Mario Bunge : philosophy and physics

Mario Bunge is an internationally renowned philosopher of science. He's written hundreds of papers and dozens of books, including the Philosophy of Science in two volumes, Medical Philosophy and his eight-volume Treatise on Basic Philosophy.

Mario Bunge, professeur émérite de philosophy

At 96, he's as active a scholar as any academic half his age. His autobiography, "Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Philosopher-Scientist" will be published by Springer in the Spring of 2016, and he is currently writing his 72nd book, "Doing Science." Over decades, the philosophy of Mario Bunge, an Emeritus Professor at McGill University, has explored the minutiae of physics, the broad themes of metaphysics and advanced realist theories of knowledge.

Childhood in Argentina

Born in a politicized Argentina and informed by a voracious intellect and wide-ranging scope of learning, he likes to see science in the service of progressive thought.

Bunge grew up steeped in socialist thought. His German mother was a nurse who had worked in China and Argentina before the First World War. His Argentinian father — a doctor, leftist congressman and amateur sociologist — was a pioneer in social medicine who wrote a hefty bill recommending universal medicare in 1936, and translated Goethe in verse as a pastime.

"I was lucky growing up under his wing because at home I heard conversations on politics, sociology, medicine, literature".

Bunge studied physics and math at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, from 1938 to 1944, during which time he started a school for workers that students could attend at the end of the workday. His efforts at popular education were shut down by the government five years later.

Bunge continued to work on nuclear and atomic physics under the tutelage of Guido Beck, a student of Heisenberg and the first to propose the layer model of the atomic nucleus. All the while he studied philosophy on his own. In 1952, Bunge received his PhD, and subsequently worked on the puzzles of quantum mechanics.

Getting away from the dictatorship

Being frustrated with the paucity of intellectual resources in Argentina, Bunge decided to leave the country in 1963. "Latin America has been in the shadow of the cross and the sword until rather recently. Under the shadow not much grows." He also feared a military dictatorship, which came three years later. Had he stayed he is certain he would have been killed.

Accompanied by his second wife, mathematician and McGill professor emerita Marta Bunge, he taught physics and philosophy in America. A fellowship at the University of Freiburg, Germany, gave him the opportunity to his write his opus, the Foundations of Physics, in which he organizes the most important theories of physics.

His move to McGill

While in Europe, Marta was offered a postdoc at McGill. "I wanted to follow my wife, of course," says Bunge, so he wrote professor Raymond Klibansky, then chair of McGill's Philosophy Department about available positions. Even though Yale had vied for the Bunges, they preferred to shun the States.

"Most of the people in the [American] universities were in favour of the [Vietnam] war, which we thought immoral."

And so in 1966 the Bunges settled in Montreal, where they raised two children. (He also has two from his first marriage, one in Argentina, the other in Mexico.) Bunge is proud of his kids — "Three scientists and an architect, not bad!" — and is glad to have settled in such a culturally rich, multilingual city, although he missed his sons and friends in Argentina, as well as the lively public intellectual life of Latin America.

Aiming for objective social sciences

Even though he feels a freedom here in Canada, he is frustrated by the reactionary intellectual misconceptions that came about during the revolt in the '60s against science that spread outward from Berkeley. "Some of the student leaders were misled by philosophers who said science is a tool of late capitalism — Habermas and all those charlatans — and so if you revolt against the establishment you have to reject science as well."

Those who came out of that trend call themselves leftist, but Bunge sees them as obscurantist and right-wing because they are unwilling to apply scientific standards to studying social problems, "and so they don't help their own cause."

Bunge is clearly an advocate of social science, a point that is lost on his detractors.

"A typical trait of a right-winger is to try and prevent objective study of social reality because that's dangerous."


Back to top