Kant Lexicon

Time: Zeit (German)

Kant’s first treatment of time occurs in the 1770 Inaugural Dissertation, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World, whose §14 is entitled “On Time” (Ak 2:398-402).

However, before treating of time as such, Kant discusses the role of time in his treatment of the concept of a world in general (§1, Ak 2:387-389). That concept is said to have a “two-fold genesis” from the nature of the mind. The understanding can arrive at this concept through its concept of composition in general. Thus parts are thought to be composed to make a whole, and a whole is decomposed in thought to arrive at simple parts which are not composites. Time enters the picture when the mind attempts to represent the concepts to itself “in the concrete by a distinct intuition.”

Here, the process of conceptual composition is replaced by “synthesis,” in the sense that intuited parts are added to intuited parts in the attempt to form a whole. Conceptual decomposition is reflected in “analysis,” in the sense that an intuited “substantial compound” is decomposed in the attempt to arrive at simple parts. In both cases, the process would be “carried out in a finite and specifiable period of time.”

Kant defines the matter of a world as its parts, which “are taken to be substances” (Ak 2:389). The form is what co-ordinates the substances. He held that a world necessarily has “a certain constant and invariable form, which, as the perennial principle of each contingent and transitory form belonging to the state of that world, must be regarded as belonging to its nature” (Ak 2:391).

The distinction between the form and matter of a world is then carried over to the presentation of the world through sense, which presents things “as they appear” as opposed to “as they are” (Ak 2:392). The matter of presentation is sensation, and its form is “a certain law, which is inherent in the mind and by means of which it co-ordinates for itself that which is sensed from the presence of an object” (Ak 2:393). What is sensed is termed “phenomenon” or “appearance.”

Kant claims that there are two principles of the form of the sensible or phenomenal world: time and space. These are the products of laws of the mind and serve to co-ordinate what is sensed.

These formal principles of the phenomenal universe are absolutely primary and universal; they are, so the speak, the schemata and conditions of everything sensitive in human cognition.” (Ak 2:398)
Here we shall restrict our remarks to time.

Kant proceeds to develop an account of time which is in several ways the same as that in the Critique.

Kant argues against the “reality of time” by attacking its two chief forms. The absolute time of the Newtonians is “a most absurd fabrication” in that it locates time in the world while maintaining that it is independent of the world. The relative time of the Leibnizians is said to be “abstracted from the succession of internal states.” This conception runs into an unspecified problem of circularity. Further, the notion of succession omits one crucial feature of time, which is simultaneity. It is simply a mistake to try to derive the concept of time from that of change (succession of internal states), since the latter depends upon the former. Finally, time is a condition of the application of the principle of contradiction. A thing can be both A and not-A if it is so at different times. So the principle only applies to a thing’s being A and not-A simultaneously (Ak 2:400-401).

The concept of time is innate only in the sense that it is the product of a law of the mind. It is acquired only in the sense that the law is triggered only upon the occasion of sense-perception, though it is not abstracted from sense-perception. (Ak 2:405)

In the second edition of the Critique, there is a single “exposition” of the concept of time, followed by conclusions from it and general comments about both space and time. The “metaphysical exposition“ “exhibits the concept as given a priori” (A23/B38). The “transcendental exposition” explicates the concept of time as (as Kant put it in the case of space) “a principle that permits insight into the possibility of other synthetic a priori cognitions” (A25/B41). The material in the transcendental exposition is included in the metaphysical exposition in the both editions, being the third item in Kant’s list.

Four points are made in the metaphysical exposition.

  1. Time is not an empirical concept that is abstracted from experience.
  2. Time is an a priori cognition, and it underlies all intuitions
  3. Time is a pure intuition, and not a discursive concept.
  4. Time is presented as an infinite given magnitude.
The transcendental exposition explains how time as a pure intuition underlies and makes comprehensible the synthetic a priori “axioms of time in general,” such as that time is one-dimensional and that different times are sequential and not simultaneous.

Three conclusions are then drawn.

Time is “transcendentally ideal,” in the sense that it is nothing if we abstract from the subjective conditions of human intuition. But it is empirically real, as being a condition of all objects of experience.

After the exposition of time, there is an “Elucidation” which is marked in the second edition as §7. Here, Kant considers an objection to the ideality of time: since change is real and time is a condtion of change, time is real. Kant concedes the argument but maintains that it can only establish the empirical, and not the transcendental, reality of time. “I actually have the presentation of time and of my determinations in time. Hence time is to be regarded as actual” (A37/B54).

There follows a dilemma for those who would maintain the transcendental reality of time. Time is either subsistent (the Newtonian view) or inherent (the Leibnizian view). If the former, “they must assume two eternal and infinite self-subsistent nonentities (space and time), which exist (yet without there being anything actual) only in order to encompass anything actual” (A39/B56). This view does have the advantage of making intelligible the a priori application of axioms of time to the world, but its disadvantage is that time creates confusion when it is applied to the world beyond experience. If the latter, then time is an empirical concept, in which case it cannot be explained how axioms of time can be applied a priori to the world. However, there is the advantage that time does not “get in the way” of their accounts of reality beyond appearances.

In the second edition, the general comments make four points, only the first of which is found in the first edition. The first is an elaboration of the points made earlier, specifically attacking the standpoint of Leibniz and his followers that sensibility is merely a confused way of presenting things that are presented clearly by the understanding. Then a reductio argument is given against time being a condition for the possibility of things in themselves. Second, a confirmation of the earlier view is given, based on the relational nature of the properties of physical objects. Third, a distinction is made between appearances and illusion. Fourth, if time is an objective form, it would have to be a condition for God’s existence, which is an undesirable outcome that is avoided if space is subjective. (This may be an instance of the “confusion” introduced into metaphysics by making time self-subsistent.)

Further criticism of the Leibnizian view of time is found in the “Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection.” The claim there is that the relational view of time is the result of trying to understand objects merely by a comparison of concepts. Conceptually, matter is prior to form, while for the temporal objects of sensibility, form is prior to matter.

(See the lecture on time for a detailed analysis of the account of time in the Transcendental Aesthetic in the Critique)

Time plays the key role in the first chapter of the Analytic of Principles, “On the Schematism of the Pure Concepts of Understanding” (A137/B176). In that chapter, Kant notes the gulf between pure concepts of the understanding and appearances. He claims that the gulf is bridged by “schemata,” which, like the pure concepts, are a priori and which are as well intimately tied to appearances. These schemata are “are nothing but a priori time determinations according to rules; and these rules, according to the order of the categories, deal with the time series, the time content, the time order, and finally the time sum total in regard to all possible objects” (A145/B144-5).

Time also plays a crucial role in the Analogies of Experience, whose a priori principle is that experience is possible only insofar as perceptions are connected necessarily (A176-7/B218). The most famous version of this principle is the causal principle, according to which all change is the result of a necessary connection between cause and effect (A189/B232). A key premise in the proofs of the principle is that time itself cannot be perceived. Accordingly, ordering experiences in time requires recourse to some other principle of connection.

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