Einstein and Hume
It is well known that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was influenced by his reading of Hume’s Treatise. People sometimes applaud this for revealing Einstein’s openness to philosophy. To me it suggests a different lesson. Einstein will have read Hume from the perspective of contemporary positivism, interpreting him accordingly. A.J. Ayer also claimed Hume as his forebear. The Treatise is a youthful work compared to the Enquiry, which is more careful in its formulations (and perhaps also in its thoughts). Was Einstein taken with Hume’s insistence that every idea must be backed by an impression? We have no sense impression of time as understood by Newton, so Einstein might well have concluded that our only idea of time is derived from impressions of clocks. This then shaped his physics of time. That would explain a lot and raises the question whether Einstein’s view of time was shaped by old-fashioned empiricist positivism. The actual Hume, as recent scholarship has shown, is far from such a philosophy, so Einstein’s theory might well have been influenced by his misreading of Hume. Can it be defended without this kind of backing?