Experience and Reason in Einstein's Epistemology

Metaphilosophy 43 (5):679-697 (2012)
Albert Einstein insists that his epistemology made his discovery of relativity possible. He believed it was his understanding of the relationship of experience and reason that allowed him to reconsider certain “truths” of physics. Specifically, he believed that reality and thought were independent but related, and that conceptual systems are independent of but conditioned by experience. Failure to understand the relation between experience and reason had, Einstein believed, limited progress in science. His understanding of the relation, on the other hand, enabled him to formulate relativity theory and therefore provides one example of the relevance of philosophy to scientific inquiry. When Albert Einstein discussed his discoveries in physics, particularly the theory of relativity, he often began with an explanation of his epistemology and referred to thinkers like Hume and Kant. Einstein may have been a physicist, but he had definite ideas about how we know and regarded epistemological theories as crucial to science, especially to physics. Indeed, he placed such importance on the question of how we know that the discussion of his work in his “Autobiographical Notes” begins with the question, “What, precisely, is ‘thinking?'” (1951, 7). The correct answer to this philosophical question, he believed, makes progress in science possible. The present article focuses on the relationship of the two elements, experience and reason, in Einstein's epistemology. Einstein himself frequently concentrates on what he characterizes as “the eternal antithesis between the two inseparable components of our knowledge, the empirical and the rational” (1934b, 271) in his papers and lectures on physics, for he regards them as independent in origin but related in scientific truth. His insistence that experience and reason do not determine one another yet must be related proved, for him, to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the formulation of relativity theory and for scientific progress in general. The discussion of the relationship has four parts. First, experience and reason are explained; included in this explanation are Einstein's reasons for maintaining that the two are independent. The second section discusses the connection between the two that produces truth and knowledge. The third section follows with discussion of the way that Einstein believes reason can be both conditioned by and independent of experience. Finally, the significance of this understanding of the relation for relativity theory is examined
Keywords empirical  Einstein  experience  reason  epistemology  relativity
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DOI 10.1111/j.1467-9973.2012.01752.x
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