“Einstein's influence on twentieth-century philosophy of science is comparable to his influence on twentieth-century physics...” -Don A. Howard, “Einstein’s Philosophy of Science, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A CRITICAL LETTER IN UNDERSTANDING EINSTEIN’S PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE:
EINSTEIN USES HIS UNDERSTANDING OF SPACE AND TIME AND THE DISCOVERIES OF GENERAL RELATIVITY TO REJECT IMMANUEL KANT’S UNDERSTANDING OF “A PRIORI” TRUTHS, A REJECTION THAT MARKED A DRAMATIC BREAK FROM THE NEWTONIAN WORLDVIEW AND USHERED IN THE MODERN APPROACH TO THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH AND OUR RELATION TO REALITY.
“Any philosophy of science must include an account of the relation between theory and evidence...” (Howard, ibid.)
From a young age, Einstein had a great “appreciation for Immanuel Kant, the German metaphysician he had been introduced to, back when he was a schoolboy... ‘Kant took the stage with an idea that signified a step towards the solution of Hume’s dilemma [of how to address concepts that are not definable by perceptions and observations],’ Einstein said. Some truths fit into a category of ‘definitely assured knowledge’ that was ‘grounded in reason itself.’
“In other words, Kant distinguished between two types of truths: (1) analytic propositions, which derive from logic and ‘reason itself’ rather than from observing the world;... and (2) synthetic propositions, which are based on experience and observations... Synthetic propositions could be revised by new empirical evidence, but not analytic ones... As Einstein said of Kant’s first category of truths: ‘This is held to be the case, for example, in the propositions of geometry and in the principle of causality. These and certain other types of knowledge... do not previously have to be gained from sense data, in other words they are a priori knowledge.’
“Einstein initially found it wondrous that certain truths could be discovered by reason alone. But he soon began to question Kant’s rigid distinction between analytic and synthetic truths. ‘The objects with which geometry deals seemed to be of no different type than the objects of sensory perception,’ he recalled. And later he would reject outright this Kantian distinction... A proposition that seems purely analytic–such as the angles of a triangle adding up to 180 degrees–could turn out to be false in a non-Euclidean geometry or in a curved space (such as would be the case in the general theory of relativity). As he later said of the concepts of geometry and causality, ‘Today everyone knows, of course, that the mentioned concepts contain nothing of the certainty, of the inherent necessity, which Kant had attributed to them” (Walter Isaacson, Einstein, pp.82-3).
More broadly, “although Kant had very good reasons to view the principles in question as having such a constitutively a priori role, we now know, in the wake of Einstein's work, that they are not in fact a priori in the stronger sense of being fixed necessary conditions for all human experience in general, eternally valid once and for all. And it is for precisely this reason that Kant's original version of transcendental philosophy must now be either rejected entirely or (at least) radically reconceived. Most philosophy of science since Einstein has taken the former route: the dominant view in logical empiricism, for example, was that the Kantian synthetic a priori had to be rejected once and for all in the light of the general theory of relativity” (Michael Friedman, “Einstein, Kant, and the A Priori”).
This 1953 letter to Max Fishler is one of the clearest and most detailed presentations of Einstein’s understanding of the nature of knowledge in light of his general theory of relativity.
Typed on Einstein’s embossed Mercer Street stationery, the letter reads in full, translated from the original German:
December 17, 1953
Mr. Max Fishler
336 No. Sierra Bonita Ave.
Los Angeles 36, Calif.
Most honored Mr. Fishler:
I thank you kindly for sending me the gramaphone disc, which arrived in good condition. I shall listen to is as soon as I have the opportunity to do so.
The question regarding Time and Space in connection with Kant’s philosophy is not an easy one to answer insofar as Kant’s view regarding Time and Space is interpreted differently by different people. It seems to me, however, that essentially Kant subscribes to the following view:
Spatial thinking is not bound to sensible experience in the same sense as thinking with respect to corporeal objects. The spatial concepts are for him a priori, that is, given before any experience and to a certain degree inborn tools of perception and of thought. (Intuition a priori). To this fact does he refer back the indisputability of geometric propositions.
Today, however, hardly anyone doubts that the indisputability consists only in the sense that we are dealing with logical consequents from given axioms which even from the logical standpoint are intentionally postulated.
Naturally, this insight has now become trivial since mathematicians have erected other geometries which depart from Euclidean geometry and are, logically, equally as consistent as the Euclidean geometry.
We know further that the Euclidean axioms are due to our experiences of solid bodies, through which they are aroused, and that therefore a psychological dependence on that which is empirically given is hardly to be doubted.
We may say then,—as I see it, with justice—that all concepts, not only the mathematical ones, are a priori insofar as they are not logically deducible from naked experience. But this holds for all concepts, for the concepts of the empirical sciences not less than for the concepts of pure mathematics.
The general theory of relativity has in my opinion convincingly shown that the spatial character belongs to the objects of the physical world as a mere characteristic of it (i.e. four-dimensionality of space-time).
The contrast to Kant can be illustrated briefly through the short sentence: the inner space of a box is ‘real’ in the same sense as the box itself.
With friendly greetings,
[signed] A. Einstein.
The recipient Max Fishler was an author who, at the time of this letter, was considering writing a book on Kant’s philosophy with respect to the discoveries of relativity. Although he had lectured at least once on the topic, he never completed his book. He did, however, publish a later (1958) volume, What the Great Philosophers Thought about God containing a chapter on Immanuel Kant.
Provenance: Originally sold in 1964 as part of Parke Bernet’s March 31 sale of Manuscripts and Maps including “Important Einstein Correspondence”.
Typed Letter Signed [TLS] in German, signed “A. Einstein” in black ink. Two 8.5x11 inch sheets, written on rectos only. The first sheet with Einstein’s Mercer Street address embossed at top. One manuscript addition in Einstein’s hand. With original envelope. Housed in custom presentation folder. Expected folds, otherwise fine.
AN IMPORTANT LETTER WITH MAJOR SCIENTIFIC AND PHILOSOPHICAL CONTENT: THE REJECTION OF THE KANTIAN “A PRIORI” AS A SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE WAS A SIGNIFICANT STEP IN OVERTHROWING THE “OLD” NEWTONIAN WORLDVIEW.