Relativity Since Einstein

Philosophical Problems of Space and Time

by Adolph Grünbaum
Knopf, 448 pp., $10.75

Relativity-theory has always been a peculiarly philosophical branch of science: Einstein recognized a particular debt to Hume and Mach and current debates about the Rip-van-Winkle paradox are evidence that it is so still. The reasons are easily seen. Other scientists frame novel concepts to match newly-discovered facts, but the relativity-physicist has a more Socratic task—that of uncovering the presuppositions of our inherited ideas of space and time, and drawing fresh distinctions to cover situations in which those presuppositions fail us. So in thinking about relativity we are plunged into a world, not so much of costly apparatus and painstaking observations, as of suppressed premises and distinguos—into a conceptual, rather than an experimental argument. Nor is there anything unscientific about this fact: it is just in the nature of the case.

There is always scope, accordingly, for new philosophical critiques of our spatial and temporal concepts; and not only scope, but need. Since Einstein’s classic papers of 1905 and 1915, thousands of worthy articles on the subject have appeared, yet we have made surprisingly little progress beyond Einstein’s own analysis. In some respects, the level of the public debate has in fact dropped in the last forty years. Innocent-minded astronomers swept up into the heady stratosphere of cosmology now speculate about (e.g.) “an indefinite period when nothing changed, before time was,” with a logical abandon which causes the philosophical reader to gasp with unbelief. (Did Kant write in vain?) So one looks forward to a comprehensive re-analysis of our spatio-temporal ideas; this should make explicit the transition from everyday comparisons of distance and duration to progressively more abstract concepts, should bring the lessons of Kant’s “paralogisms” up-to-date, and should clarify the (now ambiguous) status of those “world-models” which cosmologists build on Einstein’s relativity-theory. Thus we find ourselves in a period of transition. Einstein was the founder of relativity as Aristotle was of mechanics; we at present have our Stratos and Buridans with us; and we are looking for our Galileo.

Alas, Adolf Grünbaum is not that Galileo—at any rate, not yet. In this book, which is one of the first in a new series of Borzoi Books in the philosophy of Science edited by Sidney Morgenbesser of Columbia University, he does no more than play Simplicius to Einstein’s Aristotle. His argument is, in effect, a series of commentaries on the founding-papers of relativity physics. Few of the issues he discusses are stated ab initio or pursued au fond, he takes for granted much prior knowledge, and the poor old average reader will be out of his depth very early. On top of this, his language is lumpish and ponderous, full of needless jargon-phrases like “remetrizational retainability,” mixed with academic waggery of a kind that is all very well in face-to-face debate, but which becomes mildly offensive in print. The trouble is that Grünbaum has built a reputation—a respected, even an intimidating reputation—in the sophisticated polemics of professional philosophy, and has …

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Letters

Letters May 14, 1964