Immanuel Kant on Time – A Theory from the Heart

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant suggested that the world must have a beginning in time – yet it could not have had a beginning. Image by AndreasToerl

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) lived in Könisberg in East Prussia, and, according to Bertrand Russell, he led an uneventful life despite the French Revolution and the Seven Years’ War, during part of which Russia occupied his country.  Kant was a proponent of the Rights of Man, and once said, (quoted by Russell)  “…there can be nothing more dreadful than that the action of a man should be subject to the will of another.”

In his great work, Critique of Pure Reason, which is a combination of rationalism and empiricism, Kant differentiates time and space in the following way.

1. Different times are not coexistent but successive.

 2. Different spaces are not successive but coexistent.

 What Does it Mean?

Understanding ‘a priori’ is essential in order to comprehend Kant’s rather difficult theory. A priori means something known to be true or false before you experience it. (A posteriori is the opposite, and means something whose truth you can only test through the medium of experience.)

Unique Conception of Time

Kant believes that our knowledge cannot transcend experience, but that this knowledge, in part, may have a basis other than experience.

Time is not an empirical conception, in other words, a conception gained through experience. If it were we couldn’t conceive of a “before” and “after” as Kant explains in his Critique of Pure Reason. Time, therefore, exists a priori: as Kant said, “Phenomena can be annihilated in thought, but as a universal condition, time cannot.

Time: Phenomena, Experience, Intuition

Kant is saying is that we experience phenomena through experience, via our senses, ie. a posteriori, leading to understanding. Time itself is a necessary condition or foundation, on which all our intuitions are dependent. In other words, phenomena (or matter) may disappear, but time cannot.

Kant is very clear about this, when he says: “For neither coexistence nor succession would be perceived by us, if the representation of time did not exist as a foundation a priori. We cannot think of a phenomena as unconnected with time, but we can present to ourselves time void of phenomena.”

Kant believes that time, for us, is intuitive. We can only understand phenomena in its relationship to time but we can “…represent to ourselves time {that is} void of phenomena.” 

Time, concludes Kant, is a “pure form of the sensuous intuition.”  Different times are just parts of one and the same “time.” 

To the above, Kant adds the conception of change and motion. “…change of place, is possible only through and in the representation of time.”  Again, he is asserting that unless we have intuition a priori, we cannot comprehend the possibility of change. Therefore time is nothing other than the form of the internal sense.

Time: A Thing-in-Itself?

Time is not a thing-in-itself, because if it were a thing-in-itself, it would be real, but without presenting to us a real “object.”

Nor does time exist perfectly within things objectively. If time were in things “…we could not discern it or intuit it by means of a proposition a priori, ie. “outside of the world.”  In other words, if time were within things or phenomena, how would we be able to conceive of a “before” or an “after?”

“And precisely because our internal intuition presents to us no shape or form, we endeavour to supply this want by analogies and represent the course of time by a line progressing to infinity,” says Kant. This line to infinity implies a sense of only one dimension.

A sundial in France

Kant viewed the nature of time in a similar fashion to his understanding of the nature of space. Image by Greudin

Philosophical Contradictions: Kant’s Time Antinomy

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant “proved” in one of his four famous antinomies – the term means a philosophical contradiction – both that time had a beginning, and also, that it did not have a beginning but was infinite.

Kant made examples of these antinomies to prove that it can be futile to try to use reason to resolve specific, unanswerable, metaphysical questions.

Professor Raymond Tallis explains this paradox in the publication Philosophy Now.

Professor Tallis says:

“The world, Kant says, must have a beginning in time, otherwise an infinite amount of time – an “eternity” as Kant called it – would have already passed in this world – but no infinite series can be completed. On the other hand, the world can’t have had a beginning in time, because this would imply a period of empty time before the world came into being, and nothing (least of all, a whole world) can come into being in empty time, as there isn’t anything to distinguish one moment in empty time from another.”

As Tallis says, there would not be a reason why one moment in time should give birth to the world.

Kant’s Legacy

Although Kant’s contemporaries and his successors claim his theories contain a few inconsistencies, they generally consider him (quote from Jeremy Harwood, 100 Great Thinkers, 2010, Quercus, ) “…the most influential philosopher since Aristotle.” 

Kant founded an alternative system of philosophical thinking, in claiming that the existence of knowledge is a priori to the existence of the human mind, and this idea had great influence over his successors.

Bertrand Russell described Immanuel Kant as a philosopher who “appealed to the heart.”


Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. (1781). Translated by J.M.D. Meiklejohn, Pennsylvania State University, Elecronic Edition. (2010-2013). Accessed October 6, 2013.

Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. (2004). Routledge Classics.

Tallis, Raymond. Did Time Begin with a Bang? (2012). Philosophy Now, Issue 92, September/October, 2012. Accessed October 6, 2013.

Empiricist Philosopher John Locke: On Thinking About Thinking


In his essay on human understanding, Locke challenges us to cognitively consider our thought process. Image of booklet by John Locke courtesy of the University of Sydney’s Rare Books Library

John Locke (1632 – 1704) is the Father of Classical Liberalism – a philosophy embracing freedom of the individual, while desiring to limit the power of government. We also see Locke as the Father of Empiricism, a philosophy promoting the discovery of truth through experience; that we know nothing that does not come to us through our senses.

Locke denounced the divine right of kings and authoritarianism. No one person could be considered better than another, because, according to Locke, we are all born equal. He said that mass education should lead to an end to social subjugation.

John Locke’s Empiricism

Locke did not believe that innate ideas existed but rather that the human mind at birth was literally a “blank slate,” and all knowledge came directly from the senses.

Some thinkers now dispute the doctrine of the Blank Slate, for example, Professor Steven Pinker. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker explains his conviction that intellectuals, who subscribe to the theory that the human mind is born a blank slate, on which experience makes its mark, are denying the existence of human nature, our common humanity and our individual preferences.

Of course, this is not to denigrate the great service John Locke performed in the 17th century, to both pure and political philosophical thought.  In his great work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke’s short chapter “Of the Modes of Thinking” examines aspects of thinking and considers how they are related to the human soul.

Thinking from the Senses

Locke explains how, from our perception, which he rightly regards as an aspect of thinking, we receive distinct ideas.  “Thus, the perception which actually accompanies… any impression on the body made by an external object… furnishes the mind with a distinct idea which we call sensation.” This is, quite simply, the “entrance of an idea into the understanding by the senses.”

The same idea, recurring, is remembrance. Locke differentiates between recollection and contemplation by this distinction:  “…if it be sought after by the mind… and brought again in view, it is recollection; if it is held there long under attentive consideration, it is contemplation.”

Locke’s prose then becomes almost lyrical, as he plays with words such as the French reverie, for when words float into our minds or our understanding.  “…our language has scarce a name for it,” he says.

An idea gains our attention when the mind chooses to fix on and consider it. This concept leads to intention or study.

Dreaming, he says,  “… is the having of ideas (whilst the outward senses are stopped so that they receive not outward objects with their usual quickness) in the mind, not suggested by any external objects…and whether that which we call ecstasy be not dreaming with the eyes open, I leave to be examined.”

John Locke Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

John Locke was not only the father of classic liberalism, but also of empiricism. Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Thinking is the Action, not the Essence of the Soul

Locke mentions other aspects of thinking, such as reasoning, judging, volition (in the sense of the act of exercising the will) and knowledge, which he claims are “…some of the most considerable operations of the mind and modes of thinking.”  He reflects upon the different states of the mind in thinking that, for example, attention, reverie, and dreaming, suggest.

“Sometimes the mind fixes itself with so much earnestness on the contemplation of some objects, that it shuts out all other thoughts, and takes no notice of the ordinary impressions made then on the senses, which at another season would produce very sensible perceptions.” Sometimes, Locke explains, we do not observe or peruse thoughts, and so the thoughts may pass without regard, “… as faint shadows that make no impression.”

He concludes that thinking is  “the action and not the essence of the soul.”  Remarking on the degrees between “earnest study” and the  “very near minding nothing at all” he approaches the  “retirement of the mind” leading to “a yet more loose and incoherent manner of thinking, which we call dreaming.”

This idea provides the basis for why John Locke believes thinking is the action, not the essence of the soul. According to him  “…the essences of things are not conceived capable of any such variation.”

Empiricism: Questioning the Supremacy of Reason

In the Introduction to the Wordsworth edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Diane Collinson says: “John Locke was described by Bertrand Russell as the most fortunate of philosophers. Why? Because, unlike so many other innovative thinkers, his ideas were understood and warmly welcomed by many of his contemporaries.”

Collinson compares Locke to Descartes, as follows: “Descartes aspired to the construction of a coherent and integrated edifice of knowledge that took its certainty from the method of deductive reasoning. With Locke, there is a discursive and moderating openness of thought that is testimony to an awareness of a horizon further than Descartes was able to glimpse.”

Collinson acknowledges that Locke was keen on deductive reasoning, but he was also drawn to experimental science and questioned the supremacy of reason while pursuing knowledge.

John Locke: Philosopher and Empiricist

Although Locke’s most famous work was An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which he expounded his belief in Empiricism, a belief still embraced by some philosophers today, he also published, anonymously in 1690, Two Treatises of Government. The Treatises contain his political thinking, and his conviction that authoritarianism and the “Divine Right of Kings” is wrong. This theory came to be described as Classical Liberalism and was an enormous influence on political thinking, especially during the period of the Industrial Revolution and Urbanisation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Locke, John, “Of the Modes of Thinking,” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. (1689/1998). Wordsworth Classics.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. (2002). BCA.