Are the concept of time and space apriori to natural language or are they just references within natural language? Time and space are fundamental concepts to existence and ontology. Natural languages seems to rely on referents so a person cannot understand time and space just from understanding language without experiencing time and space for himself, or is it really the case? Is time and space apriori components to language, that are deeply embedded into language so that a person can understand time and space from natural language alone (meaning that language has an apriori component as well as time and space has an apriori component inside that apriori component), or are they not? If not, then could there be a reality where there's more than time and space that are fundamental concepts to existence?

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    A person cannot understand anything from natural language alone, without some sort of external reference/experience, be it ostension or practical use, it is just a collection of sounds and symbols. What are references "within" natural language? Being "deeply embedded" is very different from being "a priori", and it is unclear what "a priori to natural language" even means. Does it just mean external? The usual meaning of "a priori" is prior to empirical experience, which is the opposite of how you seem to use it.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 19:12
  • I believe you mean "prior" to natural language, not "apriori" to natural language. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 15:43

3 Answers 3


Kant thought so.

But Wittgenstein argues:

"If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word "pain" means - must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! --Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a "beetle". No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. --Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. --But suppose the word "beetle" had a use in these people's language? --If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. --No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of 'object and designation' the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant."

-Philosophical Investigations 293

This is the core statement of what has been developed into The Private Language Argument. He also says:

" "I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am."—Yes: one can make the decision to say "I believe he is in pain" instead of "He is in pain". But that is all. —— What looks like an explanation here, or like a statement about a mental process, is in truth an exchange of one expression for another which, while we are doing philosophy, seems the more appropriate one.

Just try—in a real case—to doubt someone else's fear or pain."

-Philosophical Investigations 303

I suggest time is like this. On the one hand, it is a linguistic token. But on the other hand, we use that token to point to a 'sensory primative', something less doubtable than anything else in each of our own experience.

Time and space are experienced as, ways of ordering experiences. That is: sequences, and relationships like 'locality'. But, they also become questions for science, about curved spacetime, the Thermodynamic Arrow of Time (inc entropy and irreversability), holographic correspondences of surfaces and bulk in Anti de Sitter space, etc - but updates there in physics, don't affect how we experience organising our subjective sensory information, into sequences and salience landscapes.

So we need to be careful to distinguish time and space in our direct experiences, and time and space as ways to organise and relate our experiences, as abstractions in the realm of linguistic tokens.

This comes into focus in discussions of time being emergent, like in Loop Quantum Gravity. There multiple 'competing' outcomes cluster around events (measurements), and then specific timelines get chosen from among the jostling possibilities. Time becomes only one way to understand organisation, in addition to the quantum spin lattice network. Another example is Hilbert Space, the imaginary 'space' of all states of a quantum system, which offers an alternative way to organise expectations about measurements, to ordinary spacetime.

So I would say: we have experiences, which have a deeply inter-subjective quality rooted in our similar bodies and similar experiences. But: we have language and culture, which abstract and organise experiences in sometimes profoundly different ways, in relation to different salience landscapes, which relate to different forms of life.

I would look to meditation, and especially Zen, to understand our direct experiences without the process of abstraction, that we associate with language using humans but not so much other minds. This begins with awareness itself as an intersubjective universal, and assembles a structure of mental phenomena from the five ayatana or sense-gates, to include three additional principles or organisational domains, up to Eighth Consciousness (compare to the Five Wits relating sensations and mental experiences in Western philosophy). The eighth domain can be directly compared to the noosphere, or memesphere.

Noether's Theorem shows us how we can relate dimensions to laws of conserved quantities under transformation, which can help us understand the Buddhist perspective that organising experiences is not subsequent to experiencing space and time, but that space and time are patterns or symmetries which emerge consequent to experiencing things, which is founded in what awareness is itself - for which I look to Hofstadter's idea of Strange Loops, as being defined by types of self-reference that we call subjectivity, especially as expanded by the tools of language, which rely on intersubjectivity (see Indra's Net and According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?).

Because subjectivity is a precursor to experience, we may reasonably expect to find that time and space are not fundamental, but only necessary to organising our decisions and experiences. Eternal Recurrence, karmic rebirth, and intersubjectivity itself, can be understood as ways of organising or experiences and decisions that point beyond linear timelines and local subjectivity, towards other ways of organising ourselves, potentially with higher emergent dimensionality capable of moving in a larger space of counterfactual timelines and variations in initial conditions.


If nothing else, it seems like the questions, "Where is X?" and, "When is X?" require irreducibly spatial or temporal inputs to resolve. I.e., I can't adequately answer, "Where is X?" just by referring to when X is, or to other temporal facts, e.g. how fast X is moving. Without knowing where X was at some relative starting point, and in what directions X has been heading, then merely knowing the rate of X's movement over time will not allow me to determine where X is (or has been), unless perhaps there were a rate of movement so fast that whichever direction you traveled at that rate, from whichever starting point, would somehow result in any X ending up wherever any other would, but that's a convoluted "possible description" that I don't want to put much stock in.

Or suppose you ask, "Why does X exist?" Let's say the answer was, "In order to exist on Planet Y." Would this teach us that X is, in fact, on Planet Y? I don't think it would have to mean this. Or, "How does X exist?" would not lead us so much, again, to where X is (right now), unless the way that X exists confines it to some position; but identifying that possible position in the first place, seems to prerequire a notion of places as such.

  • To say nothing of Z.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 20:38
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    Don't you think here, you are giving a coordinate system, as a special case of narrative structuring?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 22:06
  • @CriglCragl, IIRC Alessio Moretti or some Beziau(?) guy said something about a logical "flower" for narratology(?), along the lines of the other Moretti structures. I think Moretti's been at pains to showcase his flower theory as more than a variant of graph theory, but I don't recall what he's said about set/category theory besides, just that he seems to be empathetic to intuitionism, too (he places a very high premium on the geometry of the flowers). An evolutionary sequence of Moretti structures, so to speak, with a narratological base, might yield spacetime as a subnarrative? Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 3:44

According to the empirical studies of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) project, both time and space are core concepts, represented by several semantic primes each - core concepts of human thinking that cannot be reduced to others, and are shared by all natural human languages. The list of NSM primes has been empirically developed over more than 40 years as a growing number of languages from all major language families have been studied, such that it is reasonable to conclude that these primes are found in all natural languages.


You can look at the other primes yourself, all of which are equally fundamental to human language. Whether or not they're fundamental concepts to existence is debatable, but without them we wouldn't have human language like we do.

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