Émile Meyerson (1859–1933)

1. Brief Vita

Emile Meyerson was born on February 12, 1859 in Lyublin, Russia (now Lublin, Poland). He died in Paris, on December 4, 1933. He was educated in Germany from the ages of twelve to twenty-three. He studied chemistry in Göttingen, Heidelberg and Berlin, and he met Hermann Kopp, the great historian of chemistry who had a deep influence on him. He arrived in Paris in 1882. He first worked at the Collège de France in Paul Schützenberger’s laboratory. He then had a brief career as an industrial chemist. His command of many languages finally enabled him to become a foreign-news editor, first for the Havas Agency, and later for the Jewish Colonization Association, Edmond de Rotschild’s philanthropic organization that helped Jewish settlements in Palestine. Although he never became a member of the French academic community, he regularly met the philosophers Léon Brunschvicg, André Lalande or Dominique Parodi, and the scientists Paul Langevin, Louis de Broglie and Albert Einstein. In spite of the efforts of his disciples, General André Metz and Alexandre Koyré, to defend him after his death he was the object of vehement criticism from Gaston Bachelard. Nevertheless, later in the century, he was still read by many American authors, including Thomas Kuhn and Willard V. O. Quine. He himself was very interested in Anglo-Saxon philosophy, as is evident from his comments on Francis Herbert Bradley, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead.

2. Categories Relevant to Whiteheadian Scholarship

Meyerson was one of the first French readers’ of Whitehead’s cosmology—even before Jean Wahl who is generally recognized as a seminal commentator on Whitehead in French.[1] What attitude should the philosopher adopt when confronted with science? Should he seek to explain its origins and issues, or to incorporate it into a more comprehensive scheme of thought? The first alternative represents Meyerson’s position, the second Whitehead’s (at least as he was understood by Meyerson). As we will see, Meyerson essentially reproaches Whitehead for not respecting science and common sense, their history as well as their present state. Indeed, he leveled the same criticisms against Whitehead as he had leveled against Hegel and Bergson in De l’explication dans les sciences (Meyerson, 1921) and Du cheminement de la pensée (Meyerson, 1931), respectively.

2.1. Causality and the Order of Nature

First, Meyerson praised Whitehead for criticizing Hume’s conception of causality as an arbitrary link between two successive events. For if there were only such an arbitrary link, science would be impossible. To Hume’s concept of causality, Whitehead opposed the idea of an “order of nature.” The concatenation of the events, Meyerson writes, is fully determined in nature:

Reality must be built up in a determinate manner. […] But this does not imply anything more. In particular, it does not imply (contrary to the apparent beliefs of Mr. Whitehead, whose theory […] is, from this point of view, more or less close, to orthodox positivism), that there exists, in cause and effect, or rather in the anterior and the posterior, anything inherent that goes beyond a completely arbitrary relation (1931, 518-520).[2]

According to Meyerson, it is not enough to acknowledge an “order of nature.” To be more than a mere succession of events, a series of phenomena must involve the “reason” for their concatenation. Perhaps Whitehead is right in criticizing to Hume for his empirical notion of causality. Nevertheless, the “order of nature” he aims at substituting for empirical causality fails in explaining the logical way by which facts are connected to one another.

2.2. Relation and Reason

In spite of that small divergence on Hume’s critics, Meyerson is quite sensitive to the empirical aspects of Whitehead’s thought. For instance, Meyerson praised the English philosopher for grounding geometry in sense-experience: “Mr. Whitehead asserts that ‘the primary type of figure is the sense-figure’ and that ‘the geometrical figure derives from it’ (PNK, 190)” (Meyerson 1931, 299; cf. 320). But, for the French epistemologist, even if the science’s first step is always to be found in experience, the human mind generally projects its reasons on phenomena; it spontaneously believes that things outside us conform to the ideas inside us. And, Meyerson adds, such projections and beliefs are far from being illegitimate: the ideas make forecasts possible, and these forecasts are most likely confirmed by the experience. For Meyerson, the reason forms the nature or the essence of a thing, and this thing is taken as the cause of phenomena: “causa” and “chose” are identical. The cause represents the substantial basis explaining any change observed within the course of phenomena. It is no surprise that Meyerson refused to accept Whitehead’s elimination of scientific objects and the constitution of a “metaphysics of events” considered as the ultimate elements of nature (Meyerson 1931, 794).

2.3. The Bifurcation of Nature, Primary and Secondary Qualities, Substance and Accident

When Meyerson deplores Whitehead’s elimination of the scientific object, what does he exactly mean? Meyerson recognizes that Whitehead’s intention was to refute the “bifurcation of nature,” and to overcome the Lockean distinction between primary and secondary qualities (Meyerson 1931, 801-802). In modern science, such a distinction was used to select those qualities and sensations that seemed essential to the real nature of the object (cf. Meyerson 1931, 122). Through this distinction and its application, Locke and modern science unconsciously gave a new form to Aristotle’s division between substance and accident, which, unfortunately, still dominates scientific thinking: Whitehead “especially blames Aristotle’s logic whose ‘unquestioned acceptance’ (notably during the Middle Ages) would ‘have left an ingrained tendency to postulate a substratum for all that is disclosed in sense-awareness, namely, to look below what we are aware of for the substance understood as the ‘concrete thing’ (CN, 18)’” (Meyerson 1931, 123). Thus, when Meyerson asserts that Whitehead aims at eliminating the form of the object, he has in mind Whitehead’s intention to embrace all the kinds of sensations and qualities understood by common sense, and not only those privileged by scientists.

2.4. Common Sense, Science and Sensation

Meyerson offers many cogent arguments against this intention. His reasons are both historical and philosophical. More precisely, he insists on historical facts so as to defend a philosophical point that is quite different:

But to ascribe the realism espoused by physics to this [Aristotelian] influence really looks like attempting the impossible. Were Leucippus and Democritus […] therefore less materialist than the author of the Organon? Are not atoms, to the contrary, far more material than Aristotelian qualities? And can we ignore that physics is linked much more to the latter, to Greek atomists? Newton, in expounding his theory of matter, makes explicit reference to them; and Descartes’ opponents also reminded him of the resemblance (Meyerson 1931, 123).

Aristotle did not influence modern science that much. As Meyerson reminds us, Democritus’ and Leucippus’ atomism was far more relevant for scientists like Newton or Descartes. Thus, Meyerson’s first arguments are of purely historical interest. But this interest is only the first moment in a complex chain of reasoning—which Wahl does not fully appreciate.[3] For Meyerson claims that it is not true that common sense should renounce Aristotle’s influence. Quite the opposite: the Aristotelian philosophy is nothing but an extension and a codification of common sense. Modern science itself has just prolonged and amplified common tendencies. Indeed, to understand this point, we must precise that, according to Meyerson, “common sense” has nothing to do with Whitehead’s use of the term. In Meyerson’s judgment, expressed in his first major book Identity and Reality (1908), there is no need to reconcile science and common sense, because common sense simply involves larger, less precise sensations: common sense is nothing but a primitive scientific ontology. Common sense prepares the way for science by denying the primacy of sensations. In sensation, people never apprehend all the qualities of a phenomenon, and rarely attend to the whole diversity of sensations provoked by that phenomenon. They usually “reject” sensations in order to spontaneously conceive of a “table,” for instance, rather than perceiving the complex details of the sense-data that make possible the concept of “table.”

3. Personal Assessment: Epistemology and Cosmology

Should we raise the objection that Whitehead never denied the importance of identity and objectivity, for science as well as for common sense? Wahl judged Meyerson to be unfair to Whitehead on this point: the cosmologist never tried to dissolve objects, but only wanted scientists to take other entities—that are less massive and more complex forms of objectivity—into account:

Mr. Meyerson makes the following objection to Whitehead’s theory of science: “Do not we just need to interrogate ourselves to realize that we see objects when we open our eyes in the morning?” (Cheminement de la pensée, I, 124). But this is exactly what Whitehead insists upon. Yet, he distinguishes different sorts of objects and recognizes—above and below thoughts “by object” in the ordinary meaning of the word—thoughts more massive or more tenuous, where we can speak of an “object” only by significantly expanding the ordinary meaning. Whitehead’s theory, more complex than Meyerson’s, fits uneasily into Meyerson’s terms, or indeed, cannot fit into them. Nevertheless, it is true that he [Whitehead] does not want to ‘eliminate objects’ (Cf. Meyerson, III, p. 800) (Wahl 1932, 192).

After reading Wahl, Arnaud Dandieu, a French supporter of Meyerson, had the feeling that Whitehead’s attempt to complicate and enrich objectivity led to the issue as depicted by Meyerson—the dissolution of all things. Now, asks Dandieu, how are scientific revolutions possible if one does not admit any more scientific objects? Scientific theories, as Meyerson has shown, need such objects: a theory is nothing but the postulation of a “thing” so as to deduce phenomena, and scientists always fight for the acknowledgement of their cause, against the contradictions of others advocating another cause. The history of science presupposes such contradictions and paradoxes—what Meyerson calls “epistemological paradoxes.” Indeed, Dandieu makes this a general truth about politics and history as a whole. “Wahl tells us that Whitehead accepts the concrete object, and even claims it; but he dilutes it to the infinite in a series of distinctions which overlap each other. The thickness of the concrete, deprived of its irreducible aggressivity, is it still concrete?” (Dandieu 1932, 633). It seems that Dandieu was chiefly interested in the political consequences of Meyerson’s “epistemological paradox” and his correlative attack on Whitehead’s dissolution of scientific objects: there are the only means, for this young revolutionary, to promote violent transformations in France between the two world wars.

However, Whitehead and Meyerson were perhaps not so far from one another as Wahl and Dandieu thought. So argued Thomas R. Kelly, a student of Whitehead, whose doctoral dissertation directly compared Whitehead and Meyerson. In truth, Kelly claimed, Whitehead and his French contemporary agree more deeply than any of them would be ready to accept:

There is a profound kinship between these two thinkers which goes deeper than the very great difference between them […]. Both admit into the heart of knowing and of becoming an element of obscurity or irrationality, a residuum not capable of inclusion within a consistent rational scheme. Yet both feel the powerful lure of the speculative ideal (Kelly 1937, 106).

As Whitehead demonstrated, “the advance of reality, like the advance of explanation, exhibits opposing tendencies, on the one hand toward unity and integration wherein diversity disappears, on the other hand toward endlessly finer discriminations and nuances of emphases” (Kelly 1937, 123). But Meyerson’s epistemology also admits such a fundamental contrast: even if the stress is generally laid on the unity and integration of phenomena into a thing or a cause, Meyerson often insists on the role played in science by the irreducible diversity of reality. In Meyerson’s philosophy, the resistance of nature towards the claims of rationality indicates the importance of what he calls the “irrational.” The “irrational” even keeps science from an intellectual suicide: if nature provided no more resistance to mind, if science were able to reduce everything to its reasons, reason would die. It would be equivalent to Parmenides’ sphere or Laplace’s “nebula”: perfect and identical to itself, human intelligence would not move or progress any more. This represents another aspect of the “epistemological paradox”: contradiction is not only a reality for reason, but indeed necessary for its subsistence and evolution. Note that Meyerson thought this aspect of science to be directly dependent on Bergson’s description of duration: in Identity and Reality, Meyerson qualified the Principle of Carnot, typical of the resistance of becoming towards rational identity, as a Bergsonian principle; the second law of thermodynamics represents a coup de sonde in pure duration.

Considering such an attention to duality (namely to identity in rational science as well as diversity and duration face to face with identity), Kelly concludes that Meyerson and Whitehead strongly look like one another. The only difference lies in the extent and the scope of such a duality: it is purely epistemological for Meyerson, whereas it implies cosmological issues for Whitehead. From the former to the latter, “epistemological paradox becomes metaphysical paradox” (Kelly 1937, 123).

But we must go further. Kelly’s description, as attractive it may be for Meyersonians, as for Whiteheadians, is still schematic. Kelly does not reach the core of the problem—as Meyerson argued in his last book, Du cheminement de la pensée.

Even if Whitehead leaves room for objects, an unsolved difficulty still remains, according to Meyerson. Whitehead thinks that, as a philosopher, he is capable of understanding objects and sensations, and his cosmology embraces every aspect of reality, identity as well as multiplicity. Now, Meyerson precisely refuses to attribute the categories of human mind to the external world. Whitehead’s cosmology promotes a conception of rationality—able to penetrate the identity of scientific objects together with the diversity of qualities and sensations—that is analogous to what Hegel called “concrete reason”: Whitehead claims this rationality succeeded where scientific rationality failed—which is not the case:

There are, M. Whitehead says, two sides to nature, as it were, antagonistic the one to the other, and yet each essential. The one side is development of creative advance, the essential becomingness of nature. The other side is the permanence of things, the fact that nature can be recognised. Thus nature is always a newness relating objects which are neither new nor old [PNK, 98].

Meyerson proceeds to propose to “take apart what in this passage deals with becoming (which M. Whitehead’s philosophy attempts to include within the rational, somewhat similarly to the way Hegel deals with his ‘concrete reason’)” (Meyerson 1931, 138-39). The French philosopher is a mere epistemologist, and he does not think that philosophy can accomplish more than a commentary on scientific ontology: according to him, whenever a metaphysician tries to critique, direct or correct science, he is obviously refuted by the facts. Meyerson made this point in his first book, Identité et réalité (1908): Lozte, Boutroux and Bergson were wrong to believe they could explain certain difficulties in the theory of electricity. Meyerson argued similarly in his second book, De l’explication dans les sciences (1921) that despite its impressive conceptual structure, Hegel’s Naturphilosophie was a vain attempt to complete and overcome scientific theories. Thus, formulating new ontologies is for Meyerson a futile task, because of the greater power and truth of the metaphysics assumed by science. Instead, to be useful, the philosopher should propose “prolegomena to metaphysics.” That is, the philosopher’s task, reduced to the work of an epistemologist, consists in describing and making explicit the meaning of scientists’ working ontology. At the end of his life, Meyerson calls his work a “philosophy of intellect,” and he sharply distinguishes this philosophy from any “philosophy of nature.” Bergson, Hegel, and Whitehead are seen as promoting a “philosophy of nature,” while Meyerson considered D’Alembert, Lazare Carnot, Cournot, Duhem and Poincaré as ancestors of his own “philosophy of intellect.”

This philosophy of intellect performs an a posteriori analysis of thought, particularly scientific thought. And, from this methodological point of view, Whitehead’s philosophy is irrelevant: it does not describe adequately the situation in past and present science.[4] In fact, Whitehead was wrong to interfere into the growth of science. The philosopher has no right to say if scientists are wrong or not, as his arguments will always be weaker than those of scientists. If Whitehead’s schemes were adopted and used by science, Meyerson would have to study them as he had made for any other product of science. However, as long as it is not the case, the epistemologist has no metaphysical interest in studying this cosmology:

Dealing with M. Whitehead’s conceptions (in Du cheminement de la pensée, § 77), we were not able to adopt his point of view: this distinguished thinker believes that his theory is grounded in scientific results, whereas, to the contrary, if his ideas prevailed, it would certainly entail a very serious change in physics as presently constituted. In this regard, the situation is analogous to that with Hegel or Comte. It is only if a revolution appeared and if physicians began actually to speak as Whiteheadians and to build a Whiteheadian science, that it would become necessary to subject this thought (which is really interested in itself) to an analysis of its fundamental principles. But this does not prevent one from recognizing that, on individual points, Whitehead’s work and arguments bring much enlightenment (Meyerson 1936, 137-38).

Such an assessment does not contradict Meyerson’s recognition that Whitehead’s philosophy, like many others, can provide material for the philosophy of science. This was the case also with Hegel’s dialectic, whose movement gave Meyerson the opportunity of making his “epistemological paradox” explicit. Namely, Meyerson found in Hegel’s Logic the truth that the human mind is always searching for the rational identity of all phenomenal diversity, although Meyerson’s paradox does not go so far as the Hegelian dialectic to assert that all contradiction and irrationality will ultimately be resolved.

In the same manner, Whitehead’s systematization is of great help in understanding the problems facing science. This is apparent with regard to the question of sensation. Whitehead claims to have provided a proper account of sensation. While accepting the difficulty for science itself, Meyerson does not judge that philosophy is capable of solving it. Of course, philosophy has to highlight such a fact, and Meyerson himself insisted on the irrationality of sensation (Meyerson 1908). But locating the historical obstacle does not give the right to put the pressure on science, and it is far from dissolving the difficulty: philosophy is unable to surpass science in such matters of fact. Consequently, Whitehead’s philosophy does not furnish the epistemologist with any scientific instruments to resolve the crisis, but only with conceptual biases to help apprehend the point.

3.1. The “Debate on Determinism” and “War of Sciences”

Has the time come for a Whiteheadian “philosophy of nature,” rather than a Meyersonian “philosophy of intellect”? In 1979, in La nouvelle alliance, Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers declared that science should abandon Meyerson’s description of the history of science as the history of successive identifications of the diversity of sensations, from Galileo and Newton to Einstein:

Emile Meyerson tried to describe the history of modern science as the gradual implementation of what he regarded as a constitutive prejudice of human reason: the need for an explanation bringing the different and the changing to the identical and the permanent, and thus eliminating time (Prigogine & Stengers 1979, 365; my translation).

Physics and chemistry have to reconsider qualities and sensations. These were excluded from modern science, but scientists must now continue what Hegel, Bergson and Whitehead once attempted in philosophy.

In some way, Meyerson himself had anticipated such a situation. In Du cheminement de la pensée, he wrote that Whitehead’s hope of a rational understanding of sensations and qualities, de facto unrealized in science, was not absurd: before Whitehead, Gœthe had made the claim in his theory of colors: “Gœthe’s abhorrence for Newtonian optics appears not entirely unjustified, just as we can understand M. Whitehead’s attempt to reintegrate qualitative sensation into mathematical physics” (Meyerson 1931, 693-94). Meyerson argued that the philosopher could not do anything prior to the development of such a physics. Yet, it was not impossible, he said, that such a physics could emerge in the future:

There still is some qualia in contemporary physics, and above all in chemistry […]. Can we not imagine that this mode of explanation will render great service in the future, that it will allow new experimental observations, and that, fortified by these conquests, a more qualitative physics will be established? It is this, it seems that Mr. Whitehead hopes for. And this hope—even if its realization would seem so improbable—does not appear to be irrational in itself (Meyerson 1931, 696).

Has science become Whiteheadian? The question deserves a new and nuanced treatment. Such a treatment would involve retracing the debate on determinism in France in the early eighties (see Pomian 1990), and, in the nineties, the “war of sciences” regarding the status of realism and constructivism in scientific theories (see Stengers 1996-1997). Does contemporary science appear more Whiteheadian or Meyersonian? It is hard to say. In any case, one thing is sure: Meyerson’s epistemology and Whitehead’s cosmology equally enlighten the situation of science both in the past and the present.


[1] The fact was recently acknowledged by Isabelle Stengers: “It is not entirely true to say that French philosophy has totally ignored Whitehead. Concept of Nature, published in 1920, provoked Bergson’s praise in Durée et simultanéité. Emile Meyerson, who did not miss anything, commented on his metaphysics in 1931 in Du cheminement de la pensée, whereas Jean Wahl dedicated a chapter of Vers le concret to him in 1932” (Stengers 2002, 13-14).

[2] This, and all subsequent translations from Meyerson, are my own.

[3] See Wahl 1932, 139-40: “Where Meyerson sees the essence of scientific research, Whitehead only sees a default in a peculiar form of intelligence. Perhaps—and on this point Meyerson’s critics seem justified—he attributed too much influence to Aristotelian logic, and there was something more fundamental there than that logic. But this remark, historical (from Whitehead’s perspective), does not reach the core of Whitehead’s thought.”

[4] Here, he is comparable to Hegel and Comte: Comte’s prohibitions (no microscope, no further astronomical investigation of the stars, etc.) were refuted by the progress of the science of his time. Again, Hegel’s Naturphilosophie purported to offer judgment on the rival claims of Newton and Gœthe: he explicitly expresses his preference for Gœthe (on the theory of colours), as well as for Kepler (in astronomy), and for magnetism (in chemistry).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Dandieu, Arnaud. 1932. “Jean Wahl, Vers le concret,” Europe, 629-34.

Kelly, Thomas R. 1937. Explanation and Reality in the Philosophy of Emile Meyerson (Princeton, Princeton University Press).

Meyerson, Emile. 1908. Identité et réalité (Paris, Alcan). Translated in 1930 by Kate Loewenberg as Identity and Reality (London, George Allen & Unwin).

Meyerson, Emile. 1921. De l’explication dans les sciences (Paris, Payot). Translated in 1991 by Mary-Alice and Daniel A. Sipfle as Explanation in the Sciences (Dordrecht, Kluwer).

Meyerson, Emile. 1931. Du cheminement de la pensée (Paris, Alcan).

Meyerson, Emile. 1936. Essais, with a Foreword by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (Paris, Vrin).

Pomian, Krzysztof et al. 1990. La querelle du déterminisme. Philosophie de la science aujourd’hui (Paris, Gallimard).

Prigogine, Ilya, Stengers, Isabelle. 1979. La nouvelle alliance. Métamorphose de la science (Paris, Gallimard). Translated in 1984 as Order out of Chaos: Man’s new Dialogue with Nature, with a Foreword by Alvin Toffler (Toronto/New York/London, Bantam Books).

Stengers, Isabelle. 1996-97. Cosmopolitiques. 7 Vol. (Paris and Le Plessis-Robinson, La Découverte/Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond).

_____. 2002. Penser avec Whitehead, Une libre et sauvage création de concepts (Paris, Seuil).

Wahl, Jean. 1932. Vers le concret. Etudes d’histoire de la philosophie contemporaine. William James, Whitehead, Gabriel Marcel (Paris, Vrin).

Author Information

F. Fruteau de Laclos
Université Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne, IHPST

How to Cite this Article

Fruteau de Laclos, F., “Émile Meyerson (1859–1933)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/contemporaries/emile-meyerson/>.