Kant and the idea of empty space

Adriana asked:

According to kant what would it mean that a person could not move in empty space?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As far as I’m aware Kant never mentions empty space. He says that space is a necessary intuition for us, so that we can understand our own motions in relation to all other motions. You could legitimately infer from this that space does not exist in itself. Which is very different from ’empty space.’

I don’t think the idea of empty space is intelligible. What sort of a space could be empty? Do you know or understand what empty space is?

Be that as it may, once you have a person, there is no empty space.

Once you have a person, there must be more than one person, and they must be co-ordinated in space.

So your question is self-contradictory. A bit like ‘can a mouth eat itself’?

One thought on “Kant and the idea of empty space

  1. I am just typing this because to clarify something for myself.

    In fact, it is not only that Kant does mention empty space. He also uses the impossibility of an empty/void space to argue that his first antinomy is based on a false term (Begriff).

    In § 52c of the Prologomena he says:

    “For neither assertion can be contained in experience, because experience either of an infinite space, or of an infinite time elapsed, or again, of the boundary of the world by a void space, or by an antecedent void time, is impossible; these are mere ideas.”

    What I do not understand about this: I DO think that there can be an empty space. When I imagine a hollow steel box – why should it be unintelligible to speak of an empty space inside the box? In fact, isn’t its emptiness the presupposition for the possibility to fill the box, say, with water?

    Of course, from the point of view of quantum mechanics the space might not be empty, but with a Newtonian understanding (if we exclude his ideas on ether) the space can be empty indeed. Again, if I could not fill an empty space, the whole idea of emptiness would not make sense, would it?

    I can understand Kant’s point on why infinite or void time are just ideas without a connection to our experience; and also why an infinite space is exactly this: a mere notion/abstraction misguiding us. But still, why the same should hold true for an empty space I don’t see – especially after Boyle and the Royal Society more or less established a vacuum experimentally and we know today that there is a vacuum around the earth.

    However, in some way I suspect that our/my conception of space may still be affected by its divinisation of space during the scientific revolution, which was based on the Scholastic view, like Edward Grant argues in his book “Much Ado about Nothing: Theories of Space and Vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution”.

    But that is just my this suspicion pointing at me misunderstanding Kant because of a historical history of the term “space” in general. If that’s not the case, somebody had to explain to me why the term “empty space” is an analytical contradiction, i.e. why the very term “space” does exclude the possibility of being empty, since I, as said, would argue the opposite.

    All the best,


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