Daniel Dennett, in a lecture abut Darwin, mentions Newton, Darwin, Skinner, Turing, Gödel, and Einstein as 6 "non-philosophers" who have had a major impact on philosophy. I can see how the other 5 had a major impact, but I don't really understand why Einstein would be considered to have had an impact on philosophy per se. In fact I've heard his theory of relativity described more than once as "the last classical theory", in the sense that it is not counter-intuitive or doesn't shake any foundations the way quantum mechanics is/does.

What was the strict philosophical impact of Einstein's relativity? Did it lead to any major epistemological questions? Did it have any impact on philosophy of science or demarcation?


3 Answers 3


In many ways Einstein's reception of empiricist and Kantian ideas (mainly through Mach and Poincaré) shaped subsequent theory building in physics, and as a result philosophizing about science in positivism and in post-positivism. Relativity as "the last classical theory" is a modern anachronism with a benefit of hindsight and relative privation to later issues in quantum mechanics. Lorentz, Poincaré, etc., saw it differently at the time.

In philosophy specifically, Einstein's contributions were to fully expose the unphysical character of Newton's absolute space (and ether as its reification), and later of space, spacetime and spacetime points in general, clarify Mach's vague ideas about its relational nature and derive consequences of that for physical theories (general covariance), but to reject Mach's and Poincaré's fictionalism and conventionalism about physics and geometry overall. In this he acted as an heir to science oriented Kantian creed of Helmholtz and neo-Kantians. The latter and logical positivists, especially Cassirer and Reichenbach, made changes to the doctrines of space, time, and empirical knowledge more broadly, specifically to account for changes introduced by relativity.

Cassirer's Substance and Function And Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1910/21) was one of the first assimilations of relativity by a major philosopher. Based on it, Cassirer rejected Kant's characterization of space and time as forms of pure sensibility, and described them instead as initial forms of conceptualization by understanding, which can be refined by advancing science into more elaborate forms, such as Einstein's spacetime. Reichenbach in Theory of Relativity and A Priori Knowledge (1920) takes the logical structure of general relativity as a logical blueprint for general empirical theories. He distinguishes "axioms of connection", laws connecting experimentally accessible empirical concepts, and "axioms of coordination", non-empirical principles required to make concepts empirically meaningful in the first place. Without the axioms of coordination, such as the constancy of the speed of light, and the equivalence principle in relativity, the concepts like inertial frames or energy have no empirical meaning, i.e. spacetime and the metric tensor are presupposed a priori.

This Kantian fusion was directly inspired by Einstein's musings about the role clocks, rulers, masses, etc., played in interpreting relativity physically. According to Friedman, "in Carnap's Logical Syntax of Language we find a revival of the relativized a priori in something very like Reichenbach’s original sense". Carnap saw Kuhnian paradigms as a historicized version of his linguistic frameworks. Friedman himself takes Reichenbach’s distillation of Einstein's blueprint, along with Cassirer's framework, as starting points for encapsulating Quinean and Kuhnian relativism into a multiscale hierarchical model of evolving scientific knowledge, see e.g. his Einstein, Kant, and the Relativized A Priori.

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    As an aside, Kant already did say that every space that has a corresponding (and may it even be a pure one) intuition has to be relative and in this sense opposed Newton. See the first chapter (Phoronomy) of his Metaphysical Foundations of the Natural Sciences. I know Einstein read Kant in his youth, I wonder if he read this book specifically, too.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 22:32
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    @klocking: Gauss, too read Kant; what also intrigues me, is that William Clifford fifty years before Einstein, had a qualitative theory of GR. Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 0:43
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    @Philip Klöcking Kant's physical construction of approximate inertial frame in Theory of the Heavens by taking centers of mass of solar system, etc. strikes me as very Einsteinian in spirit (synchronizing clocks, etc.), Newton simply swept "coordination laws" under the rug by postulating absolute space and time. I don't know if Einstein read it though, or absorbed the ideas from Mach's Science of Mechanics.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 1:12
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    +1, Let me also mention that Einstein was the original discoverer of the Hole Argument against Substantivalism about spacetime, although it doesn't seem he was fully aware of its philosophical significance. There's a nice article about it here: plato.stanford.edu/entries/spacetime-holearg
    – user5172
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 14:43
  • .. however, in terms of interpreting QM as being only an intermediate theory of motion, searching for deterministic properties and objects that are independent of observation/measurement, he staid firmly within the Essentialist philosophy of permanent Self. Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 7:51

In Einstein later years a volume

Schilpp, Paul (Ed.): Albert Einstein. Philosopher - Scientist. (1949)

was published. It contains a series of essays by Einstein's scientific colleagues but also some essays about philosophical issues. E.g. an essay by Goedel about the relationship between the theory of relativity and idealist philosophy. (I am quoting from the German edition).

The special feature of this volue are the comments and answers, Einstein makes to some of these essays. E.g. Einstein writes a long replay to Reichenbach's essay on the philosophical meaning of the theory of relativity.

My personal opinion is that until today Einstein's impact on philosophy is limited. Because most philosophers do not understand e.g., the importance of the concept of spacetime as a physical quantity. They still discuss the concepts of time and the concept of space as two separated entities.

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    I concur with your opinion. Both relativity and QM have had very little important impact on philosophy, except perhaps when serving as examples in the philosophy of science (e.g. discussing how Newtonian physics was supplanted by these theories). Most non-physicists have a superficial understanding of these topics at best.
    – Era
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 17:51
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    Over 100 years and "the philosophy" still hasn't caught up to "the physics" intellectually? That's disheartening, and suggests a philosophical meta-question on "speed of idea propagation".
    – Jeff Y
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 20:16

After his work on general relativity, Einstein proposed one model where the universe was curved around an additional dimension, resulting in a universe without boundary, just like the surface of a 3d sphere. It was a really simple, elegant model, dodging some conceptual difficulties related to infinity.

At that time the description of the universe was (also) made by philosophers and religious people. General relativity allows to make such models and to have discussion about the shape and boundaries of the universe.

I would say that this is a major contribution to philosophy and it's closely related to the work of his life. It's similar to the way Turing and Gödel have changed the way we see the world with major works in their respective disciplines.

  • "At that time the description of the universe was made by philosophers and religious people. " -- I think a prominent description at that time was given by Newton's physics.
    – E...
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 8:07
  • @EliranH : Yes this is true. Maybe it's not wrong to say that the description of the universe was incomplete and, I guess, it still is. What I meant was : Einstein filled a hole in the general scientific understanding of the universe, impacting philosophical model of our world.
    – JSFDude
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 8:25

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