Einstein on the blind isms and the elephant

I recently acquired a copy of my friend Tom Ryckman’s marvelous book Einstein. I think I will be recommending it.

A bit about Tom. After he completed his 1986 dissertation at Columbia (of which chapters 7 and 8 are of particular interest in PCT), Zellig and Bruria Harris advised him to pursue his interest in mathematics, physics, and philosophy, rather than linguistics. Bruria had been Einstein’s mathematical assistant at Princeton. Tom went to Northwestern before settling at Stanford in philosophy.

“Less well-known is that fundamental philosophical problems, such as concept formation, the role of epistemology in developing and explaining the character of physical theories, and the debate between positivism and realism, played a central role in [Einstein’s] thought as a whole.” (Philpapers)

The third part of the book will be of particular interest, when I get to it in my snatched-time way of reading. Tilman Sauer’s review appears to give a good summary.

At the risk of the appearance of an appeal to authority, here are two quotations of Einstein that express my rather anarchist views quite well.

I do not feel comfortable and at home in any of the ‘isms’. It always seems to me as though such an ism is strong only so long as it nourishes itself on the weakness its counter-ism. But if the latter is struck dead and it is alone on an open field, then it proves to be wobbly on its legs. Therefore, away with the grousing! (los mit der Stänkerei!)

[The scientist] must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appeares as realist insofar as he seeks to portray a world independent of acts of perception; as idealist insofar as he looks upon concepts and theories as free invetions of the human mind (not logically derivable from what is empirically given); as positivist insofar as he regards concepts and theories as justified only to the extent to which they afford a logical representation of relations between sensory experience3s. He may even appear as Platonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research.

  • “Reply to criticism” (1949). P. 684 in Paul Arthur Schilpp (Ed.), Albert Einstein Philosopher Scientist (pp. 665-688). New York: Harper & Brothers Publ.