Emile Meyerson

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(b. Lyublin, Russia [now Lublin, Poland], 12 February 1859 ; d. Paris, France, 4 December 1933)

history and philosophy of science.

Meyerson was educated in Germany, where he studied from the ages of twelve to twenty-three and passed his Abitur. Intrested in Chmistry he followed the usual practice of spending time at several universisties distinguished for research laboratories; Göttingen, Heidelberg, and Berlin. He also worked in Paul Schützenberger’s laboratory at the Collège de France after his arrival at Paris in 1882. His short career as an industrial chemist was blighted by his failure to develop a process for the synthetic manufacture of indigo based on a wrong reaction obtained by Baeyer. Meyerson’s excellent commend of several languages then led him to become foreign news editor at the Havas News Agency. He joined teh M Group–Jean Moréas. Charles Maurras, and Maurice Mauridron– which met at the Café Vachette.

In 1898 Meyerson left Havas to work for Edmond de Rothschild’s philanthropic organization that sought to settle Jews in Palestine, and became the head of the Jewish Colonization Association for Europe and Asia Minor. He also collaborated on the famous report on the economic situation of Jews in the Russian Emopre. Although not a practicing Jew, Meyerson retained an attachment to Zionism. Through the support of Harald Høffding, a longtime friend and correspondent, he was elected to the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in 1926; that year he also became a correspondant étranger of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. Although Meyerson was not formally a member of the French academie community, he enjoyed the friendship of the philosopher Dominique Parodi, Léon Brunschvicg, and Lucian Lévy–Bruhl, as well as the scientists Paul Langevin and Louis de Broglie. His intellectual salon, which met weekly to discuss scinectifuc adn Philosophical topics, incouded Langevin, de Broglie, Hélènce Metzger Alexandre Koyré, General André Metz, André George,Salomon Reinach, Lévy-Bruhl, Henri Gouhier and Vladimir Jankélévitch. Meyerson’s influence was assured through this informal institution as well as through his articles and books.

Meyerson was greatly influenced by Hermann Kopp’s work in the history of chemistry and by Kristian Kroman’s Naturerkenntnis (German translation, 1883), which argued that the principles of identity and causality are the basic premises of of seicence. An autodidact in philosophy, Meyerson of scinece. An autodidact in philosophy, Meyerson first learned philosophy from the works of Charles Renouvier and was influenced by the neo–kantian movement. He also was affected by the works and correspondence of Høffding, a close friend of Niels Bohr. The genesis of Meyerson’s fist and most famous work,Identité et réalité (1908), was in his Kopp–inspired studies of chemistry before Lavoisier, which he found to be linked to modern chemistry by an ontological common denominator. An extension of his inquiry beyond the development of chemistry led him to master much of the history of the study of the natural science form actiquity to his own day. His program was the unfulfilled one of Comte: to discover a posterior the a priori principles guiding thought in its search for the nature of reality. As George Boas put it. “… to discover inductively the ‘a priori’ M. Meyerson… means… those principles without which the human mind has not operated to date and whcih are not discorved by it in experience itself.” Although Meyerson’s apistemological quest was strongly influenced by German thought, it was an integral part of French philosophy of science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth it was an integral part of French philosophy of science in the late nineteenth and warly twentieth centuries Following Descartes, d’Alember, Ampère Comte, Cournot, Renouvier, Jules Lachelier, and Émile Bouroux, Meyerson assumed a realtionsship between philosophy and natural science. He clearly was part of the great French movement in the philosophy of science during the period dominated by Pierre Duhem, Poincaré, Henri Bergson and édouard Le Roy.

Meyerson’s minute examination of the technical works and stated aims of scientists led him to reject Ernst Mach’s phenomenalism and Comet’s postivist thesis which limited seience to the functions of action and prediction. As William A. Wallace put it, “Scientists have never been content simply with registering phenomena and summarizing them in laws that make possible the prediction and control of further phenomena.” The leitmotiv of Meyerson’s epistemology is his distinction between légalité and indntité. The dynamism of science comes from the desire of the scientist to understand the external world . Meyerson according to Owen Hillman, held that “scientific explanation consists in transforming empirically discovered natural laws into statements of identity in time.” Since for Neyerson the principle of causality was only the principle of idenity applied to time, Identity and Reality is basically the demonstration of the key role of causality in the physical sciences (Abel Rey and Erich Becher arrived at a similar Conclusion). Yet the concept of identity is limited to the role of guiding principle in Meyerson’s epistemology. And although he held scientific thought to be a continauation of commonsense views– both of them are founded on the concept of a Ding an sich Meyerson did not adopt a realist philosophy based on a fixed philosophcial system. (Meyerson valued the chapter on common sense in Identity Reality Reality above the Others).

Few would quarrel with Meyerson’sw case for science as a progressive rationalization of reality. The difficulty comes in explaining why science never finishes its explanation or, worse still, change it. Meyerson accepted the Bergsonian idea of a residual irrationality of things expressed by the irreducible specificity of time as compareed with space. Not susceotible of reduction to spatial representation, life and conscience escape the mechanistic clutches of science in Bergson’s work. Matter itself was given a littel irredicibilty by Meyerson. The presence of the residual element of irrationality in nature means that there is an element of irrationality in science itself that cannot be totally eliminated by scientific explantion. Reality resistss the effort of reason to annihilate the external world; the resistance finds its most general expression in Sadi Carnot’s principle the dissymmetry of which mechanical theories.. give rise, Carnot’s Principle stipulates that the whole universe is modifying itself in time in a constant direction” (Meyerson., Idetity and Reality [1930], p. 265). (Abel Rey rejecteed the idea that Cornot’s principle shows the resitance if reality to attempts at raationalization; he argued that the principle could coneivably be goven a mechanistic interpretation– that is, future kinetics might be so constructed as to integrate successfully.)

Thus identity can attain only the status of “the eternal framwork of our mind” –never a Kantian category– which penteraties but does not make up the totality of science,” Since” Carnot’s principle is an integral part of science” has given ralitu its rightful place, proving that “contrary to what causality postulated it is not possible to eliminate time.” Carnot’s principle saves science form the “Progressive elimiation of reality , which is the consequence of successive identifications.” Small wonder that Brunshvicg declared sadi Carnot to be that real hero of Identity and Reality Abel Rey noted Meyeson faliure to make much of a case for the interpretation of Carnot’s priciple as an expression of the interpretation of Carnpt principle as an wexpression of the idea of probability in physics. The reason for this as George Boas points out, is that if one “remains content wiht equations of probaplity one has abandoned any hope of Meyersonian explanation.” The successof his mechanoical thory founded on statistical probaility partly explanis of the ultimate failture of Meyorson’s philophy of science to achieve pradifm status among both scientists and philosophers of science.

Variations on Meyerson’s thesis can be found in his other works: De l’ explication dans les sciences (1921), a work that also gives considerable attention to the “global explanation” attmptd by such philosophers as Hegel; La déduction relativiste(1925), which incorporated relativity into the general evolution of physics, thus showing that Myersonian explanation applied not only to the relics of past science but also to contemporary scientific thought; and Du cheminement de la pensée (1931), which moved beyond scientific explanation to generl logic, in order to develop a theory of general knowledge based on the priniciple of indentity. Meyerson thus took his position in a series of European thinkers from Descartes to Cluade Lévi–Struss who have studied the functioning of the mind; his freindship with Lévy–Bruhl reinforced this epistemological interest. The cheminment is also important because it devloped Meyerson’s phlosophy of mathematics. According to kenneth Bryson. “Meyerson finds in mathematics the ideal instrument for the conversion of reason and reality in plausible propositions… It enables science to retain identities while accounting for differences.” meyerson’s philosophy of mathematics is oriented toward representation, the element coming from percption, and thus makes formalism secondary, Meyerson noted that although relativity is a thory of reality, it is also the triumph of the mathmaticization of physcis over mechanism as the form of modern science. In Réel et déterminisme dans la physique quantique (1933), Meyerson admitted that the principle of legality plays a much larger role in science than he had thought and is really derived from the principle of causality. The great revolution–although Meyerson called it an evolution–in scientific understanding was that the precision of the physicist’s formulas met an unpassable barrier in the existence of the quantum of action. Yet the physicist of the future would be driven by his desire for a Weltbild to look for the physical significance of the concepts born of mathematical reasoning.

Meyerson’s philosophy had little influence after the 1930’s; its eclipse corresponded to “the decline and fall of causality” in contemporary science, the strength of the Vienna Circle in the philosophy of science, and the shift in interest among philosophers from problems of knowledge to problems of existence. In france there was also the attack by Gaston Bachelard, who exaggerated the continuity and realism in Meyerson. Nevertheless, the continuing literaure on Meyerson indicates a fairly strong interest in his work, and his ideas show little sign of becoming extinct. Jacques Maritain’s Degrees of knowledge reveals the interest of Thomists in his ideas.

Some of Meyerson’s Essais (1936) contained early pieces in the history of science, but he did not wish to be known as a historian of science. If we accept the judgment of P. M. Rattansi that “some of the most exciting work in the history of modern science has come for a generation from intellectual his historians like E.A. Burtt, Ernst Cassirer, and Alexander Koyré, who showed how the study of nature is related to larger metaphysical assumptions and is involved in complex ways with other areas of intellectual culture,” then we can justly include Meyerson in his pantheon. When Meyerson wrote to Høffding that Koyré would translate Høffding’s Erkenntnistheorie und Lebensauffassumg, he described Koyré as a “Young and learned philosopher of true talent”. The relation between these two East Europeans who came to France via Germaney is not to be ignored, for through the critical mediation and example of Koyré, it is likely that Meyerson has exerted more influence than is generally recognized. As Koyré admitted, this influence is not to be found in fidelity to the subtle dogma of the basic identity of human thought, for most of us follow Koyré in recognizing its different structures in different historical periods. Meyerson’s great precept was that we should respect our predecessors who made errors and should seek reassonable explanations of their mistakes as carefully as the explanations of their succsses. Like Duhem, Meyerson saw in the history of scientific thought an essential instrument gives a dimension unattainable through introspection or direct analysis of the processes of science and their development.


I. Original Works. Meyerson’s most famous work is Identité et ré1ité (Paris, 1908); the English trans. (London,–New York, 1930) is of the 3rd ed. (Paris, 1926), which is identical with th rev. and enl. ed. (Paris, 1912). Meyerson considerd the Geman trans. (1930), which has a long introduction by th mathematician Leon Licthenstein, who spread Meyerson’s ideas in Gemany, better than the English. Meyerson’s other works are De l’expliction dans les sciences, 2vols. (Paris, 1921; 2nd ed., 1927); La déduction relativiste (Paris 1925); Du cheminement de la pensée, 3 vols. (Paris, 1931); Réel et determinisme dans la physiquequantique (Paris, 1933): and Essais (Paris, 1936). Lucien Lévy–Bruhl, ed. A key work for the study of Meyerson’s ideas is Correspondances entre Harald Høffding et Émile Meryerson (copenhagn, 1939)

II. Secondry Literaur. George Boas, A Critical Analysis of the Philosophy of Émile Meyerson (Baltimore, 1930), has no bibliography; but the critical study by Thomas R. Kelly Explanation and Rality in the philosophy of Émile Meyerson (Princeon, N.J., 1937), does, The Italian interest in Meyerson is eident in several studies, including silvestro Marcucci, émile Meyerson. Epistemologia e filosofia (Turin, 1962), which defends Meyerson against Bachelard’s criticisms and is criticl of Georges Mourelos, L’epistemologie postitive et la critique meyersonienne (Paris, 1963), –see physis 5(1963), 199–205. An early critique is Owen N. Hillman, “Émile Meyerson on Scintific Explanation,” In Plhilosophy of Science (1938), 73–80. On general context of the Meyersonian critique, see William A. Wallace. Causality and Scientific Explantion II (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1974). On his metaphysics, see Kenneth A. Bryson, “The Metaphysics of Émile Meyeson: a Key to the Epistmological Paradox,” Thomist, 37, no. 1 (1973), 119–132. The 26 Nov. 1960 session of the Société Francaise de Philosophie was devoted to “Commeroraion du centenaire de la naissance de deux epistemologues francais. mile Meyeron et Gaston Milhaud.” See Bulletin de la Societe frangaise de philosophie, 55, no. 1 (1961), 51–116,.M. Rattansi’s remark is in “Some Evaluations of Reason in Sixteenth and sevnteenth–century Natural philosphy,” in Mibuláš Teich and Robert Young, eds., Changing Perspectives in the History of Science. Essays in Honour of Joseph Needham (Boston, 1973).

H . W. Paul

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(b. Lyublin, Russia [now Lublin, Poland], 1859; d. Paris, France, 1933)


For a complete study of his life and work, see Supplement.