The scientific conversation

25 Nov 2017 | Media

Interview with Justine Barbier, aggregated professor of philosophy

The legend, perhaps a bit true, says that Einstein started speaking belatedly, to the point that his parents worried about it. It is said that at the age of nine, in the last class of elementary school, he still spoke with difficulty. He would slowly prepare his sentence, silently wiggling his lips, delaying as far as possible the moment to make the words cross the threshold of expression, then, suddenly, uttering it out loud.

Einstein himself had the opportunity to explain, much later, at the very end of the Second World War, his particular way of thinking. He did so in the correspondence he exchanged with the French mathematician Jacques Hadamard, who had given a series of lectures at Princeton on the psychology of invention in the field of mathematics and theoretical physics. Hadamard argued that signs are a necessary support for the thought and that the most common sign system is of course language itself. But, he added, thought, when it is inventive, readily uses other systems of signs, more flexible and less standardized than ordinary language. In return, these systems have the virtue of leaving more freedom to the movement of thought that produces them. They thus allow the constitution of a more creative thought, with an often discontinuous character and proceeding by illuminations.

When Hadamard was putting the finishing touches to the work in which he related his conclusions, he received a first letter from Einstein: “Words and language, written or spoken, explained the father of relativity, do not seem to play the least role in the mechanism of my thinking. The psychic entities which serve as elements to the thought are for me certain signs, or more or less “clear” images, which can “at will” be reproduced or combined. The elements that I have just mentioned are, in my case, of a rather visual type ”.

In its primitive stage, Einstein’s ideas were therefore essentially non-verbal. They proceeded from phosphorescent fulgurations which he then succeeded in associating with the cold rigor of scientific thought.

But of course, Einstein was not the only one to have ideas since we all have them. So let us ask the question: generally speaking, where and how do ideas come to us?