Kant: Space and the Soul

  • Robert E. Butts
Part of the The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 24)


It is well known that Kant’s thinking about space underwent many changes and turns during his lifetime, starting with his earliest publication, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces, and culminating with his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. My major interests in the present study have to do largely with Kant’s methodological motivations. I will not, therefore, expend much effort on details of Kant’s complicated changes in tactics for managing theory of space. What I will attempt to do is to locate salient features of his changing thought on space that serve to further the ends of my major contention that throughout his career he remained firmly convinced of the correctness of the Double Government Methodology.


Pure Reason Chapter Versus Absolute Space Constructive Idealism Outer Appearance 
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  1. 1.
    Although Kant did not have a clear form of the regulative/constitutive distinction at that time, he rejected the absolute/relational vocabulary as early as the Inaugural Dissertation of 1770. The space of “the English”, “an absolute and boundless receptacle of possible things” he rejects as pertaining “to the world of fable”. He interprets the space of Leibniz and “most of our countrymen” (the Wolffians? German philosophers generally?) as an empiricist notion: the features of space are “borrowed only from external relations through experience”. And he points out that one cannot derive the axioms of geometry by induction [Kant (1929), Section 15, D, pp. 61–2].Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Kant ’s example of the incongruent counterparts (invoked four times: in Regions, Inaugural Dissertation, Prolegomena and Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science) is regularly appealed to as an argument Kant put forward on behalf of the existence of absolute space [for example, see Buroker (1981)], and this in spite of the fact that in the last three works Kant firmly rejects all standard constitutive ontologies of things as they are in themselves. Kant’s references to incongruent counterparts are not arguments, but examples meant to show that certain features of spatiality are evidentially intuitive, rather than conceptual. He is rejecting Leibniz’ metaphysics of space at its very centre. If one takes seriously Kant’s complete rejection of an sich realism, one cannot appeal to his uses of the enantiomorphs as arguments in favour of that realism. In Section 15 D Kant says that those who believe in the reality of absolute space (as an infinite number of relations with no things bearing those relations to one another) put “a stumbling block” in the way of proper rational understanding of “highly abstruse” concepts like the spiritual world and the idea of omnipresence. Furthermore, Kant does catalog together absolute space (an “empty figment of reason”), the spirit world, and assumed attributes of God as things occupying the realm of fable, and this seems to me decisive evidence that Kant had rejected the ontology of absolute space at least by 1770. DGM was thus already doing important work for Kant in the Inaugural Dissertation. In the 1st Critique Kant will defend what he calls the empirical reality of space and time, introducing a form of realism that I read as internal to the system of the interpretive categories and space and time as forms of sensuous intuition: the constitutive forms and their related principles. There are no ontological questions that one can meaningfully raise that will gain answers from objects lying outside this constitutive framework. Questions about absolute space require such objects, and are thus proscribed. Why, then, do commentators continue to think it interesting to discover whether Kant accepted absolute space in 1770, when in 1770 he announced that the very vocabulary for talking about absolute space is fabulous? Because they have not paid proper attention to Träume and to the parts of the Inaugural Dissertation that clearly follow on its diagnosis of the ills of spiritualism. Geometry uses principles which are not only indubitable and discursive but come before the gaze of the mind, and the evidence in demonstrations (which is the clarity of certain cognition in so far as it is assimilated to sensual cognition) is not only greatest in geometry but is also the only evidence which is given in pure sciences and is the exemplar and means of all evidence in the other sciences. For since geometry contemplates relations of space and the concept of space contains in itself the very form of all sensual intuition, nothing can be clear and perspicuous in things perceived by the external senses unless it be by the mediation of the same intuition the contemplation of which is the function of the science of geometry. But geometry does not demonstrate its own universal propositions by thinking an object means of a universal concept as happens with things rational, but by subjecting it to the eyes by means of a singular intuition as happens with things sensitive [Kant (1968b), pp. 69–70].Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    The locus classicus of Kant’s reference to what he calls the “natural disposition” of human beings to engage in metaphysical speculation is B21 of the Critique. Compare Avii and Bxxxi.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Kant ’s critical net was spread more widely. Note what he says in the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Critique: “Criticism alone can sever the root of materialism, fatalism, atheism, free-thinking, fanaticism, and superstition, which can be injurious universally; as well as of idealism and scepticism, which are dangerous chiefly to the Schools, and hardly allow of being handed on to the public. If governments think proper to interfere with the affairs of the learned, it would be more consistent with a wise regard for science as well as mankind, to favour the freedom of such criticism, by which alone the labours of reason can be established on a firm basis, than to support the ridiculous despotism of the Schools, which raise a loud cry of public danger over the destruction of cobwebs to which the public has never paid any attention, and the loss of which it can therefore never feel”[Bxxxiv–v].Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    At [B410–11] Kant reduces the four 1st edition paralogisms to one (“in which the whole procedure of rational psychology is determined”). I reproduce that paralogism here. Kant’s 2nd edition treatment of the paralogisms is very compressed compared to the more discursive discussion in the 1781 work. There are important reasons for Kant’s radically rewritten 2nd edition discussion of the paralogisms, reasons that I will discuss briefly below when dealing with the nature of Kant’s idealism/realism distinction. To anticipate the main point: Most commentators take the 2nd edition version to be Kant’s abandonment of the idealism in the 1st edition, and his return to realism. I take the line developed by de Vleeschauwer that Kant’s 2nd edition changes establish more firmly his constructive critical idealism; they are changes necessitated by Kant’s 2nd edition strategy to free space/time and the categories (transcendental apperception) of all psychological subjectivist associations, and thus to distance his own idealism from that of Berkeley (critics had accused him of merely repeating Berkeley in obscure ways). There are too many technical points of interpretation to go into to do a thorough job on questions of this sort, a job out of place in the present work. But I feel that I must say something on this score, if only to reply to those who now promote the increasingly popular view that Kant’s realism is to be stressed at the expense of his idealism. It seems to me that we should work it out so that the stress is exactly reversed, and for this purpose I do not at all mind having de Vleeschauwer on my side. See his (1962) pp. 107–114.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    I take this to be the message of Kant’s negative characterization of the nouienal in the 1st Critique chapter, “The Ground of the Distinction of all Objects in general into Phenomena and Noumena”. The concept of the thingin-itself must be seen as the concept of a limit on what I can scientifically know (thus is Leibniz’ concept of the body as a limit on the real transformed in Kant’s critical philosophy!). I will return to Kant’s concept of the noumenal in Chapter VII.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    de Vleeschauwer (1962) p. 109 points out that the same transformation takes place in Kant’s edited version of the transcendental deduction in the 1787 edition.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert E. Butts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe University of Western OntarioCanada

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