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Albert Einstein described the fact that he believed in 'god'; yet, he did not define that god as a personal god who actually existed as a separate being. He used the concept to describe everything that exists.

Although Einstein is commonly hailed as a great physicist, could one also say that he was a philosopher? Many of his discoveries would surely have required a philosophical consideration in order even for the theory to have been devised; his Theory of General Relativity, for example, was completely counter-intuative given the known laws of physics at the time.

On the other hand, one could argue that he was thinking from a purely physical point of view, and that by trying to explain everything in scientific terms, he was explicitly avoiding philosophy and sticking to science. Was he a philosopher?

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    If you mean to ask if he was a thinker, then yes. Ultimately all a philosopher is is a scientist unbound by empirical evidence. – Neil Jun 14 '11 at 9:25
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    You could really ask this question about anyone. "Was Bill Clinton a philosopher?" I don't think that's on-topic. – Cody Gray Jun 14 '11 at 9:27
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    @Cody: I don't think that's at all true. In Western society, at least, we consider politicians unreliable even in their own realm and scientists to be reliable even in dramatically different realms of knowledge. Consider the popularity of the embarrassing The God Delusion which rides on the coattails of Dawkins' exceptional books on biology: the topic he really knows. – Jon Ericson Jun 16 '11 at 19:22
  • @Jon: Theology is only one subset of philosophy. Albeit one subset that most members of this site seem most interested in discussing. But politics is another huge area of philosophy. And it seems just as reasonable to consider a politician as a political philosopher as it does to consider an evolutionary biologist an ontological or theistic philosopher. Beyond that, your comment gives an even better example: is it reasonable to ask "Is Dawkins a philosopher?" Well, uh, no, he's a scientist. But he's written books about philosophy. So whatever you think. The best possible answer is a bad one. – Cody Gray Jun 17 '11 at 6:38
  • @Cody: Your counterexample could not have been worse. Politicians, in my experience, are not allowed to be philosophers even in their own field and scientists are given a free pass on any subject they care to talk about. Is this yet another example of a question that was secretly closed as a "general reference" question? If so, please clarify your close actions in public. Thank you. – Jon Ericson Jun 17 '11 at 19:04

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The trouble with considering Einstein (or any other intellectual genius) a philosopher (or an expert in any field in which they did not establish themselves) is that it's difficult to separate their reputation from their accomplishments. Strictly speaking, Einstein was both a lover of knowledge (the literal meaning of "philosopher") and a deep, effective abstract thinker. Naively, one might imagine that a genius in one field will be at least a standout in any other field that requires similar mental ability.

Sadly, that is not so. Consider, for instance, the theology of Isaac Newton. Newton must be seen as the equivalent of Einstein when it comes to physics. Swap their places chronologically, and it's entirely possible they would have been capable of making each other's discoveries in physics and in mathematics. Like Einstein, Newton avidly thought of the "big picture". Most people would be severely tempted to accept his thought on any topic up-to and including philosophy.

But Newton's theological ideas were mostly unknown in his own time (because of the threat of being tried for heresy) and as they are unearthed and examined with modern eyes, seem bizarre and unscientific. While it makes sense that a man so instrumental in calculating the past and future position of heavenly bodies would be interested in calculating the times of the start and end of the world according to arcane prophesies, almost nobody (Christian or not) would agree with any of his conclusions. In a sense, his approach to teasing out the mysteries of physics and solving the problems of calculus proved wholly inappropriate to teasing out the mysteries of the Bible and solving the problems of prophesy.

I suspect that in time, Einstein will join the ranks of scientists who were considered out of their depths in philosophy and other fields. The list would include Pythagoras (philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the religious movement called Pythagoreanism), Johannes Kepler (mathematician, astronomer and astrologer), Tycho Brahe (astronomer and alchemist), and of course Isaac Newton (physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian).1 That's not a slight on these great thinkers, but a warning that we ought not take all their ideas as words from on high.

On a more personal and anecdotal note: scientists seem to dedicate themselves to intense study within their field and are often somewhat ordinary thinkers in unrelated fields. It may be that the technological and mathematical demands of modern science make becoming a contributor in multiple fields more difficult than in the past. For reference, I learned the Pythagorean theorem in 6th grade, much of Newton's contribution to physics and math in high school, and struggled through Einstein's work in college. Considering the equivalent progress required to be an expert philosopher (and student of philosophy), it seems less likely than ever before that we will discover true polymaths in this era.


Footnote:

  1. All descriptions taken from each thinker's respective Wikipedia page.
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    On the subject of polymaths, it might be interesting to note that in the time of Aristotle, natural sciences such as physics and biology, were all lumped into 'philosophy'. (In fact, I'd argue that Aristotle's work hastened the segmentation and specialization of study in different fields). – Jeff Jun 16 '11 at 18:17
  • I think Newton was far superior to Einstein in terms of achievements. I think it requires more mental ingenuity to invent calculus than relativity. – Kenshin Sep 8 '13 at 15:08
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    "And it's entirely possible they would have been capable of making each other's discoveries in physics and in mathematics." ... either we take the "possible" very literal (and then it also would have been entirely possible that Bill Clinton would have made Newtons discoveries) or you should at least argue why e.g. Einstein in particular would adopt the perspective of Newton. It's a little difficult to compare the scientific work of two people living hundred years apart. – Nikolaj-K Mar 6 '14 at 14:45
  • @Mew Newton is AFAIK generally regarded superior to all science people in history, but am not familiar enough with calculus and relativity to comment on which is more impressive. – tshepang Mar 11 '14 at 17:26
  • @Kenshin I think they were about equal. Others laid the groundwork for their math work. For Newton, his professor Barrow and also John Wallis were key to his fairly simple insight, while for Einstein it was Riemann and Clifford. Einstein was tutored by Marcell Grossman in fiendishly difficult Riemannian tensor calculus. They really should be compared on other central insights - Newton for action at a distance; Einstein for invariants (his preferred term). edge.org/response-detail/27053 They are why I think they are equal. – Jonathan Cender Jun 14 at 1:40
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It merely comes down to how one defines philosopher: liberally in that anyone who thinks about knowledge and wisdom? Or specifically as in someone who has studied philosophy somewhat extensively, perhaps having degrees in the field? (This is what Jon & Eric appeared to be equivocating on.)

It appears the OP's particular definition regards the usage of philosophical as opposed to merely scientific principles. This does not really make sense to me, as science done properly is a really just a subset of philosophy.

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Yes, Einstein was a philosopher, as well as a scientist. My entire answer to Physics, Theoretical Understanding and the Limits of Human Knowledge/Understanding is relevant here, so I will simply list the lines of evidence:

  1. Michael Friedman in Dynamics of Reason notes the existence of the book Albert Einstein: Philosopher-scientist.
  2. Massimo Pigliucci, in his blog post Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, argues for the importance of philosophy in physics, citing Lee Smolin and his The Trouble with Physics, and also quoting Einstein himself being intensely philosophical.
  3. Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge argues that Einstein's discovery of special relativity was a philosophical act. This is obscured by several historical fictions which Polanyi dispels with evidence.
    I want to recall how scientific theory came to be reduced in the modern mind to the rank of a convenient contrivance, a device for recording events and computing their future course, and I wish to suggest then that twentieth-century physics, and Einstein's discovery of relativity in particular, which are usually regarded as the fruits and illustrations of this positivistic conception of science, demonstrate on the contrary the power of science to make contact with reality in nature by recognizing what is rational in nature. (6)

In case the impact of 3 is not clear, I quote from William James' Pragmatism, where he describes two ways of thinking about reality:

THE TENDER-MINDED
Rationalistic (going by 'principles'), Intellectualistic, Idealistic, Optimistic, Religious, Free-willist, Monistic, Dogmatical.

THE TOUGH-MINDED
Empiricist (going by 'facts'), Sensationalistic, Materialistic, Pessimistic, Irreligious, Fatalistic, Pluralistic, Sceptical.

From this, we can see that Einstein knew the importance of being "tender-minded", which is traditionally a very philosophical stance: seeing the forest in the trees.

  • I upvoted, but I do think you should mention at least once the problem of equivocation here -- but maybe the other answers suffice for that. (i.e. does philosopher refer to someone who addresses certain types of questions and subject matters or does it refer to someone who has a certain form of training or addresses them in a certain way). – virmaior Mar 6 '14 at 7:23
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    @virmaior, I suppose I could do this, but I just read an excerpt of Karl Popper talking to Einstein about whether the universe is determinist, where Popper called Einstein Parmenides because Einstein's view was of a block universe. Was that a scientific discussion, or a philosophy discussion? By William James' definitions, Einstein seemed very rationalistic, idealistic, religious, and dogmatical. God does not play dice! So am I even equivocating? It's not clear to me that I am. – labreuer Mar 6 '14 at 17:05
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Einstein was not a philosopher. To express philosophically-flavored views and your agreement/affinity with certain philosophical intuitions does not make you a philosopher. If it did, then we would all be philosophers - maybe we all are, but then the definition would be useless. Einstein advocated a pantheistic view of God-as-Nature best exemplified by Spinoza - but such a belief is not itself a contribution to philosophy as a discipline. Of course people are interested in what Einstein had to say because he was an intellectual giant. But we can hardly call the (unelaborated) opinions of great men a philosophy.

Now if you want to consider him a philosophically acute thinker when you say,

Many of his discoveries would surely have required a philosophical consideration in order even for the theory to have been devised; his Theory of General Relativity, for example, was completely counter-intuative given the known laws of physics at the time.

then, yes, I don't see anything wrong with that. But regardless of the creative/philosophical flair that led to these advances, the flair itself was not the contribution - the contribution was what this flair led to.

  • My comment (which mostly agrees with you) turned out too large for a comment field, so I turned it into an answer. I don't think your answer wrong, but I had some more to say about it. – Jon Ericson Jun 13 '11 at 20:37
  • Your answer is better than mine - well put, especially what you say about the status of polymathy – Chuck Jun 13 '11 at 21:10
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At least some would argue for this; for instance Schilpp put together this book entitled Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist for his series on living philosophers; the reviews would seem to indicate it shines as one of the best entries in that series. It seems to include some autobiographical material from Einstein himself. It also looks like it may provide something in the way of an intellectual biography as well as several essays by specialists, so it may be worth a look.

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Yes, he was, by his own admission.

Einstein, in his Physics & Reality, says that physicists must also be philosophers:

It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher. Why then should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher do the philosophizing? Such might indeed be the right thing at a time when the physicist believes he has at his disposal a rigid system of fundamental concepts and fundamental laws which are so well established that waves of doubt can not reach them; but it can not be right at a time when the very foundations of physics itself have become problematic as they are now. At a time like the present, when experience forces us to seek a newer and more solid foundation, the physicist cannot simply surrender to the philosopher the critical contemplation of the theoretical foundations; for, he himself knows best, and feels more surely where the shoe pinches. In looking for a new foundation, he must try to make clear in his own mind just how far the concepts which he uses are justified, and are necessities.

See Howard's Physics Today article "Albert Einstein as a Philosopher of Science."

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I would say he was a philosopher. It's why he spent the last decade of his life trying to prove that the universe is determinalistic rather than accepting the current understanding of the quantam physics model as complete at the time of his death.

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As with many such questions the answers we accept depend largely on us agreeing to the exact meaning of any terms used. To me Einstein was as Philosopher because he like all thinkers can be seen as such if one accepts what we mean by the term Philosopher. No matter what intellectual discipline one is seen as primarily being a participant of or to, the overarching discipline is one called Intellectual Enquiry. Which in my understanding of things is perfectly interchangeable with the term Philosophy. Scientists used to be styled Natural Philosophers. I see no reason why we need to abandon that description.

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I think that Einstein can be considered a philosopher because he was deeply interested in the nature of time and space. To elaborate on the analogy with Newton, one sees that Newton postulates the existence of absolute time and space, thus making a philosophical statement. We must keep in mind that at the time Physics was called Natural Philosophy the two split only later (Newton's magnus opus was Principia Matematica Philosophiae Naturalis). The fact the Newton was also interested in alchemy and theology does in no way diminish his stature as one of pioneers of the scientific method. To summarize Newton was a great Philosopher of Science and a great Philosopher of Nature.

Einstein established a new picture of the world, by dropping the notions of absolute space and time and by giving an explanation of Gravity in terms of the curvature of the space. As a side note it is interesting to see that Poincare almost obtained the whole of Relativity Theory but rejected the non-euclidean space and the equivalence of mass and energy because they were too unintuitive. Also Einstein took part in the debates raised by Quantum Mechanics and the uncertainty principle about the nature of reality and the character of the laws of nature.

In conclusion Eintein had a very important contribution to the Philosophy of Science and the Philosophy of Nature. Of course this does not make him an authority on other areas (Ethics, Theology etc.).

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Yes, Einstein was a philosopher. In fact, he had a doctorate in Philosophy. This sounds flippant, but think about it. Why do we get a bachelor's degree in science (BS), and master's in science (MS), but a doctorate of philosophy (PhD)? Because science is nothing more than a branch of philosophy, a specific way of thinking. Science is that branch of thinking (philosophy) that is based on the Scientific Method, and includes all conclusions that can be derived from it. As such, all scientists are philosophers.

So it's not a question of whether Einstein was a scientist and a philosopher. He was a philosopher because he was a scientist. The OP mentions that many of his theories require "a philosophical consideration". Such can be said of all scientific breakthroughs.

OTOH, the question of whether Einstein was a theologian has an entirely different answer. He was not an expert in the field of theology, and science does not directly overlap theology, so he is a theologian only in the sense that we are all theologians.

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