Einstein, Poincaré, and Kant: Between Galison and Yourgrau

I find something deeply puzzling about Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time.  In particular, this wonderful book develops the contextual settings in which the relativistic physics of Einstein’s and Poincaré’s physics were conceived, as well as the intellectual link that existed between them.  In brief, Galison makes clear the role that technology played in formulating the ideas of Einstein and Poincaré.  The hope of Europe was to establish a synchronized system of clocks, for economic reasons (e.g., train services without collisions due to timing issues), political reasons (e.g., von Moltke maintained that a strong relationship existed between German national unity and einheitzeit), and general technology concerns (e.g., inductance in wires can cause incredible and varying lag times in signal transmission, as a function of distance and current among other variables, in telegraphy).  Poincaré, having been educated at the École Polytechnique, possessed the “factory stamp” that their students possessed: even the mathematicians were essentially “mechanicians”. Einstein, educated at one of Europe’s leading technology universities and working in a patent office, machine patents abound, and Poincaré being thoroughly immersed in problems dealing with telegraphy (electrodynamics) and clock synchronization, Galison makes the claim that relativity theory is largely a product of the machine-minded science of the nineteenth century.    This is pretty difficult to argue against, and I certain feel no compulsion to do so.  The puzzle, then, is that Poincaré had every piece of the relativity puzzle solved, except for the variable pace of time —the veritable key to the complete formulation of the special theory relativity (STR)—, yet Galison claims that Einstein was somehow more grounded in his approach to the physics, and was less abstract in thought than Poincaré was.  Not only do I find this to be a bizarre conclusion on the basis of the arguments of his preceding five chapters, but I am not sure who would agree that the engineer’s work is more abstract than the physicist’s, especially considering that Einstein, by many accounts, presents a corpus of work that is so abstract that it serves as a clarion call to the tremendously abstract theories of the twentieth century —quantum mechanics being just one example.

To do Galison justice, I will use his words to restate the concluding contrast between Poincaré and Einstein, insofar as why Einstein developed relativity but Poincaré could not: “Einstein’s focus was more insistently physical than Poincaré’s, more attendant to particular material machines rather than to the engineering of abstract ones” (Galison 316).  This is just an absolutely bizarre conclusion, in my opinion; especially, considering that Galison tells us about how Poincaré had his hands on the nitty gritty details of material, such as inspecting mines.  Additionally, Galison spent the better part of two chapter talking about the qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) nature of his mapping method, thwarting the typical abstract nature of differential equations; and his ardor for geometry over abstract algebra and other maths, which is where he made his name in developing so much of topology (e.g., Poincaré’s Conjecture), a much more intuitive than principally abstract endeavor, at least in his time.  As far as it goes, Galison does a great job of convincing the reader that Einstein was likely influenced by the technological climate (which was directly linked to the socio-political climate) of the time.[1] The thing is that Galison leaves two pieces of the puzzle unspoken for.  One of these is how conventionalism of Poincaré is extended to the issue of time’s varying pace within different inertial reference frames.  This is where Einstein and Poincaré differ, and I had a futile time of trying to figure out whether Galison is proposing some subtle suggestion.  I am thinking that he doesn’t, because he never explicitly mentions that particular item, the varying paces of clocks in STR.  That time is conventional, and arbitrarily mapped from the qualitative, phenomenal duration to a quantitative scale, was understood by Poincaré; so what was it that influenced Einstein that helped him come up with varying paces of clocks, or what was the difference in conceptual development?  The other thing that is missing from Galison’s account, as far as I understand it, is what the explicit link is between synchronization of clocks and fully formed STR.  Maybe these two questions are two aspects of a single question.

More particularly, my problem is this: Palle Yourgrau has painted a very different picture of Einstein by way of Einstein’s relationship with Kurt Gödel.  Yourgrau’s A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein and Gödel Meets Einstein: Time Travel in the Gödel Universe illustrate the idealist ties between the two.  Einstein was definitely influenced by Kant, having read the Critique of Pure Reason when he was thirteen.  I don’t think, in light of Yourgrau’s account, that Galison is wrong; I think he’s done a tremendous job of grounding Einstein, echoing Bruce J. Hunt’s point that Einstein was not just an ethereal thinker, but a savvy, world-wise man.  Having read quite a bit of Einstein’s publications, some letters, some essays, some speeches, and no small amount of secondary literature on his life and work, I think Einstein’s philosophical approach to physics was one that merged Mach’s “sensibilism” (I think that’s what we call his physiological-minded, anti-metaphysical approach) and idealism —not at all a Kantian idealism, but something more like a Berkeleyian idealism, which is mostly devoid of metaphysics, though possessing Kantian elements and some Kantian metaphysical musings.  So there it is —that’s where I think Einstein and Poincaré probably differ, but Galison failed to dive into it.  I think that Galison may have the conclusion backward, and that Einstein was willing to go where the data could not suggest him go.  Poincare, FitzGerald, and H. A. Lorentz had the length contraction; they had the factor; and they had the Michelson-Morley experiment about as pegged and understood as well as they could.  They can’t even be faulted on their adherence to the aether, as Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism describe electromagnetic waves as waves, and oscillations, as everyone knows, requires a medium in which to occur.  (Even Einstein would revert to back to aether theories in the 1920s, saying that he had only called them “superfluous”, not having had physical properties previously assigned to it.)  My thinking is that, especially given Poincaré and Einstein’s discipleship of Mach, Einstein surely must have had some prejudice that didn’t particularly ground him in empirical data.  It’s been fairly well established that the Michelson-Morley experiment played no role in the conceptual development of Einstein’s STR,[2] and Galison has, in my opinion, failed to go the final step or two in showing how STR rises from the social, political, economic, and technological context in which Einstein lived.  Without having done the necessary research yet, my inclination is to think that the view of Einstein, as merging Mach with idealism is on the money.  (It is not by any accident that Nick Huggett couple’s Mach’s theory of space with Berkeley’s in his Space from Zeno to Einstein, which is to say, there is quite a bit of overlap and complementarity in the philosophies.)  The real bit of irony is that Galison almost (perhaps unconsciously) seems to conclude that idealism is what makes the different between Einstein and Poincaré.  Galison says:

Poincaré’s was a hopeful modernism of relations graspable by us, without God, without Platonic forms, and (though he was fascinated by Kant’s emphasis on structures through which experience becomes possible) without Kantian things-in-themselves (Galison 316).

Where Poincaré is tantalized with Kant, it seems to me, Einstein dismissed.  For, only by casting off all objective features of time, not just synchrony but also pace, was STR possible.

Overall, I highly recommend Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré Maps by Peter Galison.  I think Einstein had a very particularly pronounced and consistent approach to physics, and I don’t see it being so nearly otherworldly as many try to make it out to be; so Galison’s book is refreshing and probably extremely accurate in its portrayal.  I simply think that Galison misses the role of idealism, even though he notes that Kantianism is surging at around the time of Einstein’s birth.

[1] I think Peter Galison’s shortened, article version of chapters 5 and 6 of his book is worthwhile: “Einstein’s Clocks: The Place of Time” in Critical Inquiry vol. 26 no. 2 (Winter 2000) pg. 355-389

[2] See Gerald Holton’s brilliant article: “Einstein, Michelson, and the “Crucial” Experiment” in Isis vol. 60 no. 2 (summer 1969) pg. 132-197


Filed under History of Science, Kantian Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science

4 responses to “Einstein, Poincaré, and Kant: Between Galison and Yourgrau

  1. Nathan

    David, I think you’re right that that Galison didn’t show “how STR rises from the social, political, economic, and technological context in which Einstein lived,” because Galison didn’t exactly think of physical theories as rising from a material context. Rather, he was interested in the interplay between ideas and contexts. In a 2003 interview, Galison said:

    “In Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps I want to get away from two widespread ideas: first, a notion that science proceeds by a kind of Platonic ascension, an evaporative or sublimating process that takes the material into the abstract. Material relations do not eject ideas or produce ideas like ripples on the surface of deep-flowing currents. And here coordinated clocks did not cause Einstein to introduce the synchronizing procedure. Telegraphic longitude mapping did not force Poincaré to the simultaneity procedure. Conversely, physics does not advance by pure condensation—it would be a terrible distortion to see physics beginning in a realm of pure ideas, and then gradually acquiring the weight of materiality until they stand in corporeal form as the objects of everyday life. So the reason that I find this moment of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century contemplation of time so interesting is that it represents neither of these unilateral directions (concrete-to-abstract or abstract to-concrete). Instead there is an extraordinary oscillation back and forth between abstraction and concreteness. I like this mix—this high-pressure interaction of material technologies, philosophy, and physics…. What interests me about this story is precisely that you can’t start to tell it if you think that it’s all on one scale, or all is really grounded in only one of these domains. Or rather you see very limited pieces of it while vast blocks of the story become unmotivated, even incomprehensible.” (“Einstein, Poincaré & modernity: a conversation,” Daedalus 132(2), 41–55.)

    • Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I wanted to read the interview, before responding. Thanks, it was worthwhile, and I ended up passing it around to some colleagues. I see that the “critical opalescence” was much more important to his project than I originally thought. I certainly have no problem with an historian that has other designs than forcing a causal story. I don’t think the inability to impose a causal story on the history, even arbitrarily, should not disqualify one from writing an otherwise interesting narrative. I think academes tend to get too caught up in arguing something directly, and in a way that is geared against other professionals. Argument tends to equate to job security, I suppose, at least for the historian. In expecting a causal story, maybe the historians in my department are rubbing off on me a little too much.

      The interview really puts things in perspective.

  2. Nathan

    Also, you ask: “What was it that influenced Einstein that helped him come up with varying paces of clocks, or what was the difference in conceptual development?” Robert DiSalle has a clear explanation for this difference in Understanding Space-Time and in some of his other writings, such as the chapter “Analysis and interpretation in the philosophy of modern physics”; in the latter, he says: “Einstein’s proposals for the practical determination of simultaneity—apart from being, at best, extreme idealizations—are only one of the steps in his analysis. The first step is the initial recognition that, in the conceptual difficulties facing electrodynamics, the deeper problem lay in unacknowledged assumptions about the measurement of space and time, which in turn depended on unacknowledged assumptions about simultaneity. Merely to discern that the concept of simultaneity was crucially implicated in these problems was itself a notable achievement of conceptual analysis. But the central point of Einstein’s analysis uncovers the precise connection between the concept of simultaneity and the apparent contradiction between the light-postulate and the relativity principle.” In DiSalle’s interpretation, it’s not just that “Einstein was willing to go where the data could not suggest him go,” but Einstein questioned assumptions that Poincaré did not question. This shines new light on Einstein’s famous statement, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” Einstein was more imaginative than Poincaré in connecting empirical contradictions with the presuppositions guiding the use and misuse of central theoretical concepts.

    • Well, Poincaré did challenge the same assumptions that Einstein did. Stephen Jay Gould’s edited edition of Poincaré’s works makes this pretty clear, as do the excerpts (and commentary) from Nick Huggett’s “Space from Zeno to Einstein.” Galison might be a bit off on his point about Poincaré not applying technological advances in thought to the physics. In fact, he mentions the opposite, that Poincaré did have a similar moment of critical opalescence (p. 50 of the interview), where Poincaré merges metaphysics, technology, and physics to further the inquiry. Poincaré definitely did to space what needed to be done to time, the noted pliability of pace of clocks, which corresponds to the spatial kinematic pliability of scaling rods as measuring devices. I am pretty confident that nothing suggested so far supplies the necessary intellectual agitation that led Einstein to the full STR. I do have an idea, though. I think he realized, explicitly, that there was a paradox that arose between the asymmetry problem in Maxwell’s “Treatise” (highlighted in a diagram early in Galison’s book) and the constancy of the speed of light: How could coordinates be physically invariant and non-absolute, yet there be an absolute speed limit on light? This is just my thinking, and I have not pinpointed the critical literature that would affirm my thinking. If there isn’t anything written by Einstein to this effect, then my idea is relegated to the realm of possibly implicit thinking, in which case it carries a dubious air with it.

      As far as my original query, about what it was that led Einstein to his theory, I was more posing the question to Galison, since it wasn’t something that fell out of his book or article. As discussed above, that simply wasn’t his project, which is fine. Much of this kind of literature is valuable more for the questions it helps us pose and discussion it generates than answering anything. I do think there is progress, in the history and philosophy, through negation of some possibilities and through the addition of detail. At this point, I am pretty sure everyone knows that STR isn’t Mileva Maric’s, though she probably played a prominent role in his early mathematical working of the physics, but much less so than Grossman.

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