In 1946 one of the world’s towering thinkers and most prominent New Jersey figures sat down at his desk at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and wrote, “Here I sit in order to write, at the age of 67, something like my own obituary.”
And while his death would not occur for another nine years, Albert Einstein was writing his type of intellectual will — an autobiographical essay as part of the Library of Living Philosophers.
That still existing series was launched in 1939 by German-born American philosophy professor Paul Schlipp, who saw Einstein as more than a physicist and invited him to participate in a series.
Other contributing writers had included philosophers John Dewey, George Santayana, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell.
While Einstein initially hesitated, he had a change of heart and wrote, “I am doing this not merely because Dr. Schilpp has persuaded me to do it, but because I do, in fact, believe that it is a good thing to show those who are striving alongside of us how our own striving and searching appears in retrospect. After some reflection, I feel how important any such attempt is bound to be.”
Now Princeton University Press has released the autobiographic essay in a new volume, “Einstein on Einstein.”
Subtitled “Autobiographical and Scientific Reflections,” the 217-page collection centered around Einstein’s essay was edited and developed by Hanoch Gutfreund, physicist and academic director of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Jurgen Reen, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.
The two are also the collaborators behind three other Einstein-themed studies, “The Formative Years of Relativity: The History and Meaning of Einstein’s Princeton Lectures,” “The Road to Relativity: The History and Meaning of Einstein’s ‘The Foundation of General Relativity,’” and “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory — 100th Anniversary Edition,” all published by Princeton University Press.
Calling Einstein’s autobiographical statement “one of Einstein’s most significant, but largely neglected texts,” the editors say it clearly shows “how a man of his kind thinks, as well as the challenges and tensions he encountered along his quest for a scientific worldview and not the final formulation of successful breakthroughs.”
They also argue that to “fully comprehend Einstein’s role in the history of modern physics, it is not enough to understand his theories and their consequences. A full understanding requires a picture that shows the results of Einstein’s scientific work and the methods that led to them to be on an equal footing.”
Organized in six parts, the book provides context, commentary, and background and explores Einstein’s thinking, theories, and contributions.
The 26-page “Autobiographical Note” is the final section where Einstein explores his own thinking and his theories.
While such topics sometimes can be found in other works, the essay shows him thinking and reflecting in the everyday world of society, family, and school.
After cautioning that “every reminiscence is colored by one’s present state, hence by a deceptive point of view,” he begins.
“When I was a fairly precocious young man I become thoroughly impressed with the futility of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in that chase. The stomach might be satisfied by such participation, but not man insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being.
“As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came — though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.
“The consequence was a positively fanatic (orgy of) free thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in a my specific social environment — an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into causal connections.”
Calling his “religious paradise of youth” a first attempt to free himself from the “merely personal” and “an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings,” he began to contemplate “this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.
“The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal.
“Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.”
While exploring how ideas and thoughts can develop outside of language, he brings up the idea of wonder and recalls his early experience when his father showed him a compass. “I can still remember — or at least believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”
Wonder returns again, when he writes, “At the age of 12 I experienced a second wonder of a totally different nature — in a little book dealing with Euclidean plane geometry, which came into my hands at the beginning of a school year. Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the three altitudes of a triangle at one point, that — though by no means evident — could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any doubt appeared to be out of the question.
“This lucidity and certainty made an indescribable impression upon me. That the axioms had to be accepted unproven did not disturb me. In any case it was quite sufficient for me if I could base proofs on propositions whose validity appeared to me beyond doubt.”
He then familiarized himself “with the elements of mathematics, including the principles of differential and integral calculus.” But he credits his learning to his “good fortune of encountering books that were not too particular regarding logical rigor, but that permitted the principal ideas to stand out clearly. This occupation was, on the whole, truly fascinating; there were peaks whose impression could easily compete with that of elementary geometry — the basic idea of analytical geometry, the infinite series, the concepts of derivative and integral.
“I also had the good fortune of getting to know the essential results and the methods of the entire field of the natural sciences in an excellent popular exposition, which limited itself almost throughout to qualitative aspects (Bernstein’s ‘Popular Books on Natural Science,’ a work of five or six volumes), a work that I read with breathless attention.”
The result was that at the age of 17 he entered the Polytechnical Institute of Zurich as a student of mathematics and physics.
Once there he admits to neglecting mathematics because he was more interested in natural sciences and working in an actual physical laboratory. It was later he realized that “access to a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics depends on the most intricate mathematical methods.”
He says he also learned to focus and “scent out that which might lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind and divert it from the essentials.”
He follows with a critique of the process of education and its relationship with wonder. “The hitch in this was, of course, that one had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such at deterring effect (upon me) that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.”
Then before turning to scientific ideas and his own work, he shares a cautionary thought: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and sense of duty.”
“Einstein on Einstein: Autobiographical and Scientific Reflections,”2020, $35, 217 pages, Princeton University press.