Appearance and Reality/Chapter IV

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The object of this chapter is far from being an attempt to discuss fully the nature of space or of time. It will content itself with stating our main justification for regarding them as appearance. It will explain why we deny that, in the character which they exhibit, they either have or belong to reality. I will first show this of space.

We have nothing to do here with the psychological origin of the perception. Space may be a product developed from non-spatial elements; and, if so, its production may have great bearing on the question of its true reality. But it is impossible for us to consider this here. For, in the first place, every attempt so to explain its origin has turned out a clear failure.[1] And, in the second place, its reality would not be necessarily affected by the proof of its development. Nothing can be taken as real because, for psychology, it is original; or, again, as unreal, because it is secondary. If it were a legitimate construction from elements that were true, then it might be derived only for our knowledge, and be original in fact. But so long as its attempted derivation is in part obscure and in part illusory, it is better to regard this whole question as irrelevant.

Let us then, taking space or extension simply as it is, enquire whether it contradicts itself. The reader will be acquainted with the difficulties that have arisen from the continuity and the discreteness of space. These necessitate the conclusion that space is endless, while an end is essential to its being. Space cannot come to a final limit, either within itself or on the outside. And yet, so long as it remains something always passing away, internally or beyond itself, it is not space at all. This dilemma has been met often by the ignoring of one aspect, but it has never been, and it will never be, confronted and resolved. And naturally, while it stands, it is the condemnation of space.

I am going to state it here in the form which exhibits, I think, most plainly the root of the contradiction, and also its insolubility. Space is a relation—which it cannot be; and it is a quality or substance—which again it cannot be. It is a peculiar form of the problem which we discussed in the last chapter, and is a special attempt to combine the irreconcilable. I will set out this puzzle antithetically.

1. Space is not a mere relation. For any space must consist of extended parts, and these parts clearly are spaces. So that, even if we could take our space as a collection, it would be a collection of solids. The relation would join spaces which would not be mere relations. And hence the collection, if taken as a mere inter-relation, would not be space. We should be brought to the proposition that space is nothing but a relation of spaces. And this proposition contradicts itself.

Again, from the other side, if any space is taken as a whole, it is evidently more than a relation. It is a thing, or substance, or quality (call it what you please), which is clearly as solid as the parts which it unites. From without, or from within, it is quite as repulsive and as simple as any of its contents. The mere fact that we are driven always to speak of its parts should be evidence enough. What could be the parts of a relation?

2. But space is nothing but a relation. For, in the first place, any space must consist of parts; and, if the parts are not spaces, the whole is not space. Take then in a space any parts. These, it is assumed, must be solid, but they are obviously extended. If extended, however, they will themselves consist of parts, and these again of further parts, and so on without end. A space, or a part of space, that really means to be solid, is a self-contradiction. Anything extended is a collection, a relation of extendeds, which again are relations of extendeds, and so on indefinitely. The terms are essential to the relation, and the terms do not exist. Searching without end, we never find anything more than relations; and we see that we cannot. Space is essentially a relation of what vanishes into relations, which seek in vain for their terms. It is lengths of lengths of—nothing that we can find.

And, from the outside again, a like conclusion is forced on us. We have seen that space vanishes internally into relations between units which never can exist. But, on the other side, when taken itself as a unit, it passes away into the search for an illusory whole. It is essentially the reference of itself to something else, a process of endless passing beyond actuality. As a whole it is, briefly, the relation of itself to a non-existent other. For take space as large and as complete as you possibly can. Still, if it has not definite boundaries, it is not space; and to make it end in a cloud, or in nothing, is mere blindness and our mere failure to perceive. A space limited, and yet without space that is outside, is a self-contradiction. But the outside, unfortunately, is compelled likewise to pass beyond itself; and the end cannot be reached. And it is not merely that we fail to perceive, or fail to understand, how this can be otherwise. We perceive and we understand that it cannot be otherwise, at least if space is to be space. We either do not know what space means; and, if so, certainly we cannot say that it is more than appearance. Or else, knowing what we mean by it, we see inherent in that meaning the puzzle we are describing. Space, to be space, must have space outside itself. It for ever disappears into a whole, which proves never to be more than one side of a relation to something beyond. And thus space has neither any solid parts, nor, when taken as one, is it more than the relation of itself to a new self. As it stands, it is not space; and, in trying to find space beyond it, we can find only that which passes away into a relation. Space is a relation between terms, which can never be found.

It would not repay us to dwell further on the contradiction which we have exhibited. The reader who has once grasped the principle can deal himself with the details. I will refer merely in passing to a supplementary difficulty. Empty space—space without some quality (visual or muscular) which in itself is more than spatial—is an unreal abstraction. It cannot be said to exist, for the reason that it cannot by itself have any meaning. When a man realizes what he has got in it, he finds that always he has a quality which is more than extension (cp. Chapter i.). But, if so, how this quality is to stand to the extension is an insoluble problem. It is a case of “inherence,” which we saw (Chapter ii.) was in principle unintelligible. And, without further delay, I will proceed to consider time. I shall in this chapter confine myself almost entirely to the difficulties caused by the discretion and the continuity of time. With regard to change, I will say something further in the chapter which follows.

Efforts have been made to explain time psychologically—to exhibit, that is to say, its origin from what comes to the mind as timeless. But, for the same reason which seemed conclusive in the case of space, and which here has even greater weight, I shall not consider these attempts. I shall inquire simply as to time’s character, and whether, that being as it is, it can belong to reality.

It is usual to consider time under a spatial form. It is taken as a stream, and past and future are regarded as parts of it, which presumably do not coexist, but are often talked of as if they did. Time, apprehended in this way, is open to the objection we have just urged against space. It is a relation—and, on the other side, it is not a relation; and it is, again, incapable of being anything beyond a relation. And the reader who has followed the dilemma which was fatal to space, will not require much explanation. If you take time as a relation between units without duration, then the whole time has no duration, and is not time at all. But, if you give duration to the whole time, then at once the units themselves are found to possess it; and they thus cease to be units. Time in fact is “before” and “after” in one; and without this diversity it is not time. But these differences cannot be asserted of the unity; and, on the other hand and failing that, time is helplessly dissolved. Hence they are asserted under a relation. “Before in relation to after” is the character of time; and here the old difficulties about relation and quality recommence. The relation is not a unity, and yet the terms are nonentities, if left apart. Again, to import an independent character into the terms is to make each somehow in itself both before and after. But this brings on a process which dissipates the terms into relations, which, in the end, end in nothing. And to make the relation of time an unit is, first of all, to make it stationary, by destroying within it the diversity of before and after. And, in the second place, this solid unit, existing only by virtue of external relations, is forced to expand. It perishes in ceaseless oscillation, between an empty solidity and a transition beyond itself towards illusory completeness.

And, as with space, the qualitative content—which is not merely temporal, and apart from which the terms related in time would have no character—presents an insoluble problem. How to combine this in unity with the time which it fills, and again how to establish each aspect apart, are both beyond our resources. And time so far, like space, has turned out to be appearance.

But we shall be rightly told that a spatial form is not essential to time, and that, to examine it fairly, we should not force our errors upon it. Let us then attempt to regard time as it stands, and without extraneous additions. We shall only convince ourselves that the root of the old dilemma is not torn up.

If we are to keep to time as it comes, and are to abstain at first from inference and construction, we must confine ourselves, I presume, to time as presented. But presented time must be time present, and we must agree, at least provisionally, not to go beyond the “now.” And the question at once before us will be as to the “now’s” temporal contents. First, let us ask if they exist. Is the “now” simple and indivisible? We can at once reply in the negative. For time implies before and after, and by consequence diversity; and hence the simple is not time. We are compelled then, so far, to take the present as comprehending diverse aspects.

How many aspects it contains is an interesting question. According to one opinion, in the “now” we can observe both past and future; and, whether these are divided by the present, and, if so, precisely in what sense, admits of further doubt. In another opinion, which I prefer, the future is not presented, but is a product of construction; and the “now” contains merely the process of present turning into past. But here these differences, if indeed they are such, are fortunately irrelevant. All that we require is the admission of some process within the “now.”[2]

For any process admitted destroys the “now” from within. Before and after are diverse, and their incompatibility compels us to use a relation between them. Then at once the old wearisome game is played again. The aspects become parts, the “now” consists of “nows,” and in the end these “nows” prove undiscoverable. For, as a solid part of time, the “now” does not exist. Pieces of duration may to us appear not to be composite; but a very little reflection lays bare their inherent fraudulence. If they are not duration, they do not contain an after and before, and they have, by themselves, no beginning or end, and are by themselves outside of time. But, if so, time becomes merely the relation between them; and duration is a number of relations of the timeless, themselves also, I suppose, related somehow so as to make one duration. But how a relation is to be a unity, of which these differences are predicable, we have seen is incomprehensible. And, if it fails to be a unity, time is forthwith dissolved. But why should I weary the reader by developing in detail the impossible consequences of either alternative? If he has understood the principle, he is with us; and, otherwise, the uncertain argumentum ad hominem would too certainly pass into argumentum ad nauseam.

I will, however, instance one result which follows from a denial of time’s continuity. Time will in this case fall somehow between the timeless, as A—C—E. But the rate of change is not uniform for all events; and, I presume, no one will assert that, when we have arrived at our apparent units, that sets a limit to actual and possible velocity. Let us suppose then another series of events, which, taken as a whole, coincides in time with A—C—E, but contains the six units a—b—c—d—e—f. Either then these other relations (those, for example, between a and b, c and d) will fall between A and C, C and E, and what that can mean I do not know; or else the transition a—b will coincide with A, which is timeless and contains no possible lapse. And that, so far as I can perceive, contradicts itself outright. But I feel inclined to add that this whole question is less a matter for detailed argument than for understanding in its principle. I doubt if there is any one who has ever grasped this, and then has failed to reach one main result. But there are too many respectable writers whom here one can hardly criticise. They have simply never got to understand.

Thus, if in the time, which we call presented, there exists any lapse, that time is torn by a dilemma, and is condemned to be appearance. But, if the presented is timeless, another destruction awaits us. Time will be the relation of the present to a future and past; and the relation, as we have seen, is not compatible with diversity or unity. Further, the existence, not presented, of future and of past seems ambiguous. But, apart from that, time perishes in the endless process beyond itself. The unit will be for ever its own relation to something beyond, something in the end not discoverable. And this process is forced on it, both by its temporal form, and again by the continuity of its content, which transcends what is given.

Time, like space, has most evidently proved not to be real, but to be a contradictory appearance. I will, in the next chapter, reinforce and repeat this conclusion by some remarks upon change.


  1. I do not mean to say that I consider it to be original. On the contrary, one may have reason to believe something to be secondary, even though one cannot point out its foundation and origin. What has been called “extensity” appears to me (as offered) to involve a confusion. When you know what you mean by it, it seems to turn out to be either spatial at once and downright, or else not spatial at all. It seems useful, in part, only as long as you allow it to be obscure. Does all perception of more and less (or all which does not involve degree in the strict sense) imply space, or not? Any answer to this question would, I think, dispose of “extensity” as offered. But see Mind, iv. pp. 232-5.
  2. On the different meanings of the ‘present’ I have said something in my Principles of Logic, pp. 51, foll.