Percy Bridgman, An Appreciation

So Prof. Bridgman (Dept of Physics, Harvard) seemed to be saying:

"Look, the results we're getting from all our efforts, and all our accumulated knowledge, don't appear that impressive. They are flawed, especially as they concern our dealings with others of our kind, other human beings. Perhaps we should look at how we employ our minds, hearts and voices to navigate and explore the topography of human life on earth? Who can be convinced at this late date that we have used our tools (mind/heart/voice) to their greatest advantage?"

But as soon as he starts out he is hemmed in by two -- in his view -- unavoidable and ineluctable features of human experience. The first is expressed in an individualism so stark the likes of it probably have never before been made the starting point of a philosophy. He places so much emphasis on the role of the individual that he has been charged with outright solipsism (which is defined by WordNet as "the philosophical theory that the self is all that you know to exist"), a charge he would like to deny but which, at least according to the limited proportion of his writings that I have seen, he never quite defeats.

As if to magnify the sharpness of his individualism, Bridgman also puts tremendous emphasis on that aspect of being human summed up by the expression "We can never get away from ourselves." There is no mythical Archimedean vantage point at which we might take up our observational tasks with, if not necessarily "objectivity," but then with at least a bit of DISTANCE from the object of our study, to wit, the very mind/heart/voice he wishes to examine critically to ferret out what might be the origins of our failure to find success in our search for understanding.

It's a double whammy: it is not only the case that only as individuals can we make any observations of anything at all, including our dubious selves, but not even the hope of gaining a different perspective can be held out to the stymied observer as a possible source of hope. He is trapped in the individual who is the only agent he has available to carry out his investigations of that very same individual, to wit: himself. This is headache stuff.

So, when he quips in 1955 (which makes it likely to be found in his The Way Things Are):

"What is the significance of the fact that "abstractions" and "generalizations" and the very concepts of "time" and "space" occur only in conjunction with a human nervous system?"

...he is calling attention to this double whammy that confronts not just the scientist, but every observer of the human situation.

A case can be made from some of his writings that Bridgman experienced being human as painful. This may be traceable to his sense of isolation, and of in fact being trapped in that isolation. Here he is in 1936:

"...that there is no getting away from the central position of the individual I believe anyone can see for himself merely by observing that the individual does not regard the following to be a senseless question: "Under what conditions would you draw the conclusion that everyone in the world except yourself had gone crazy?" The Nature of Physical Theory (1936)

One of my theories about Bridgman is that after his Nobel prize award (1946), following on WWII, he adopted a much lower profile as a public figure than he had displayed throughout the Thirties. Yes, in 1955 he was asked by the authors of the historic Einstein-Russell Manifestoto (in opposition to nuclear weapons) to be a signatory to it, but I submit that was the exception that made the rule for his final years. (He expired at age 79 in 1961, alone, by his own hand, due to intractable bone-cancer pain.) Could it not be that he, as things began to settle down into the "postwar" Cold War rhythm, came to be viewed as a bit of an eccentric, perhaps even a crank, not to be trotted out, so to speak, quite so often in the pages of The Boston Globe?

Certainly, when the readership of "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" read "P. Bridgman Harvard" on the Manifesto they might not have seen him in that light -- his stature over the years in the worlds of physics and philosophy was nothing short of towering -- but outside that slim cohort, even as early as 1955, it might have seemed to many that "nobody knew who he was anymore." If so, I believe he would have known then that that was the case. Not much got by this man, ever, is my guess.