The intellectual conflict that defined 20th century science

Most of us today recognise the theory of relativity as a foundation of modern science, even if few of us can claim to truly understand it. Even if we can’t conceptualise the truth of a universe in which space and time are famously unified as spacetime, we can enjoy the idea that a human travelling at light speed could return to Earth years or decades in the future, producing the time travel effect made famous in sci-fi stories like Planet of the Apes.

The Physicist & The Philosopher by Jimena Canales

So it’s fascinating to remember that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was published only a century ago in 1916, and that from the publication of the theory of special relativity in 1905, Einstein’s ideas met with resistance every bit as fierce as the excitement they generated. Much of that resistance came from within the scientific world itself. But perhaps the most significant challenge cam from the parallel field of philosophy.

“On April 6, 1922, Einstein met a man he would never forget. He was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the century, widely known for espousing a theory of time that explained what clocks did not: memories, premonitions, expectations and anticipations.”

That man was Henri Bergson, the most famous philosopher of the 19th and early 20th century. And as Jimena Canales reminds us in her fascinating work of non-fiction The Physicist & The Philosopher, had he not been seen to lose in his argument with Einsten, Bergson might still occupy the public imagination as one of history’s all time great thinkers. Instead today he is all but forgotten.

Einstein and Bergson’s argument represented far more than a clash between two great intellects. By the late 19th century Bergson was hailed across Europe as the champion of a new, romantic worldview that fought back against science, materialism, modernity, and the shocking waves of industrialisation that had transformed much of Europe by 1900, and would contribute to the huge carnage of World War One. His works including Creative Evolution reignited a passion for philosophy around the entire world. By 1915 he was as famous, and as controversial, as Richard Dawkins is today.

But as The Physicist & The Philosopher documents, Bergson’s public conflict with the upstart Einstein would ultimately undo his reputation, consign philosophy to an at best tertiary role in the shadow of science, and usher in a century and a society dominated by hard science, technology, industry, and most of all, progress.


“The major task of the twentieth century will be to explore the unconscious, to investigate the subsoil of the mind.”

Henri Bergson’s famous words, that encapsulate the heart of his philosophy, proved to be only half true. While Freud, Jung and a generation of psychological thinkers would dig deep into that subsoil, their conclusions would remain starkly separate from the physics of Einstein and others. The argument Jimena Canales so elegantly allows history to make in The Physicist & The Philosopher is just how close the ideas of Einstein and Bergson really were, and that the challenge for 21st century thinkers must surely be the unification of the two.

Read The Physicist & The Philosopher by Jimena Canales to gain a full insight into the epic conflict that shaped modern science, and combine it with The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts to dive deeper into spiritual philosophy.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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