Kant holds idealist view on space. He thinks space is merely “forms of intuition,” that is, ways in which human order and arrange the things they perceive. They are not features of things in themselves, or things as they exist outside the mind.

But now physicists and mathematicians investigating the beginning of the universe think the universe has far more than three dimensions. They believe it has eleven. Does this conclusion imply that 'space' is something objective, not dependent on our mind as there are other dimensions not conceived by our sensation?

What confuses me most is whether physicists can carry out their exploration on something which doesn't exist objectively(i.e.,mind-dependently).

Does this modern scientific development contradict with idealist view of space?

  • Philosophical theories and scientific theories evolve in time; Kant's conception was limited to euclidean geometry; thus, the evolution of mathematical and physical sciences call for a "revision" of Kant's phylosophy. But Kant's conception that human mind is in some sense "harwired" in order to "arrange" the experience in certain ways ais a deep one and I think can easily be adapted to cope with new scientific theories. Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 7:29
  • First, do you mean physicists or physicians?
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 8:59
  • I hope the following example can help me to express myself more clearly:Idealism would believe that our form of intuition makes us incapable of intuiting (perceiving or imagining) any cubes that do not have 12 edges. But this doesn't seem to be the case in today's physics(well,just as far as I see, I'm not really sure).
    – Melpomene
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 9:09

3 Answers 3


As far as most contemporary Kant scholars are concerned, the interpretation you are suggesting of Kant is mistaken. In other words, most Kant scholars don't take Kant to be an anti-realist merely because he is an idealist. To simplify, there are actually two problems at work in terms of the nature of space and time. First, there is the question of what space and time are as a matter of metaphysics and how this relates to physics. Second, there is the question of what we can know through our experience. This is called the epistemological problem.

The large majority of Kant scholars today believe Kant is addressing the epistemological problem. In other words, he is saying that we experience things through a framework of ideas about space and time that we use to render our experience knowable to ourselves. It is not at all clear that such a supposition implies

He thinks space is merely “forms of intuition,” that is, ways in which human order and arrange the things they perceive. They are not features of things in themselves, or things as they exist outside the mind.

In the first sentence, the important problem lies in two words "is merely." In these two words, you are foisting not only a metaphysical position onto Kant that he might not have held but also foisting its most severe form. On the one hand, he may actually believe "space" and "time" do not exist outside of mind when referring to the epistemic categories through which we render our experience, but this does not imply that he thinks this is the whole of metaphysical reality. The main reason this is problematic is that at several points in the CPR, Kant protests ignorance about these things and in this way is a Humean skeptic about reality itself.

The second sentence relies on a related misunderstanding. For Kant, things-in-themselves don't have properties for us. This is because our cognitive apparatus cannot access things in this way. Kant does not in fact make a claim about whether such things have any properties. (at least not on the more common epistemic interpretation of his project). Also, it's not clear where you can imply that Kant thinks so about things "as they exist outside the mind." The problem is that he thinks we are epistemically barred from accessing things in that way. Other have argued that God does have this sort of access on Kant's picture, but for Kant, the supposition is about us and our limits. So it's more like asking "what color do you see blue as if you don't use your eyes?"

So there may be an idealist metaphysical view about space but it has little do with Kant. In other words, Kant's idea about our cognitive faculties is not invalidated by any sort of discovery in relation to physical realities.

  • Really thank you for your answer! Largely, I agree with what you said about Kant's overall arguments in the CPR. And as far as I can see, you were dealing with this question from a metaphysical standpoint. It did solve the question successively.
    – Melpomene
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 11:47
  • Actually, I was meant to look at the question from epistemological standpoint. But now I find the idealist view doesn't exclude the multi-dimensionlity of space.
    – Melpomene
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 11:50
  • As for your objections to my interpretation on Kant, well, my focus was on the 'origin' of space and it's not really about the ontological status of space. So, I still think my interpretation is justified. By the way, I guess you are not answering my question in bold letters, right?
    – Melpomene
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 12:01
  • I don't really understand the three comments you've left here or rather they admit of two interpretations that are rather different. Are you saying in the first two that (a) you were asked to look at the epistemic question and feel I've only addressed the metaphysical question or (b) that you can see how the account I've presented makes it so Kant doesn't have a problem with multi-dimensional space.
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 14:49
  • Regarding your third comment, I don't really understand the value of the distinction between "'origin' of space" and "ontological status of space" in this discussion or what meaning it bears. I don't address the bolded question because the assumptions involved in getting their are wrong. Kant's CPR does not limit the nature of scientific inquiry; it merely explains that our cognitive apparatus cannot perceive things outside of forms of sensibility (space/time) and cannot "know" things without using categories. You need to better explain why you think Kant is incompatible with science.
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 14:53

This really revolves around a misunderstanding of dimension and space. Lets stick with General relativity which has a four-dimensional manifold of spacetime. The larger dimensions come from string theory - and there the theory hasn't been justified by experimental proof yet.

Kant is interested in the immediate perception of spacetime, which for us is space and time, and not the two together.

To put it into more simple-minded terms, a cup is a bunch of atoms when looked at under an electron microscope or just thought about in physical thinking, but in your immediate perception it is a cup, with shape, volume, mass and weight, colour and substance.

Its in those categories that Kant is thinking through his critical theory - and not in Physics terms - this isn't to say that Physics is wrong, but they are looking at the world in a very different fashion to how Kant is.

  • I guess I really need to have a better understanding of these physical theories.
    – Melpomene
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 7:43
  • So, can I interpret what you said as meaning that Kant's view is in fact the most basic or common-sense way of looking at the universe. Physicians are exploring at a completely different level?
    – Melpomene
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 8:05
  • As a first approximation, yes. Kants project is to understand what makes experience possible at all - this in order to tackle Humes question of causality. Physicists do not ask that question, they're more intent on explaining empirical phenomena by other simpler empirical phenomena. Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 9:19
  • Although he's known as an idealist, the situation is actually ore complex than that. Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 9:20

The question can not be answered because it has incorrect assumptions, in my humble opinion.

First, the author is implying that, because idealism, Kant is an anti-realist, meaning that he denies objective reality, at least of space.

Then I interpret that the author assumes that, because physicists are, or should be, "idealists", any study of space as a thing on itself is absurd.

If my interpretation is correct, I would, most respectfully, find the following problems with the question:

1) To assume that Physicists are idealists. You would be surprised on the number of scientists studying such things that have never read Plato or Descartes, let Kant alone. But, many are aware of such things, should they stop their work on such grounds ? I think not. We don't know what they will find behind those doors. I believe they will actually enrich the discussion.

2) To assume that Idealism and Realism are sets of well defined ideas that never intersect, therefore they contradict. Not even Kant presumed to know enough to reach such conclusion. Please read Kant's "The Refutation of Idealism".

I will conclude like this:

The author believes that idealism tries to disprove objective reality. I will beg him to understand that that assumes that objective reality exists / it is definable.

Idealism is an approach to reason what we call reality.

In easy words: Open your mind fully. Do not start by assuming that you know what reality is.

Then, indeed, determining the age of the universe is not possible with our current understanding of the universe. Sadly, most scientist do not understand, or care to clarify, that the current numbers and formulas of science do not permit defining such a thing as the "start of time" or the "size" of everything.

I will conclude with the words of Michael Scriven, from his precious essay on the Age of the Universe (British Jnl. for the Philosophy of Sci.Volume V, Issue 19, http://bjps.oxfordjournals.org/content/V/19.toc )

"My Conclusion is this: No verifiable claim can be made either that the Universe has finite age or that it has not. We might still believe there is a difference between these claims: but the difference is one that is not within the power of science to determine, nor will it ever be."

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