Brief notes on : Canales, J. (2015) The Physicist and the Philosopher.  Einstein, Bergson and the debate that changed our understanding of time.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dave Harris

[no detailed notes on this, just a very brief summary]

Einstein and Bergson met in 1922 at a prestigious seminar, and had an argument about time and relativity.  Bergson is widely regarded to have lost the debate, and to have made serious mistakes about Einstein in his subsequent book on Duration and Siumulktaneity.  His reputation declined rapidly as a result, and Einstein's grew.  Canales sketches out the full dimensions of the conflict between the two of them, which had begun before that date and continued after it. It is an excellent discussion of the political dimensions, both national and micro: one consequence was that Bergson was effectively a able to block the award of the Nobel Prize to Einstein for the work on relativity (he got it instead for some work on photo electrics).  There were even religious dimensions, since both were Jews, but it was Bergson's views that were adopted by the catholic church (at one stage, they even yoked his name to defence of the church's prohibition on Galileo!) It shows how the dispute spread widely and dragged in a number of other philosophers, including Witehead and Russell in the UK, and a wide variety of French and German philosophers and mathematicians,including Poincare, Husserl,Heidegger, Horkheimer.  Bergson was even connected to Proust by marriage!  A particular famous British philosopher, H Dingle, was to write a Preface to seminar to it.

I noted Bergson's objection to the cinematic image in my notes on Bergsonism. Film breaks up movement into discrete moments,and this is misleading, especially if we take that as confirming metric notions of time. It is an artefact of the film camera,not a representation of real time. However, Bergson got much more keen on cinema when it abandoned naive realism and mechanical time and began to play with time via editing, or filming at different speeds. This is the shift from movement-image to time-image in Deleuze, of course. Canales says a particular group of biologists filmed the growth of plants at different speeds, and there was also some work on the filming different rates of recovery from wounds in World War 1 ( a lot of variation according to things kike  the soldier's age). The work showed uneven developments (thresholds and intensities etc), and this was seen as confirming Bergson. Biological time at least was quite distinct from clock time.

The actual dispute itself took place of a number of levels.  At the most superficial level, it was a matter of comparing the merits of the time of physicists to the time of philosophers.  This has echoes and undertones of debates about positivism and its merits, in that physicists time actually allowed you to go on and do experiments that deliver results (although Einstein actually worked with a number of ingenious thought experiments).  And of course, E equals MC squared was to produce a really powerful technology.  It was even passed in terms of a debate between objective and subjective time, with the latter being seen as psychological time only.  Even at this level, fans of Bergson were able to argue with that the subjective conception was indispensable, since it explained our initial interest in time and its measurement: we have here a kind of simple argument for the role of the intensive in producing the extensive as in Deleuze.  Fans of Bergson were also quite right to say that the apparent dilemma in physics produced by the apparent time dilation experienced by a twin and leaving earth at a speed near that of light would rapidly be solved in practice, by a political authority deciding that one was to be accepted as the right or standard time.  After all, this is precisely what had happened when nations decided to work to a standard time, or, indeed, a standard longitudal meridian.  Einsteinians were able to argue that this did not effect what was going on in 'nature', or 'reality', and fans of Bergson were able to be taught that this argument depended on a rather dubious metaphysics of there being some standard nature or reality in the first place: at the very least, this should be explicated fully.

As we know, however, Bergson's notion of duration is far more than just the through and through interconnectedness of subjective time, but a real force, driving matter and its formation.  We have mysterious phrases like matter being a contraction of duration, for example.  This is a philosophical clarification of normal experience of the real pressure of time, how it persists both in the past, and has an important structuring effect on the future.  Divisions between present, past and future are simply artificial constructs, and metrication is therefore unable to measure the real effects of time.  Bergson was able to demonstrate the power of this approach in his discussion of evolution, for example, including an account of the detailed development of the eye.