’ in the sense of Bergson and others.” It reminded me of the idea that light sometimes acts like a wave but sometimes acts like a particle. I think the same is true of electrons? Nature seems to be saying "Catch me if you can."