The concepts of time and space have engaged the minds of some of history’s greatest thinkers. How are we to understand time and space? Are they to be included among things which we designate as being “real?” Do space and time exist in an absolute sense, as Newton proposed? Or are they relations of things, as Leibniz argued?
Immanuel Kant, in his classic work, The Critique of Pure Reason, posits both the reality and ideality of space and time (Kant 46-51). This innovative proposition is found in the section of the Critique entitled the Transcendental Aesthetic. The Transcendental Aesthetic is Kant’s argument that space and time are the two ways in which the human mind organizes our sensory experiences of the world. The Aesthetic is transcendental because it is an explication of the a priori nature of these two forms of sensibility.
Two views influenced Kant’s attempt to solve the problem of space and time.One was put forth by Isaac Newton, the other by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Newton had claimed that space and time are absolute. By this, he meant that space and time are metaphysical substances in their own right. Space and time are the containers of all objects, according to this view. Leibniz claimed that space and time are not substances at all, but only relations between bodies; they are fictions created by the mind based on relations between objects. Kant rejected both views and, instead, tried to carve out an intermediate position.
Kant claims that space and time are transcendentally ideal. By this, he means that space and time are two primary ways our minds order our sensory experience. Space and time are innate, a priori structures of the human mind. They are not substances in and of themselves, nor are they properties of substances. Rather, they are like lenses through which we view the world.
Kant also claims that space and time are empirically real. They have objective validity since they are present in the actual experiencing of objects (Kant, here, is presupposing the subject/object dichotolomy, which I reject). They are not substances, but they are supplied by the mind when we experience the manifold of sensation. Space is the form of outer intuition; time is the form of inner intuition. The mind presents outer objects to us in space. Our inner states succeed one another in time. By these inner states, time is applied to our experience of outer objects.
A crucial point in Kant’s argument consists in his claim that what we experience are appearances of objects, not the things-in-themselves. According to this view, we know objects only by the way they appear to us after they have been filtered through the two forms of intuition, i.e. space and time. According to Kant, we can never know the objects as they are in themselves.
A couple of questions to ponder:
- If Kant’s idea concerning space and time is incorrect, then how is a priori knowledge possible?
- Can space and time exist prior to the existence of perceiving beings?
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. London: Dent & Sons, 1991.
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