A brief history of space

If Stephen Hawking could write A Brief History of Time, I can surely write a brief history of space. Indeed, I’ll one-up Hawking and make my monograph actually, and not just putatively, brief.

At first glance in our little history of space, we can follow a trajectory from Democritus and Plato’s view of space as a container, to a view of space as a relation between things rather than a container (Leibniz), and finally to a view of space as a purely subjective construct – a way of organizing the world rather than a thing in the world (Kant – and I’ll welcome comments from expert readers like the ever-helpful STEVE MORRIS on the extent to which this continues into Einstein and modern physics).

Democritus and Plato both saw space as a receptacle but in quite different ways. Democritus (5th century BC) famously said, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space.” This sense of space as a universal void is perhaps still the most common sense of the term. In Timaeus, Plato specifically calls space “a receptacle,” but he seems to mean it in a more local sense, as that which houses a series of shapes. In a weird way, space is matter to Plato, per his example of gold. You see now a pyramid of gold, then a cube of gold, then a sphere of gold. The gold is the receptacle space inhabited by the succession of different shapes. Idiosyncratic maybe, but more of that later.

As we move toward what I perhaps simplistically call the Leibniz position, space is not a receptacle at all – not the local matter that houses shapes nor the void. It is rather a relation between things, and it has no existence other than as a relation between things. Then onto Kant, and space as purely a subjective way of organizing the world. It seems at this point that we’ve come a long way from Plato, but the canny Greek has a way of coming back (nb. Alfred North Whitehead’s comment that all of Western philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato”).

I’ll step back to Plato by way of a convenient half-way point – Boethius (late 5th/early 6th century, on the cusp between classical and post-classical culture, roughly 1000 years after Plato and 1500 before us). To quote my fine former post on Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison pondering his forthcoming execution, “The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding … or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.”

That image of the circle, of seeing reality from two points of view – the still point in the middle and the moving point along the perimeter – can be applied to both time and space. Here, it more directly applies to time. From the point of view of eternity (the still point in the middle), all things are simultaneous. From the temporal point of view (moving along the perimeter), we see reality in its aspect of “always becoming,” as philosophers have called it.

To extrapolate, from the eternal point of view, time does not exist; similarly, from the infinite point of view, space does not exist. Rather, space only exists where that dynamical relation between things exists – distance and extension only make sense within the scope of finite reality.

So is Boethius the great Hegelian synthesizer who can push the dialectic between Plato and Kant forward (thesis – antithesis – synthesis)? Or is the double vision of Boethius merely an indicator of his historical moment, one foot dancing with the wine-bibbing Greek and the other tiptoeing toward the finicky Prussian? Is he just a midway point toward our more accurate modern view?

No, the midpoint reading won’t do. On some level, Plato anticipated the whole circus. Or, to further twist the metaphor, we have circled back to Plato. In the Timaeus, Plato, like Boethius, has a double view, though it plays out a little differently. In Plato, there are two primary levels of reality (which can be further subdivided, as in the myth of the cave): “that which always is and has no becoming” and “that which is always becoming and never is.” The realm of eternal, unchanging ideals (being) is the subject of rational knowledge, whereas the visible world of the senses (reality in its aspect of “always becoming”) is the subject of empirical knowledge. Plato notably privileges the rational side, but he at least here grants the empirical its purview. And this turns out to be crucial to our present argument.

If we focus the history of ideas on the world of becoming – the physical world, we might call it – we can, to recap, follow a movement from space as a container to space as a relation between things  and finally to Kant’s purely subjective construct.

But if we look at the other realm in Plato, the realm of being, the intellectual realm of the unchanging ideals, rather than the realm of becoming, we see that he had already recognized space as an imaginary construct.

He quite explicitly says that the concept of “space” does not apply in the intellectual realm, but is only needed to accommodate the dynamics in the realm of becoming.

Indeed, some time after introducing those two realms (the realm of being and the realm of becoming), he refers back to the two natures corresponding to the two realms: “one … was a pattern intelligible and always the same; and the second was only the imitation of the pattern, generated and visible.” Then he adds: “Now a third must be revealed … the receptacle, and in a manner the nurse, of all generation,” insofar it enables all the processes of generation or becoming to happen.

The “receptacle,” whether you call it space or matter, is only introduced as a way of explaining processes in the realm of becoming.  But the realm of becoming for Plato is the realm of more-or-less degraded knock-offs from the realm of being. When reality is seen in it most true and stable aspect, the ontologically prior realm of being, space (or matter) does not exist.

Now, one could argue that the spaceless, timeless, immaterial zone of true reality (prior to all the knock-offs in the realm of becoming) in Plato is not truly subjective as in Kant, that Plato imagines this reality as objective reality. To which I say, maybe. I’m not sure how truly significant that distinction is. I don’t think Plato would call it objective in the modern sense of objective (which implies physical, spatial reality). All Plato postulates is that the spaceless, timeless realm of pure being, pure forms, is the true base of reality. That he treats it as an intellectual realm as opposed to the sensible is clear – so does that imply that it IS subjective, as in Kant? I’m not sure but, back to Alfred North Whitehead: we are quibbling about footnotes here. Face it, everyone (especially angst-ridden academics seeking tenure) wants to find the next ground-breaking idea, but it’s still hard to beat the old Greeks. See my other fine post on Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics if you don’t believe me.

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10 thoughts on “A brief history of space

  1. You’re inviting me to troll your post? I wouldn’t dream of criticizing your fine and erudite discussion, other than to say that as we move to relativity and quantum mechanics (and beyond to a grand unified theory of space, time and matter) understanding shifts again. We are left with the idea of space as something quite alien to our everyday understanding of the term, yet perhaps still possible to understand… just.

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    • Hahaha. Thanks, Steve. You’re the best troll ever. “Something quite alien to our everyday understanding” — Funny but in the little history of ideas that I laid out — and that you extended — the last concept of space that aligned with our “everyday understanding” is that of the pre-Socratic Democritus. I suppose what the history of ideas shows us, more than anything else, is that we are race of overthinkers — probably by evolutionary design 🙂 (cp. another great quote from Hegel: “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”)

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  2. Very interesting read. Thank you!
    If you’re interested in “modern physics” – and other fascinating and sometimes esoteric subjects – you might like to check out World of Wonders on Substack. 🙂https://worldofwonders.substack.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating post that shows a deep knowledge of the history of physics + philosophy! I’ve saved this + I will come back to this post from time to time.

    As Steve above states, + the physicist Michio Kaku explains, the advent of modern physics + string theory have yet again changed our concept of space. However, I have to agree with you that the magic of the Greek thinkers on this subject will enchant many of us always.

    Just as the classical music era of 1650 to 1900 holds a spell for many of us – due to the fact that its concepts of tonality + symmetry seem understandable + eternal, the Greek philosophers + scientists will always hold sway. For so many of us, the Greeks held forth the possibility that we can both measure our sense of reality – while we also dreamt about it.

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  4. Hi Gary! Couldn’t help but read through your brief story of space, and I have enjoyed it very much. I think your intuition on the fact that the Greeks are hard to beat has lots to do with what you point out about Plato…objective ideas are timeless. I guess we’re all (plato and aristotle and einstein and leibniz and all the rest included) endlessly spending our precious time on earth trying to make contact with timelessness, and, thanks to einstein, spacelessness too. Another thing the Greeks would agree with (I suppose) is that it’s not so much about getting there, but about executing sincere searches for it. In any case, I really enjoyed your text!

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    • Gracias, Nacho! As a sidebar to your comment, you know I’ve long written and published poetry — poetry in many different themes and styles — but only recently, thanks to discussions with my lovely friend from a distant language and culture, Zhiyu, did I realize that there is one underlying theme in my poetry upon which the various superstructures rest — the theme of transcendence. Your thoughts help to expand my knowledge of self, and of all of us, in that regard 🙂

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  5. In my mind you hit the nail on the head with, “space only exists where that dynamical relation between things exists …” As an engineer it is the dynamical relation I am most interested in. I think thinkers akin to Tesla were on to something when referring to space as the ether, as it appears to me that the dynamical relation of space seems to act like liquid. As our own atmosphere acts like a lighter form of liquid than our oceans, so space is also a much less dense form of liquid.

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