Meyerson, Émile (1859–1933)

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Émile Meyerson, a French epistemologist and philosopher of science, was born in Lublin, Poland (at that time Russia). He was educated in Germany, where, after completing his classical studies, he studied chemistry under Robert Wilhelm Bunsen. In 1882 he settled in Paris; following a disappointing experience with industrial chemistry, he served as foreign editor of the Havas news agency and later as director of the Jewish Colonization Association for Europe and Asia Minor. After World War I he became a naturalized French citizen.

Meyerson never held an official teaching position. But a group of philosophers and other scholars, attracted by his celebrated erudition, formed an eager and attentive audience. He was especially well versed in the history of the sciences (chiefly, but not exclusively, the physicochemical sciences) from their origins to their most recent developments. His command of language, his clarity of thought, and his extraordinary capacity for work served him well. Both his writings and his person gave an impression of great robustness"solid as a Roman wall," as André Lalande once remarked.

Meyerson's philosophy was offered not as a philosophy of nature but as a "philosophy of the intellect." He set himself the tasks of disentangling the principles that govern the advance of thought and of extracting from reason the kernel that constitutes the intellectus ipse. This search for the a priori, he held, this new critique of pure reason, should not itself be conducted in an a priori manner. It had to proceed empiricallynot directly, through a psychological analysis of the activity of thought, but indirectly, through reflection on the products of thought. These products may be true or false, so long as they bear witness to a serious effort of the intellect. From this point of view, the history of the sciences provides unique documentation. Thus it is that, of Meyerson's three major works, the first (Identité et réalité, Paris, 1908) is almost exclusively epistemological; but in the second, De l'explication dans les sciences (Explanation in the sciences; 2 vols., Paris, 1921), and especially in the third, Du cheminement de la pensée (The ways of thought; 3 vols., Paris, 1931), the scope is widened to encompass the whole of knowledge. In the last two works it is shown that the mind works always and everywhere in the same fashion, and this catholicity of reason proves that it does indeed include a portion that is a priori.

Each of Meyerson's works begins with an attempt to dispel the positivist bias that weighed so heavily on his years of apprenticeship. Science requires the concept of thing; science searches for explanation. It is not content simply to bind together by laws the phenomena given us in sense experience in order only to predict and control them. Science tends to dissolve the qualitative datumbut only to reach behind it for a more lasting and more objective, substantial real. Science not only seeks to know the how, but also to understand the why. Its aim is speculative. Its theories are not merely edifices built of laws; they claim to reveal to us the innermost causes of things. Realism and causalism are two fundamental tendencies that, taken together, govern the entire activity of the scientist. For the scientist, "phenomenism" and "legalism," when he submits to them, are only provisional stages. His ambition is to get to the bottom of things, his ultimate purpose is an ontological one.

In what does explanation consist? It is at this point that the Meyersonian theory proper begins. In every domain, whether it be philosophy, science, or everyday life, to explain is to identify. Causality is nothing but a form of logical identity. We understand a change only when it becomes evident to us that, at bottom, nothing has happened, that the entire effect was already present in the causeor at least that the change has been reduced to the minimum, to a simple displacement. The old adage causa aequat effectum, mechanistic theories, and chemical equations all manifest this identifying tendency. As the Eleatic paradoxes attest, we are troubled even by change of place and by the mere passage of time. Reason is satisfied only to the degree that it succeeds in eliminating time. The principle of inertia, the reversibility of mechanical phenomena, the conservation of matter and energy, the permanence and immutability of the ultimate elements, show in what direction we insistently turn as we strive for intelligibility.

Yet in a world thus rigidly set, there still remains a qualitative diversity that is the source of new attempts at identification: the elimination of "secondary qualities," the explanation of apparent differences in terms of combinations of quite similar elements from which all but geometrical properties have been removed. Thus the world is fully intelligible to us only if we succeed in assimilating it, in the final analysis, to homogeneous space. Being, like becoming, tends to turn into its opposite when our reason seeks to explain it.

But reality resists this persistent will to identify. Carnot's principle defeats any hope of eliminating time. It proves that the irreversibility of the course of time is not a subjective illusion, that the future is not interchangeable with the past, in brief, that something really does happen. Furthermore, in denying sense qualities any place in the physical world, mechanism has not thereby made them disappear. The heterogeneity of the data of sense exists unexplained and indeed inexplicable from a mechanistic point of view. In addition, atomic discontinuity puts an obstacle in the way of geometrization. Reality rejects the identity to which reason would reduce it. The real is only partly intelligible; it contains elements that are irreducible, and hence irrational. It is in fact the presence of these irrational elements, contradicting the rationalist idealism of the philosophers, that can serve to define the real in opposition to the structures erected by our thought. Thus while reason may well move from success to success in the quest for identity that essentially motivates its activities, it can never win a definitive victory. In the end, it is condemned to defeat.

Indeed, how could matters be otherwise? There is something odd and almost absurd about this endeavor of reason, for its complete success would betoken its ultimate failure. To explain reality fully would amount precisely to denying it as real, to dissolving it into a motionless and undifferentiated space, that is, into nothingness. A perfect explanation of the world would end up in acosmism. And the conflict would be met with again even if the object studied were only an ideal one, as in the case of mathematical speculation. Reasoning, even that which is apparently formal, is never tautological. Thought, at work, advances; it does not just repeat interminably that A is A. Meyerson came to emphasize more and more reason's need for something diverse to assimilate, and he tended to define reason not so much by its end, identity, as by its activity, identifying. Reason is thus essentially divided against itself. This is the epistemological paradox.

Meyerson later extended these views to other domains, from scientific reason to philosophical reason, from the modern physicist to primitive man and the medieval thinker; but they were first suggested to him by reflection upon classical science. Have the revolutions in physics served to confirm or contradict them? In La déduction relativiste (Paris, 1925), Meyerson easily showed that relativity theory was inspired throughout by the same ideal of objectivization and geometrization. Like Parmenides's sphere or René Descartes's world, Albert Einstein's universe is resorbed into space. However, quantum physics, because it sets bounds to continuity and objectivity, contains something "unassimilable." Meyerson believed, nonetheless, that quantum theory, in the interpretation given it by the Copenhagen school, was a passing "aberration," and that as soon as the physicists recognized the possibility of doing so, they would hasten to return to traditional viewsa conjecture that was in part subsequently verified.

If the detail is rich, the broad outlines of Meyerson's philosophy are simple and clear. It enjoyed great prestige about 1930. Since then, it has been somewhat overshadowed by the philosophy of the scientific theorists of the Copenhagen school, although Louis de Broglie retains the high estimate of it stated in his preface to Meyerson's Essais. Meyerson's philosophy has also been neglected because of the general shift of interest among contemporary philosophers from epistemological to existential problems.

See also Descartes, René; Einstein, Albert; French Philosophy; Identity; Lalande, André; Parmenides of Elea; Zeno of Elea.


Meyerson's writings include the small work Réel et déterminisme dans la physique quantique (Paris: Hermann, 1933) and a posthumously published collection, Essais (Paris: J. Vrin, 1936). An English translation of Identité et réalité by Kate Loewenberg appeared under the title Identity and Reality in London and New York in 1930.

See also André Lalande, "L'épistémologie de M. Meyerson," in Revue philosophique de la France et de L'étranger 96 (1922): 259280; Léon Brunschvicg, "La philosophie d'Émile Meyerson," in Revue de métaphysique et de morale 33 (1926): 3963; George Boas, A Critical Analysis of the Philosophy of Émile Meyerson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1930); Jacob Loewenberg, "Meyerson's Critique of Pure Reason," in Philosophical Review 41 (1932); Albert E. Blumberg, "Émile Meyerson's Critique of Positivism," in Monist 42 (1932): 6079; André Metz, Meyerson, une nouvelle philosophie de la connaissance, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1934); Thomas R. Kelly, Explanation and Reality in the Philosophy of Émile Meyerson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1937), with bibliography; Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie (April 1961), an issue devoted to Meyerson in celebration of the centenary of his birth.

Robert Blanché (1967)

Translated by Albert E. Blumberg

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Meyerson, Émile (1859–1933)

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