Albert Einstein: Logical Positivist

Albert Einstein: Logical Positivist

In chapter 3 of Relativity (1916) Einstein writes: “We entirely shun the vague word ‘space’, of which we must honestly acknowledge, we cannot form the slightest conception, and replace it by ‘motion relative to a practically rigid body of reference’” (22). Overlooking the use-mention error, Einstein is stating, as if self-evident, that we have no conception of space—not because it exceeds our cognitive powers, but because there is no such thing. We must replace this pseudo-concept with the concept expressed by the quoted words; replace not reduce or identify. Later we read: “The concept [of simultaneity] does not exist for the physicist until he has the possibility of discovering whether or not it is fulfilled in an actual case. We thus require a definition of simultaneity such that this definition supplies us with the method by means of which, in the present case, he can decide by experiment whether or not both the lightning strokes [strikes?] occurred simultaneously.” (37) Does he think physicists are somehow conceptually impoverished compared to the rest of us? Presumably not: he thinks that no one has a concept of simultaneity independent of a method of verifying statements of simultaneity. No method, no concept. He doesn’t argue for this position but takes it as self-evident. Does he think the same thing applies to all concepts or just these two? Apparently, it applies to all. In fact, he thinks these concepts (and maybe all concepts) need what he calls a “physical meaning” in order to be genuine concepts; in so far as they don’t, they are empty. Thus, space comes down to measuring rods and time to clocks. His whole theory rests on these assumptions. But they are straightforward instances of verificationism. Einstein admitted that he was influenced by Hume, and we should take him at his word. One wonders what he thought of mental concepts or ethical concepts or logical concepts.

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5 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Would you say his dissatisfaction with Quantum Mechanics as a theory of physical reality aligns with the view that he is a Logical Positivist?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Actually no, because he tends towards realism about particles (but not space and time). He thinks the concept of matter is in good order, but not the concepts of space and time.

      Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The very first article I ever published was about Mach and Husserl and their influence on later developments. Husserl used to say that he was the real positivist. Einstein was clearly influenced by Mach.

      Reply

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