Frames /sing


The Prague Esprit de Spinoza and Einstein’s Inception of General Relativity

Einstein, the Violin and Kafka

I had read before of Einstein’s appeal for Spinoza, but had only taken this to be a wide berth affection for the powers of intellectual description and the whole orderliness of the Universe. I had not considered that Einstein might have causally been affected by Spinoza’s concept of Substance as modally expressive of objects (and ideas). But I came across this reference which seem to strongly suggest that while Einstein was busy playing violin and discussing philosophy in the Prague Circle – and working on his General Theory of Relativity – he indeed may have come under signficant conceptual influence of Spinoza’s idea of modally interdependent expressions of Substance.

Firstly, this was the brief Einsteinization of Spinoza’s Substance as expressed by Zimmerman:

Einstein’s idea was to actually include electromagnetic fields in his gravitational field equations by introducing them (by means of their potentials) into the metric components of space-time, in first place. As Wolfram Voelcker, Can Yurtoeven, and myself have shown at another place, this can be interpreted in terms of visualizing substance as space-time geometry in the sense of general relativity, representing gravitation, at the same time (16)

Loops and Knots as Topoi of Substance Rainer E. Zimmermann

But it was his reference to Lewis Feuer that got my attention (not to mention that I had never pictured that Kafka and Einstein could have ever been in the same room):

Einstein used to say that the special theory of relativity was in the air when he discovered it, that Paul Langevin, for instance, might have done so as well. The general theory, on the other hand, was, he thought, a unique achievement that would not have found an alternative discoverer. The discovery of the general theory of relativity was not, in Einstein’s view, part of an inevitable logic in the evolution of science; it did not arise from any discussion that was taking place in scientific circles, and Max Planck, among others, regarded Einstein as making a mistake in devoting his energies to this path of research. Evidently unusual circumstances may well have helped lead Einstein into what we might call his cosmological stage. Indeed, even as his circle of Marxian-Machian friends in Zurich and Berne was a cultural mainstay in his formation of the special theory of relativity, so likewise Einstein’s association with the Prague Circle of Jewish mystics and  intellectuals may have assisted his transition to a cosmological stage, a shift from Hume to Spinoza, and the formation of the general theory of relativity (xiii)…

The German University at Prague became, as the historian Hans Kohn wrote, the center from which a new German and Jewish intellectual movement began. Einstein attended the Tuesday meetings of this circle regularly at the home of a highly cultured woman, Mr. Bertha Fanta. Led by a young philosopher, Hugo Bergmann, later to become the first rector of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem, the group also included among its members (and intermittent visitors) the young novelist Max Brod; his close friend, the later celebrated Franz Kafka, depictor of human bewilderment in a bureaucratic society; the writers Arnold Zweig and Jakob Wasserman; the student of Spinoza, Margarete Susmann; the philosophers and scholars, Erich Kahler, Felix Weltsch, and Hans Kohn; and the Berlin mystical anarchist, Gustav Landauer. Not a single Marxist could be found among them; furthermore, all were or were becoming Zionists and were to varying degrees touched with mysticism. Even Kafka under their influence found himself drawn toward their enthusiasm. Until after midnight they would read Kant’s Prolegomena to a Future Metaphysics or the Critique of Pure Reason. Einstein brought his violin, and when they were surfeited with metaphysics that would play chamber music with Hugo Bergmann conducting (xiv)…

In the Prague Circle Einstein also heard more of Spinoza’s blend of science with mysticism. When in 1913 their society Bar Kochba published a collective volume of essays, Von Judentum, with such contributors as Bergmann, Buber, Erich Kahler and Gustav Landauer, they also included an essay on Spinoza, “Spinoza und das jüdische Weltgefühl” (Spinoza and the Jewish Cosmic Emotion). Einstein in later years, describing himself as sharing Spinoza’s conception of God, also used the expression “cosmic religious feeling” as the favorite description for his philosophy (xv)

read the whole thing here: Einstein and the Generations of Science, Lewis Samuel Feuer

The Fabric of Relative Relations

It bothers some the way that Spinoza’s sometimes crude, mechanistic 17th century physics are extended centuries into the unexpected brilliance of the 21st century, making of Spinoza something of a long ignored prophet.  And perhaps it is fair to be bother by this. But really, in reading philosophers of the past and harvesting their potential for sense-making now, what is most important is to identify the ways in which they disagreed with others, and how those disagreement positions were lost or ignored by history. It is harvesting from the contingency of historical losers the powers of their genetic thought. And in a certain sense Spinoza is ripe for this, as he was active at a time when modern European society (and Philosophy) took distinctive turns away from him and his arguments. And at least in this case, the case of Einstein, if it were not so that Spinoza anticipated Einstein’s General Relativity with a kind of “field” being conception of Substance and the modes, it does seem the case that he conceptually did influence or inspired a signficant paradigm shift in conception in the Sciences, giving foothold to his claim that is concept that rules observation. And distinctly separating out “presaging” from “influence” may be a conceptually impossible task.

For example, as memorably Bennett (re)imagines Spinoza’s position in relativistic terms: “If there is (…) a pebble in region R, what makes this true is the fact that R is pebbly (which) stands for a certain monadic property that a spatial region can have. If the pebble moves (…), what makes this true is the fact that there is a continuous change in which regions are pebbly: The so-called movement of a pebble through space is like the so-called movement of a panic through a crowd.”    “Spinoza’s Metaphysics”

Returning to the original citation, interestingly, prospectively, it is not with General Relativity that Zimmermann finds the greatest resonance of Spinoza’s Substance/modal philosophy and physics, but with one type of attempt to resolve both Einstein’s GR with Quantum Physics, looking “outside” the world for their union. As he puts it…

During the last three decades, a basically different approach to unification has been put forward going back to an old idea of John Wheeler’s: If it is not possible to unify the competitors within the world, it might be possible to unify them outside the world, the basic idea being to introduce an abstract mathematical structure from which space and time (and matter) as fundamental categories of the world could be eventually derived. It is quite straightforward in fact, to notice the connotation of substance here: If we define our world in terms of fundamental categories such as space and time (and matter), then everything outside the world from which we might be able to derive these fundamental categories is the foundation of the world and as such it is non-being. Hence, the idea is to visualize the world as a variety which has become out of a primordial (actually pre-worldly) unity. If so, then the next step, namely to formulate this the other way round: that the world is in fact this primordial unity as being observed as a becoming variety by its members who have restricted means of perception, is relatively small. Contrary to what Einstein thought, space-time-matter would not be substance itself but only the latter’s worldly attribute. And what is “before” (and external to) the world, pre-geometry, would gain the connotation of a substance.

[link to PDF above]

3 responses to “The Prague Esprit de Spinoza and Einstein’s Inception of General Relativity

  1. James Hill September 21, 2009 at 8:42 am

    Hi Kevin,

    This is more or less exactly the end-point of my project: pre big-bang cosmology. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of Einstein sitting around with a motley crew of mystics, scientists, philosophers, etc – and reading Kant. Hard to imagine that sort of thing happening these days (though I have come across at least one professional cosmologist with a serious interest in philosophy.)

    Perhaps you might find this interesting as I do:

    Almost single-handedly rekindles my interest in mathematics, this does.



  2. kvond September 21, 2009 at 10:14 am

    James, good to have put something up that touches on your endgame. I’ll check out the vid. The pre-cosmological mathematics does give an odd sort of footing to the Spinozist, outside the world, notion of Substance.

    And yes, the picture of all these Prague sorts does have something of a romantic feel. Perhaps though there are these things happening today. Then, it was probably thought…and yes there are some crazy Jews meeting down the street, sigh. And too, there is the internet, the cafe of the world.

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