Albert Einstein’s chief title to immortal fame is his transcendent scientific genius, about which, like the vast majority of mankind, I am totally incompetent to speak. Einstein was universally revered as the most revolutionary innovator in the field of physics since Newton. The exceptional respect and attention that were everywhere paid to his person and to his opinions on other topics sprang from this fact. He knew this himself: and although he was a genuinely modest man, embarrassed by the adulation which he excited, and disliked publicity, he expressed pleasure at the thought that, if homage was to be paid to individuals at all, it should go to those who could claim achievement in fields of intellect and culture rather than of power and conquest. Indeed, that a mathematical physicist should have become a great world figure is a remarkable fact and a credit to mankind.
If the impact of Einstein’s ideas outside the realms of theoretical physics and, perhaps, of the philosophy of physics is compared to that made by the ideas of other great scientific pioneers, an odd conclusion seems to emerge. Galileo’s method, to go no further back, and his naturalism, played a crucial role in the development of seventeenth-century thought, and extended far beyond technical philosophy. The impact of Newton’s ideas was immense: whether they were correctly understood or not, the entire program of the Enlightenment, especially in France, was consciously founded on Newton’s principles and methods, and derived its confidence and its vast influence from his spectacular achievements. And this, in due course, transformed—indeed, largely created—some of the central concepts and directions of modern culture in the West, moral, political, technological, historical, social—no sphere of thought or life escaped the consequences of this cultural mutation.
This is true to a lesser extent of Darwin—the concept of evolution affected many fields of thought outside biology: it upset the theologians, it influenced the historical sciences, ethics, politics, sociology, anthropology. Social Darwinism, founded on a misapplication of Darwin’s and Huxley’s views, with its eugenic and sometimes racist implications, did social and political harm. I hesitate (before this audience) to refer to Freud as a natural scientist; but there is no doubt that his teaching, too, affected fields far outside psychology—history, biography, aesthetics, sociology, education.
But Einstein? His scientific achievement touched on the philosophy of science; his own views—his early acceptance of Mach’s phenomenalism, and his subsequent abandonment of that view—show that he possessed the gifts of a philosopher, and so, indeed, did his views of the central doctrines of Spinoza, Hume, Kant; Russell. In this respect, Einstein and Planck were virtually unique among the outstanding physicists of our century. But his influence on the general ideas of his time? On educated opinion? Certainly he presented a heroic image of a man of pure heart, noble mind, unusual moral and political courage, engaged in unswerving pursuit of the truth, who believed in individual liberty …