Space (philosophy)

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Space (from ahd. And mhd. Rûm , originally "that which is not filled up") is treated in philosophy primarily as empty space and thus as a condition of being apart and next to each other of various extended things at the same time . In the discussion, this term is directly linked to that of matter as substance-filled space and expansion . In everyday understanding or in naive theory , the room is therefore presented on the model of a most general container .

At the same time, "space" already has a variety of meanings in everyday use, which is also reflected in philosophy. The personal experience of space is important for the philosophy of life and anthropology , while in mathematics abstract and concrete structures are also referred to as space . More recently, the term “spatial theory” has shown an increased interest in space from the humanities and social sciences; see also spatial sociology .

Themes of the philosophy of space

The philosophy of space deals with the questions of whether there really is such a thing as "space" or whether it is just a form of perception , whether space can be thought of as finite or infinite, whether empty space exists, whether space is on an equal footing with that Matter indicates whether an absolute space exists or the space only defines the positional relationships of the objects and what significance the space has for humans.


Even before the early Greek natural philosophers asked answers to the question of a basic principle, a unified cause of everything, Hesiod was concerned with the beginning of everything in the 7th century BC. He unfolds his concept of space right at the beginning of his " Theogony ", a myth of the origin of the gods, which also describes (as cosmogony ) the origin of the earth and the cosmos by showing that chaos arose before the gods . The word “ chaos ” in Greek does not mean “disorder” as we do today, but rather “cavity” or “gap”. Only then are the oldest gods created - Gaia , the earth, and - created by Gaia himself - Uranos , the sky. The chaos forms the horizon line between the ground and the sky. This is the first time that (empty) space is conceptually defined - on the one hand as the difference between two states, and on the other hand it defines the difference between heaven and earth in general. “It is a whole and the difference, a container and separation, container and borderline at the same time.” The earliest concept of space anticipates all the questions that will follow in the 2500 years of the history of philosophy.


Thales of Miletus is generally mentioned as the first philosopher in the sixth century BC, who ushers in the era of the pre-Socratics . The revolutionary new thing about their approach is that they attempt to explain natural phenomena without assuming the action of gods. The considerations of Thales and the pre-Socratics revolve around the question of the reason or the beginning of things - Greek 'arche'.

For Thales, the original substance is water. Everything should have emerged from the water through compression, dilution or transformation. In this formulation of a hypothesis about the origin of things, we recognize today the transition from mythical to scientific thinking . The contradiction between the variety of appearances and a unified principle behind it will also occupy the philosophers according to Thales for a long time, as will the opposing pairs of being and becoming, the unchangeable and the changeable as well as essence and appearance.

Anaximander finds the “arche” in the immeasurable and immortal - the “ apeiron ”, literally translated: that which cannot be run over or crossed from one end to the other - the first abstract concept in the history of philosophy. Anaximander formulates: "The beginning and end of existing things is the apeiron."

The atomistic theory of space by Leukippus and Democritus demands - in contrast to Parmenides - the recognition of the existence of non-being . “In truth there are only atoms and emptiness.” (VS 68, B 125) This has far-reaching consequences: empty space can have no limit; so it does not only exist in this cosmos, but also outside it. In this limitless, empty expansion, in an infinitely long time, in addition to an infinite number of atoms, an infinite number of cosmic systems can also form - and then perish again. (VS 68, A 39 f., 81 f.) Empty space enables not only the juxtaposition of bodies, but also their movement.


The early space theories form the background for Plato's more elaborate answer to the question of what space is. In the context of his theory of ideas he asks how the relationship between the world of ideas (of unchangeable being ) and the changeable world of things that can be perceived by the senses ( phenomena ) is to be understood. As he writes in Dialogue Timaeus , the room as “chora” (the “evasive and space-making”) is a “third genus”, pictorially the “wet nurse of becoming”, which mediates between the world of ideas and the senses and gives space for what is becoming and Passing. In Plato's theory of the elements , the concept of space is worked out mathematically: the four elements of Empedocles (earth, water, fire, air) are abstracted and transferred to regular geometric (“Platonic”) bodies .


Aristotle Altemps Inv8575.jpg

Aristotle's space theory (in the fourth book of his physics ) has a different focus than his teacher Plato. He understands the question of space as a question of where, i.e. the specific place or location (“topos”) of a body. He defines place as that which limits the material body , and is of the opinion that “there is neither an emptiness that is separate for itself [...] nor (an existing) possibility”; so there is no empty space. Above the world of the changing and ephemeral begins the world of the immortal, the sphere of the heavenly bodies. According to Aristotle, all matter ends at the outermost celestial sphere, and consequently space also ends there. Outside the outermost celestial sphere nothing is imaginable, no matter, consequently no space, not even emptiness. So the Aristotelian cosmos is finite. As with Plato, the Aristotelian concept of space is related to the theory of elements; in Aristotle the four elements are layered in perfect order around the world center. However, Aristotle assumes a fifth element, which is later called "quinta essentia" and "ether" . Aristotle's reflections on the continuum have also become important. In dealing with Zeno von Elea and his paradoxes (for example Achilles' race with the turtle , the arrow paradox ) he emphasizes the arbitrary divisibility of a line, for example, and thus comes to a spatial continuum theory.

Modern times


The Middle Ages were characterized by spatial confinement, space only opened up in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance , and the discussion about the concept of space is making progress again. The thought of the infinity of the universe moves into consciousness. But an infinite space no longer has room for the creator god of the universe , as Giordano Bruno wants to show; he is burned by the inquisition for his teaching . However, Galileo and Kepler prove by observations what Copernicus had claimed, and the new, heliocentric worldview is gradually taking hold .

A prerequisite for this, however, is the break with the worldview and thinking of Aristotle that dominated the Middle Ages, which was carried out by the German natural philosopher and theologian Nicolaus von Kues (Cusanus, 1401–1464). He brings the infinity of the world back into the discussion. Since for him nature was formed according to the divine idea, God also transferred his own infinity to it. In the infinite all opposites are united , since there maximum and minimum coincide and a circle can no longer be distinguished from a straight line.

In the following, space is understood primarily as a space of physics, the laws of which apply to earth and celestial objects. In Descartes' work , extensio becomes the central concept to describe space and matter. Space as an “extended thing” (res extensa) is to be distinguished from the “thinking” (and not extended) thing (res cogitans). This allows geometrical concepts to be applied to space and matter; both terms are almost equated. Bodies can change their space in motion, but there is no vacuum , no space that is not filled by matter.

Cartesian coordinate system

Descartes also developed the fundamentals for the concept of the coordinate system : as exactly three values (coordinates) are required to define a point in space , the space of our perception is defined as three-dimensional .

The controversy between Newton and Leibniz

A classic controversy about space is then carried out between Newton and Leibniz . In response to Descartes, Newton frees space from its close connection with matter. The space is now ontologically independent, it would also exist without matter. Newton distinguishes an absolute space , which is not directly accessible to observation, from relational spaces, i.e. reference systems in which distances and movements in relation to certain objects can be measured. “Due to its nature, absolute space always remains the same and immobile, even without a relationship to an external object.” Space is an immaterial “container” of matter and is not influenced by it - in this sense it is absolute. For Newton it is also important that the idea of ​​an absolute space can explain inertial effects, in particular the dynamic effects during the rotational movement (for example the curvature of the water surface in his famous bucket experiments).

In the famous correspondence with Samuel Clarke , a Newton student who at times speaks for Newton, Leibnitz puts forward his arguments against Newton's absolute space. While in Newton's theory space exists independently of matter, the relational theory advocated by Leibnitz traces space back to the positional relationships of things that exist side by side and can move relative to each other, so “that without matter there is no space. “Leibniz writes:“ Space is the order of things that exist simultaneously, like time the order of things that follow one another ”. Physical space is therefore only relational , given by the positional relationships of physical bodies determined in it, which is why Leibniz also speaks of an abstract space as the “order of all places assumed to be possible”. In addition to Leibniz, George Berkeley also criticizes Newton's idea of ​​absolute space, because places and speeds in absolute space are in principle unobservable - for Berkeley, perceptibility is the prerequisite for existence (“esse est percipi” - being is being perceived). This debate points to a fundamental problem in the philosophy of space: how can one find out anything about the existence and properties of space, how can one argue about them? In English empiricism ( Locke , Hume ), psychological arguments with spatial perception come into play, the contribution of the senses to spatial ideas comes to the fore. Investigations into this are intensified in the 19th and 20th centuries in sensory physiology and gestalt psychology .


At the end of the 18th century Immanuel Kant designed a completely different conception of space and time. In the pre-critical period he had already dealt intensively with space, including the difference between the right and left hand ( “handedness”, “chirality” ). In the “ Critique of Pure Reason ”, however, he leaves these questions behind and epistemologically examines the role of space in sensory experience for empirical knowledge. And he states: space and time are not ordinary objects. Both are not the subject of experience in the usual sense, but have to be presupposed for every experience - the space is “pure intuition” .

From the 19th century to the present

Farewell to classical physics

The 19th century brought the mathematical justification for non-Euclidean geometries , which can be illustrated on a spherical surface , for example , so that triangles with an angle sum smaller or larger than 180 ° can also be constructed. The multitude of geometries that become possible in this way means that a distinction must be made between a formal mathematical geometry and the geometrical description of physical space. The question remains, what the true geometry of physical space is and how it can be found out.

Newton's conception of absolute space (identified with the "ether" ), absolute time and relative speed, together with the Cartesian concept of three-dimensional space, dominated philosophy and the natural sciences for over 200 years. The refutation of the idea of ​​an ether in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 led to the development of Einstein's special theory of relativity . In space - as a result of the constancy of the speed of light - the distance between two points is no longer absolute, but dependent on the respective coordinate system, ie "relative" to a reference system.


Independent of the choice of reference systems, on the other hand, is a four-dimensional quantity combined from space and time coordinates - the "quadruple distance" . The spacetime distance between any two events is always the same in every frame of reference. Space and time can no longer be determined independently of one another - this is why one speaks of a (four-dimensional) space-time or Minkowski time, named after Einstein's teacher Hermann Minkowski . Existence does not exist (only) relative to a certain time, just as little (only) relative to a place. Everything exists in a point (or area) in space-time, and it absolutely exists. The timeless view of existence is known as the idea of ​​a block universe .

Space-time and matter

Space-time curvature

According to the theory of relativity, what is the relationship between space-time and matter? The general theory of relativity makes statements about this and solves the problem that nothing could be imagined under gravity in Newton's physics - it was an enigmatic long-range effect. According to Einstein's theory, matter determines the geometry of spacetime - it bends it. The path of a body, which is curved by the action of gravity, forms a non-Euclidean straight line in the curved space-time - a “ geodesic ”. The statements of the general theory of relativity also have consequences for the relationship between space-time and matter : the space-time distances between points of space-time depend on the distribution of matter in the universe; so there is no longer a clear separation between space-time and matter. The gravitational field is contained in the metric field of space-time.

Quantum theory

In quantum theory , the principles of which take the microphysical structure of matter into account and are of eminent importance for modern natural philosophy , the terms “space” and “time” lose their meaning entirely. It is in the quantum physics not small "grains of sand" - atoms or elementary particles - but of quantum states that are no longer located in space-time, but in an abstract mathematical space.

Contemporary space theory

The modern discussion of the concept of space was largely based on the concept of space in physics well into the 19th century. Thereafter, philosophy also turned to the space or spaces that people experience in everyday life. The subject is then the “filled” space, i. H. a spatially structured living environment with designed rooms and z. B. their quality of experience. To this end, various considerations are made in the philosophy of life and existence (Heidegger) and in phenomenology (E. Husserl) . Various anthropologically oriented observations are made (e.g. about living) , and the central role that the human body - our own movement and our orientation in space - has as a starting point for spatial concepts should be worked out. In this way, it is less a general theory about the one space that is developed than special considerations about various spatial relationships. Psychological and sociological considerations are often more decisive than philosophical approaches. This also applies to studies that are related to the so-called “ spatial turn ” - or the “topological turn”. This is understood to mean the point of view that came to the fore in the decade 1990–2000 that spaces (e.g. architectural spaces, urban spaces, regions, but also e.g. bedrooms, virtual spaces, etc.) are social products. A “space theory” is often used in this context. Programs that want to say something new about physical space from such a starting point - or, conversely, want to make details from the debate about physical space fruitful for the space experienced, do not seem to be very productive. The function of the different rooms must be clarified by the respective specialist sciences. The task of philosophy can only be to ensure that the correct terms are used. Epistemological tools can be used to find out how we can acquire knowledge about space at all. Philosophy cannot do without the experiences that we have with space in everyday life and in science.

See also

Web links



further reading

  • Jan Aertsen , Andreas Speer : Space and conception of space in the Middle Ages. (= Miscellanea Mediaevalia. Volume 25). Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-11-015716-0 .
  • Aristotle : physics. Lecture on nature. Greek-German, edited by Hans Günter Zekl. Volume 1: Book I – IV. Meiner-Verlag, Hamburg 1986, ISBN 978-3-7873-0649-7 . Volume II: Book V – VIII. Meiner-Verlag, Hamburg 1988, ISBN 978-3-7873-0712-8
  • Jürgen Audretsch, Klaus Mainzer (eds.): Philosophy and Physics of Space-Time , Mannheim 1988.
  • Andreas Bartels: Basic Problems of Modern Natural Philosophy , Paderborn 1996.
  • Otto Friedrich Bollnow : People and Space . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1990, ISBN 3-17-018471-7 .
  • Milic Capek (ed.): The Concepts of Space and Time , Dordrecht 1976.
  • Rudolf Carnap : The room. A contribution to science. (= Kant study supplements. 56). Berlin 1922.
  • Martin Carrier: Raum-Zeit , Berlin 2009.
  • Edward S. Casey : The Fate of Place. A Philosophical History , Berkeley (CA) 1997.
  • Barry Dainton: Time and Space , Chesham 2001.
  • Jörg Döring , Tristan Thielmann (eds.): Spatial Turn. The spatial paradigm in the cultural and social sciences , Bielefeld 2008.
  • Jörg Dünne , Stephan Günzel (ed.): Space theory. Basic texts from philosophy and cultural studies , Frankfurt a. M. 2006, ISBN 978-3-518-29400-0 .
  • John S. Earman : World Enough and Space-Time , Cambridge (MA) 1989.
  • Michael Esfeld: Introduction to Natural Philosophy , 2nd, completely revised edition, Darmstadt 2011
  • Alexander Gosztonyi : The room. History of its problems in philosophy and sciences , 2 volumes, Freiburg i.Br./München 1976, ISBN 3-495-47202-9 .
  • Adolf Grünbaum : Philosophical Problems of Space and Time. New York 1963.
  • Stefan Günzel: Philosophy . In: Fabian Kessl, Christian Reutlinger (eds.): Handbuch Sozialraum. Social space research and social space work, Wiesbaden 2019, pp. 87–108, here: 90
  • Ulf Heuner (ed.): Classical texts on space . Parodos, Berlin 2006, ISBN 3-938880-05-8 .
  • Christian Hoffstadt : Thinking spaces and thought movements. Investigations into the metaphorical use of the language of space. (Dissertation). (= European culture and history of ideas. Volume 3). Universitätsverlag, Karlsruhe 2009. ( Online version , PDF 1.3 MB)
  • Nick Huggett (ed.): Space from Zeno to Einstein , Cambridge (MA) 1999.
  • Nick Huggett, Carl Hoefer: Absolute and Relational Theories of Space and Motion , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2006 ( Online ).
  • Rüdiger Inhetveen : Constructive Geometry. A form-theoretical foundation of Euclidean geometry. Bibliographical Institute, Mannheim 1983.
  • Max Jammer : Concepts of Space: The history of Theories of Space in Physics. Dover Publications, New York 1993 ( The problem of space. The development of space theories . Translated by Paul Wilpert, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1960), (Foreword by Albert Einstein)
  • Peter Janich : Clarity, consistency and methodical order. Frankfurt 1973.
  • Bernulf Kanitscheider : Geometry and Reality. , Berlin 1971.
  • Bernulf Kanitscheider : From absolute space to dynamic geometry , Mannheim 1976.
  • Immanuel Kant : Critique of Pure Reason. 1st edition. "The transcendental aesthetics, first section, From the space", "The transcendental analytics, second main part, From the deduction of the pure understanding concepts" (Volume 3, pp. 71-77) Complete text in the Wikisource
  • Friedrich Kaulbach : The metaphysics of space with Leibniz and Kant. Kölner Universitäts-Verlag, Cologne 1960.
  • Petra Kolmer, Armin G. Wildfeuer (ed.): New handbook of basic philosophical concepts . Freiburg i. Br. 2011
  • Thomas Krämer-Badoni, Klaus Kuhm (eds.): Society and its space , Opladen 2003.
  • Alexander Koyré: From the closed world to the infinite universe , Frankfurt a. M. 1980 (Original: From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore 1957).
  • Kyung Jik Lee: The concept of space in the 'Timaeus' in connection with natural philosophy and the metaphysics of Plato . 1999. -
  • Paul Lorenzen : The problem of justifying geometry as a science of spatial order. In: Philosophia naturalis . 6, 1961.
  • Holger Lyre: Philosophical problems of spacetime theories , in: Andreas Bartels, Manfred Stöckler (eds.), Wissenschaftstheorie , Paderborn 2007.
  • Michaela Masek: History of Ancient Philosophy , Vienna 2012
  • Isaac Newton : Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. London 1687. (Minerva 1992, ISBN 3-8102-0939-2 )
  • Henri Poincaré : Science and Hypothesis. 1902. (Xenomos Verlag, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-936532-24-9 )
  • Hans Reichenbach : Philosophy of space-time teaching. Verlag Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / Leipzig 1928 (English: The philosophy of space and time. (Translated by J. Freud & Hans Reichenbach), Dover Publications, New York 1958)
  • Samuel Sambursky : The physical world view of antiquity. Artemis Verlag, Zurich 1965
  • Moritz Schlick : Space and Time in Contemporary Physics. Julius Springer Verlag, Berlin 1917. (4th edition. 1922)
  • Hermann Schmitz : System of Philosophy. Bonn 1964–1980.
  • Lawrence Sklar : Space, Time, and Spacetime , Berkeley (CA) 1974.
  • JJC Smart (Ed.): Problems of Space and Time. New York 1964.
  • Elisabeth Ströker : Philosophical investigations into space. Klostermann, Frankfurt 1965, ISBN 3-465-01249-6 .
  • Hermann Weyl : Space, Time, Matter. 1918. (8th edition. 1993)
  • Margaret Wertheim: The heavenly door to cyberspace. A history of space from Dante to the Internet. Translated by Ilse Strasmann. Piper, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-250-10417-5 .
  • Hans Günter Zekl et al .: Art. "Space", in: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Vol. 8, Basel 1992, Sp. 67-131.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Arnim Regenbogen, Uwe Meyer, entry space in: Dictionary of philosophical terms , Meiner Hamburg 1998.
  2. Jörg Dünne, foreword to the anthology From Pilgerwege, traces of writing and points of view. Spatial practices from a media historical perspective , ed. v. Jörg Dünne, Hermann Doetsch and Roger Lüdeke, Würzburg 2004 -
  3. Stephan Günzel, preface, in: Jörg Dünne , Stephan Günzel (ed.): Raumtheorie. Basic texts from philosophy and cultural studies , Frankfurt a. M. 2006, p. 3
  4. Hesiod, Theogonie , 116 ff.
  5. ^ Stefan Günzel, Philosophy . In: Fabian Kessl, Christian Reutlinger (eds.), Handbuch Sozialraum. Social space research and social space work, Wiesbaden 2019, pp. 87-108, here: 90
  6. Michaela Masek, History of Ancient Philosophy , Vienna 2012, p. 32
  7. Kyung Jik Lee, The concept of space in the 'Timaeus' in connection with natural philosophy and the metaphysics of Plato . 1999. -
  8. ^ Plato, Timaeus, 48 ​​e
  9. ^ Plato, Timaeus, 52 a
  10. Michaela Masek, History of Ancient Philosophy , Vienna 2012, p. 178 ff.
  11. Aristotle, Phys. 208b27
  12. Aristotle, Phys. 212a2
  13. Aristotle, Phys. 217b20
  14. Petra Kolmer / Armin G. Wildfeuer (eds.), New Handbook of Basic Philosophical Concepts . Freiburg i. Br. 2011, p. 1820
  15. ^ Newton, 19 Scholium
  16. Leibniz, 5th letter, § 62, a. O. 406; HS 1, 192, cit. according to: Hans Günter Zekl et al., Art. "Raum", in: Historisches Handbuch der Philosophie , Vol. 8, Basel 1992, Sp. 67-131, here: Sp. 100
  17. ^ Letter v. June 16, 1712 to B. des Bosses , Philos. Schr.  II, 450, cit. according to: Jürgen Mittelstraß / Klaus Mainzer, keyword “space”, in: Mittelstraß (ed.), Enzyklopädie Philosophie und Wissenschaftstheorie , Stuttgart 1995, Vol. 3, pp. 482-490, here: 483
  18. 5. Letter to S. Clarke, Philos. Very. VII, 415, cit. according to: ibid
  19. Hans Günter Zekl et al., Art. “Raum”, in: Historisches Handbuch der Philosophie , Vol. 8, Basel 1992, Sp. 67-131, here: Sp. 114
  20. KrV, A20 / B34f., Cit. according to: Zekl, Hans Günter et al., Art. "Raum", in: Historisches Handbuch der Philosophie, Vol. 8, Basel 1992, Sp. 67-131, here: Sp. 89
  21. Michael Esfeld, Introduction to Natural Philosophy , 2nd, completely revised edition, Darmstadt 2011, p. 37 ff.
  22. Michael Esfeld, Introduction to Natural Philosophy, 2nd, completely revised edition, Darmstadt 2011, p. 37 ff.
  23. Born 1955, quoted in according to: quantum mechanics and problems of their interpretation -
  24. Quantum Mechanics and Problems of Their Interpretation -
  25. Thomas Kratzert, The Discovery of Space . Amsterdam / Philadelphia 1998
  26. Jörg Dünne / Stephan Günzel (eds.), Space Theory. Basic texts from philosophy and cultural studies . Frankfurt am Main 2006