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MLN 120.5 (2005) 1168-1191

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Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed:

Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations

Harvard University
Do not think for a moment that I consider my own fellow countrymen superior and that I misunderstand the others—that would scarcely be consistent with the Theory of Relativity . . .1
—Albert Einstein to Marie Curie,December 25, 1923


On April 6, 1922, Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein met at the Société française de philosophie in Paris to discuss the meaning of relativity. In the years that followed, the philosopher and the physicist became engaged in a bitter dispute.2 It is commonly asserted that during their confrontation Bergson lost to the young physicist; as subsequent commentators have insisted, Bergson made an essential mistake because he did not understand the physics of relativity.3 Their debate exemplified the victory of "rationality" against "intuition."4 It was a key moment which demonstrated that intellectuals (like Bergson) were unable to keep up with revolutions in science. For the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, the "historical origins" of the "Science Wars" lay in Einstein's and Bergson's fateful meeting. Since then, they have seen the malaise of le bergsonisme continuing to spread—recently reaching "Deleuze, after passing through Jankélévitch and Merleau-Ponty."5 [End Page 1168]

Bergson, however, never acknowledged any such defeat.6 In his view, it was Einstein and his interlocutors who did not understand him.7 He attempted to clarify his views in no less than three appendices to his famous book Durée et Simultanéité, in a separate article "Les temps fictifs et les temps réel" (May 1924), and in a long footnote to La Pensée et le mouvant (1934). Despite these attempts, many of his previous followers abandoned him. Gaston Bachelard, for example, referred to him as the philosopher who had lost against Einstein. But others, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, persisted in defending him. This small group resigned themselves to being categorized by Einstein's defenders as retrograde, irrational, and ignorant. Among the most important thinkers who have since followed this debate we can list: Gaston Bachelard, Léon Brunschvicg, Gilles Deleuze, Emile Meyerson, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Maritain, Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, Paul Valéry, and Alfred North Whitehead.

In what follows I will give an account of the Einstein-Bergson debate about science by paying particular attention to its effect on a political debate that occurred at the same time. The context involves an institution founded on the hope that if intellectuals could learn to cooperate then nations might follow: the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation (CIC) of the League of Nations, a forerunner of UNESCO. Disagreements between Bergson and Einstein plagued the Commission until it was informally dissolved in 1939, in the face of a second world war.

The political views of Bergson and Einstein and the history of scientific internationalism have been amply studied before.8 Yet the scientific Bergson-Einstein debate and the political Bergson-Einstein debate, taking place simultaneously, have been considered to be independent from each other.9 It is evident, however, that both Bergson and Einstein (as well as those around them) often drew connections between the two. This article explores these connections symmetrically to expose the ways in which boundaries between nature, science, and politics shifted during this period. It is pertinent to study these shifts first to understand the ancillary debates in science and politics that have thus far dominated historiography.10

This episode marks an important change in the place of science and philosophy in history. Einstein and Bergson's debate covered much more than the nature of time and simultaneity. At stake in their debate was the status of philosophy vis à vis physics. It was, in essence, a controversy about who could speak for nature and about which of these two disciplines would have the last word.11 [End Page 1169]

The time in between

At the time of their debate, Einstein was a growing star in science...


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