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Kant on Time

Letizia Nonnis unfolds Kant’s conception of the nature of and experience of time.

One of the most influential accounts of time in the West is the one produced by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). It is my intention here to explore Kant’s concept of time, especially the way it is bound up with language. This does not mean that I will reduce the problem of time to a mere matter of language, but I do want to demonstrate that language plays a crucial role in respect to time. To do this I will look at Kant’s 1781 blockbuster The Critique of Pure Reason and in particular at the section entitled ‘The Transcendental Aesthetic’. Although Kant doesn’t spend many words on time, reducing the argument to a footnote at the end of the chapter, the argument is very close to the one he employs with regard to space. But even if one argues that time and space are asymmetrical with respect to the senses – time is part of the ‘inner sense’, and space is an aspect of the ‘outer sense’ – time alone is not sufficient to render our experience ordered and comprehensible.

I will argue that the concepts of past, present, and future are not essential to the nature of time as Kant sees it. The idea is that the distinction between future and past – integral to our sense of the flow of time – is inextricably conceptual, and as such does not belong to the sensory elements of our experience, but is thereby inextricably bound to language.

All this needs a little explanation.

The Language of Experience

In Anthropology From A Pragmatic Point Of View (1798), Kant says: “The ability to recognize the present as the means for connecting ideas of foreseen events with those of past events is the power of using signs” (p.64). Hence, one may well talk about time only when language is part of the mix – which means, only if we subject time to concepts. My question is whether one can conceptually imagine either or both the past and the present as not existing. For St Augustine (354-430), it was, if anything, too easy to conceive of the non-existence of the past and the future. He thought that events came into existence and passed out of existence, and only the present was real. Kant belonged to the same tradition, but was able to formulate the problem in a different manner.

As I mentioned, Kant’s first treatment of time in the Critique appears in the section entitled ‘The Transcendental Aesthetic’. Allow me to explain the title before going into the details of what Kant says about the nature of time.

A priori knowledge is knowledge present in a human mind prior to or independent of experience of the external world. In Kant’s investigation into human experience, our concepts of space and time arise prior to or independent of experience of the external world and are the necessary conditions of us having such experience at all.

A priori can be opposed to a posteriori, which denotes knowledge derived from experience, and to transcendental, which indicates something that goes beyond or is before experience, but is not contained with in it. The term ‘transcendental’ already had a long history within the philosophical tradition, especially within scholasticism. For Kant, the term designates something that does not derive from experience, but rather is “the way in which the mind is affected by its own activity” (Critique, p.189). In other words, ‘transcendental’ refers to the way the mind conditions itself. The term aesthetic on the other hand derives from the ancient Greek αἴσθησις (aisthesis) meaning ‘sensation’. Knowing this analysis, we can already deduce what Kant is going to address in this chapter. This section indeed addresses a priori sensation, which in the Critique is often referred to as pure intuition.

Time as a Form of Pure Intuition

In Kant’s first treatment of time, the relation between time and language does not arise explicitly. However, I will explore it for two main reasons. The first is that Kant explores both the transcendental and empirical nature of time, and we must use language to describe these things. The second reason is that although Kant does not explicitly discuss time and language as intrinsically connected, in this section he advances some fundamental presuppositions related to their connection.

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant by Woodrow Cowher

Kant describes time as a form of pure intuition, in opposition to the matter of the world, which he argues is for us only an “appearance which corresponds to a sensation” (p.172). He begins his discourse around space and time with an argument to demonstrate that an intuition of experience does not necessarily involve a sense perception. To do this he employs a distinction between empirical intuition and pure intuition, saying that empirical intuition (that is, experience of the world) necessarily implies that objects are “given to us by means of sensibility” (p.172) – that is, via our sensations of them. On the other hand, pure intuition does not necessarily involve a sensation, as it does not immediately derive from the biological senses. The argument can be summarised by saying, I can perceive space and still not have a sensation of it, since space is not an object that is given to me by my senses. Similarly, absolute time is not an object in experience, since we do not have a sensation of time, either. Instead, our representations of space and time are pure, since, concerning them, “nothing is to be encountered that belongs to sensation” (p.173).

Another way to the same idea can be found in Kant’s second argument on time. He says, “In regard to appearances in general one cannot remove time, though one can very well take the appearances away from time” (p.162). That is to say, we cannot envisage any event as not being in time. Ultimately then, we are not able to envisage the absence of time itself. There’s a crude but useful analogy which S. Korner employs in his book Kant (1955), that space and time can be thought of as ‘irremovable spectacles’, since “Objects [and events] can be seen only through [space and time]. Objects [and events] therefore, can never be seen as they are in themselves” (Kant, p.37). Since space and time are necessary forms of experience, we can never experience what things are like independent of them, nor what space and time are like independent of our experience.

Although I think this is Kant’s most persuasive argument about time, I must admit that it is not quite decisive. Imagine that from birth onwards, we always see the world through a pair of green-tinted spectacles. Naturally, the world looks green. Now imagine that we somehow find a way to remove the spectacles. We may indeed discover that the world really is green anyway; or to translate the metaphor, that the world is in space and time anyway. Therefore, absolute time could be independent of our experience of time. However, this conclusion goes way beyond the limits Kant sets for our capacity to understand, since we cannot experience what is beyond experience. He instead says that it is only from the human perspective that we can talk about time, and from this perspective, the experience of time precedes experience of the external world.

To sustain this hypothesis, Kant argues that the idea of time cannot arise from experiences of simultaneity or succession, since we need to presuppose time in order to make sense of this particular kind of order through which we experience the world: “Only under [time’s] presupposition can one represent that several things exist at one and the same time (simultaneously) or in different times (successively)” (p.162). Kant’s concern is that time is not derived from something non-temporal, meaning that time cannot be derived from a timeless source. In other words, time cannot be fully explained by reference to something that is not itself temporal, and so must be presupposed as an aspect of experience.

Although this assertion may seem banal, it is one of Kant’s central theses. Perhaps it can be best summarised through an Aristotelian statement. The ancient philosopher says, “It is evident then that time neither is change nor apart from change” (Metaphysics, 218b 35). Change indeed takes place in an object through alteration or movement. However, when change comes to an end, we can still say that time passes or flows. Imagine for a moment being in a dark room without any sort of sensory experience. Even then we want to assert that time has not stopped, and we still experience time flowing. This gets us close to Kant’s idea. This particular aspect of our experience can be clarified by making a distinction between time as it is experienced in the aesthetic (the sensory experiences of events), and time as it is experienced in the context of pure understanding.

The Experience of Time

Having considered Kant’s treatment of time within ‘The Transcendental Aesthetic’ as a pure form of intuition, it is now necessary to move to the slightly different understanding of time posed within the section ‘The Analytic’. In this section of the Critique Kant seems to call in evidence how the experience of time is generated.

Kant explains that whether the source of a representation is external or internal – whether we are talking about a priori or empirical appearances – they are all nevertheless modifications of the mind, and as such, properly speaking, they belong to our inner sense. Since they all belong to the inner sense, Kant explains that “all of our cognitions are in the end subjected to the formal condition of inner sense, namely time, as that in which they must all be ordered, connected, and brought into relations” (p.228). So time plays a focal role in the process of creation of all our experience, as it constitutes the ground or foundation of that experience. And since the representations not only represent something, but represent it to someone, we are now in a position of understanding at least the skeleton, so to speak, of this ‘someone’. It will then become evident how it is possible for us to experience time, and in fact to understand why we experience time as a continuum rather than a discrete set of moments, and, ultimately, understand what sort of relation exists between time and language.

Kant says that the synthesis of intuitions is the unification of the manifold of experience. What does this mean? To use Kant’s own words, “synthesis in the most general sense… I understand as the action of putting different representations together with each other and comprehending their manifoldness in one cognition” (Critique, p.210). Here the ‘manifold’ is the plurality of intuitions, the different aspects of experience. For example, when I look at a building, from this angle and that, and at different times too, I have a manifold of empirical intuitions or visual inputs that are then unified in the mind in order to constitute a coherent, unified experience of the building. Generally speaking, the synthesis of the manifold of intuitions allows our experience to be a unity, rather than what William James memorably called ‘blooming buzzing confusion’.

Without the synthesis, our experiences would remain a disordered set of information. But there would be no experience of time either. Suppose we’re talking about the time that has passed between one event and another. If my fractions of experiences were not in coherent temporal relationship with each other, I would not even be able to tell that I had such an experience, nor that time passed with this experience. In this incoherent case, Kant says that “not even the first and purest representations of space and time could ever arise within us” (p.85), precisely because we need to “run through the manifold and then to hold it together” (p.82). It is not by accident that this act of the mind is called synthesis (once again, the word derives from ancient Greek: σύν , ‘together with’ and τίϑη μ ι , ‘to put’) . Overall, our faculty of synthesis is our transcendental mental capacity to create a unity of the manifold of experiences or intuition. Without this unity, we would not be able to have an experience of the pure intuitions of space and time, Kant says. It is thus from this foundation that Kant says that the experience of time is generated. For now, it is perhaps enough for us to say with Kant that time is “the formal condition of the manifold of inner sense, thus of the connection of all representations, contained an a priori manifold in pure intuition” (p.272).

Time Out of Mind
Time Out of Mind by Dror Rosenski

Is this Experience Sufficient to Explain Time?

We now have a picture of the nature of and experience of time. So far, we can say that time is a pure form of intuition, and its experience depends on our creating a specific (temporal) type of unity from the manifold of experiences. It is from this perspective that we can talk about time as a continuum rather than as a discrete set of times which we refer to as past, present, and future. I am convinced that if Kant is right, his formulation only yields a unity of time experience, rather than an ineffable flow that configures as different times. So, it appears that there’s an incongruence between what we normally say about time and what Kant says time is. I think this is due to the role that language plays in our conceptualisation of time.

Let’s proceed gradually. I will firstly look at Augustine’s understanding of time to see how we can conceptually distinguish time into different ‘entities’; then I will look at Augustine’s negation of past and future. Finally, I will consider Kant’s Reflexionen – handwritten notes – since within this set of notes resides a formulation that can provide the way forward to a Kantian conception of time that’s coherent and congruous.

As I mentioned, according to Augustine, neither past nor future exists; only the present. To Augustine there seems to be a coincidence of time and becoming as if they’re two faces of the same coin. But I do not want to focus on this problem since, along with Kant, we have already anticipated that time cannot derive from something non-temporal. My concern here is that it is because of his conceptual understanding of time that Augustine can say that only the present is. But if only the present always is, it is identical with eternity. Augustine indeed says, “Those two times then, past and to come, how are they, seeing the past now is not, and that to come is not yet? But the present, should it always be present, and never pass into time past, verily it should not be time, but eternity” (Confessions, Ch. XIV).

It is within this conceptualisation that the link between time and language becomes manifest. In his Reflexionen, Kant demonstrates the futility of bringing time under a concept, as there is nothing to which we can adequately compare time. Furthermore, different parts of time – past, present, and future – are time itself, since they share all the properties of time. Indeed, here Kant says that time is a continuum in which its parts – past, present, and future – are considered parts only insofar as we refer to the distinction between them linguistically. This is why the conceptual distinction between past, present and feature is not set on the plane of reality, in the way that time itself is (that is, the transcendental reality of time). Rather, these artificial conceptual distinctions are instead an aspect of our conceptualisation and language (divisio non est realis, sed logica, as Kant puts it in his notes).


The nature and experience of time is complex and multifaceted, as demonstrated by the diverse and divergent perspectives of philosophers such as Augustine and Kant. While Augustine conceptualizes time as originating from the present, Kant develops a complex yet elegant system around our experience of time. The distinction between the nature of time and its linguistic experience – the dichotomy that exists between time itself and its conceptualisation – are fundamentally parts of a bigger system in which everything is connected and interdependent. Ultimately, the difference between what we are able to say about time and what time actually is underscores the difficulty of fully understanding this fundamental aspect of human experience. I conclude that nothing can be taken as a definitive answer to the question of what time is. I myself cannot do anything but contemplate the beauty of its mystery.

© Letizia Nonnis 2023

Letizia Nonnis is an undergraduate student at the University of Roehampton in the faculty of philosophy.

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