Kant on space and time

Brendan asked:

Space and time are named by Kant as the structures of our mind which shape sense data into perceptions, from which we formulate our ideas about the world. If you wouldn’t mind, could you tell me how Kant figures that space and time specifically are the mental structures by which we perceive the world? Through what order of propositions does Kant arrives at these specific structures? Why does he not simply conclude that the mind shapes perceptions, thus suspending judgment about why this is so?

I hope I am making myself clear. My understanding so far is that the human being is not a passive observer of objective reality; our knowledge of the world, from experience, is necessarily molded by the mind. We do not perceive the noumenal realm, because the noumenal realm is that which transcends perception. But that further step which posits ‘categories’ is what escapes me. Thanks!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The further step, as you call it, is in fact the opposite: It is the step that must come before all others; and this is precisely what escaped everyone before Kant worked it out and laid the foundations for our understanding of the mind. After all, the mind is not a Just-so story. It must have a capacity!

You might ask yourself: How does a newborn baby learn to see, hear, touch etc. and sort out what meaning those impulses have? And then, at a later stage, with the onset of a more refined degree of consciousness, what is the source of directional and temporal discrimination?

So you should ask ‘what is this capacity’? To approach this subject, let us ask how mechanical sensors (e.g. fire alarms, radios) detect impact. Here the answer is obvious: Certain parts of these contraptions have the disposition to react in a certain way upon the impact of specific causal occurrences. We call this disposition rather pathetically ‘sensitivity’. But it assists our understanding of the Kantian categories, as these implements possess a structure, imparted to them by their designer, which makes them react in a predictable way to a specified cause. Structure therefore has a clear meaning: if there is smoke, the detector’s equilibrium is disturbed and a stream of data ensues that will trigger a mechanical response, e.g. opening a water pipe to sprinklers. This outcome we might call the ‘contents’ of the structure. Evidently if there is no smoke, there is no content. The smoke alarm does not have the capacity to detect anything other than smoke. Therefore it’s normal state is the rest state.

From here we go on to examine the interaction of nerve strands and the mind. For simplicity’s sake, let us suppose that nerves conduct their data into the brain, where they are manipulated in order to derive a content. But this only brings us back to the aforementioned presupposition that the mind must have a capacity.

Before I proceed: you will observe that neither time nor space is an actually existing part of the operations. The space is presupposed and defined as ‘omnidirectional extension’. If the timing of the operations is important, a further mechanical or electronic device must be added. You should take particular note here of the fact any type of clock measures time in instrumental terms, i.e. the distance travelled by the hand of a clock or a specific number of electronic pulses. This gives you a first hint that time and space are intimately bound up with human understanding. Neither of them is an objective datum: The movement of the pointer is not time, nor the pulses.

But by these means we have cleared our path to an appreciation of the Kantian structures and categories.

Take any consciously aware human being, such as yourself: You find yourself situated in a crosshatch of dispositions which assign all knowable events to two kinds of locations inside a volume relative to the embodied self. The first of these, called ‘space’, is a measure of distance and an indicator of orientation; the second, called ‘time’, recognises some events as prior, and other events as simultaneous with the embodied self. We are furthermore disposed to anticipate more events to transpire in the future, though they cannot be known.

You will note in this conception of time that it can be interpreted as equivalent to space, in the sense that distance is also a duration, namely as much time as it takes for one object to come to a proximate spatial location to another. Remember that clocks with hands do not tell the time — this is a mental act you perform — but measure out a distance on a circular dial. This argument can naturally be reversed as well, so that distance is the time it takes by a moving object to transfer from one location to another at a certain velocity.

What Kant is telling us, therefore boils down to a predisposition on our part to spontaneously perform a spatiotemporal interpretation of any event relative to the embodied self, or scientifically to a posited residual observer. Although all animals and plants as well can act on analogous impulses, with humans it developed into a conscious mental performance.

As Kant correctly points out, this ordering of events into temporal and spatial intuitions is given. There is no compelling argument, nor demonstration, that time or space actually exist. Moreover, as this is done spontaneously, it need not be worked out by the mind. To this extent, the capacity for assigning all events and occurrences to a location in a spatiotemporal grid indicates that such is the structure of our mind. It is structural because it precedes perception, and ascertains that perceptions are of this kind, and not otherwise.

With the categories, we have an altogether analogous story. Once again, the point of Kant’s categories is not that he invented them, but that he subtracted from our multitudinous performances a handful of constantly recurring templates, or forms, or dispositions through which we sort out of what these experiences mean to us. His tables basically inform us that, when we form judgements on an event through such templates (innate dispositions), we do it by making a choice from among three alternatives — e.g. whether the event is actual, necessary or contingent.

Collectively the tables demonstrate the form of our thinking, therefore it is plain-sailing to refer to them as a structure of the mind.

One point to bear in mind is, that hypothetically there may be creatures in the universe whose thinking includes other categories than those named by Kant. But for us, such a perspective seems impossible (you can’t jump out of your skin!). We cannot perceive what is not part of the structure of our mind. We can only experience those occurrences to which in virtue of the Kantian dispositions we are able to decipher under their structuring. To mention just one instance, it is not possible for our mind, owing to its structure, to entertain any kind of intuition of six-dimensional space.

I hope you can see now that Kant’s categories and his disquisitions on time and space, are bottom up — foundations. If this is not clear when you study Kant, you are bound to miss much in the later discourse, where all this is now supposed as established.


Answer by Henk Tuten

An essential problem is that Kant without any doubt presumes that ‘mind’ exists. If mind does not exist the whole discussion about ‘structures of our mind’ is rubbish. That Kant believes in ‘mind’ is no surprise in our western in origin catholic civilization. Catholicism settled the dualist split of mind and matter. Two millennia of belief in immaterial things like ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ make belief in immaterial thing like ‘space’ and ‘time’ and also ‘understanding’, ‘consciousness’, ‘intelligence’ almost natural.

When you try to make sense of a notion like ‘intelligence’ you’ll notice that you meet the same problem as when you try to make sense of ‘space’ and ‘time’. You get lost in a jungle of basics/ presumptions to have been accepted since the Enlightenment. Then you recognize that all we can say is that we humans have got very specialized in using memory of experience when meeting daily challenges.

Kant just made a good guess. If you try to situate yourself in reality then sequence is always what you meet first. Sequence is that whose signal makes most sense (translated as ‘distance’ in ‘space’, and sequence in whose signals you noticed first made linear in ‘time’).

Kant’s view of reality was one with Laws of Nature, presuming that nature needs human made laws (morals). But Kant is clear that in his view our ‘mind’ creates a virtual reality. Part of this virtual reality is in Kant’s view always ‘space’ and ‘time’.


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