Wednesday, October 12, 2005

EinsteinFest: Philosophy, Honey, and Stars

“Is not all of philosophy as if written in honey? It looks wonderful when one contemplates it, but when one looks again it is all gone. Only mush remains.” – Albert Einstein, as quoted by Abraham Pais in Subtle is the Lord - : The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press, New York, 1982, p. 318.

Tonight’s lecture at the Perimeter Institute’s EinsteinFest was by Ray Monk, professor at the University of Southhampton. It was entitled 1905: The Philosophical Context. Monk presented to a full house at the Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas audience his view of the philosophical landscape in 1905.

In one of his casual remarks, Monk indicated that for every festival, conference or colloquium celebrating Einstein’s miracle year of 1905 there was likely a history or philosophy conference somewhere else in the world celebrating Bertrand Russell’s “On Denoting” canonical paper of 1905, a paper foundational to Analytic Philosophy of the 20th century.

It’s humbling attending a lecture like this. Even though my undergraduate degree was in history and philosophy, my focus was on ancient and medieval studies. Nineteenth and 20th-century philosophy was not my specialty. If I were to return to such studies, I would have to start all over again acquainting myself with scholars such as were mentioned this evening – Goedel, Russell, Frege, Poincaré, Husserl, and so on.

Philosophy is really not that different from science and mathematics in this regard. If Einstein had been right about his estimation of philosophy, then the years between 1905 and 2005 (or even between my graduation and today) would not make that much of a difference in grasping the essential aspects of the discipline. But Einstein was wrong, at least in part, in his estimation of philosophy. Yes, as Monk admits, the landscape of philosophy of 1905 looks very different from today, but it is not mush after all. The body of knowledge has changed dramatically as have the stars in the firmament of philosophy.

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