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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q098-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

In some of its uses, the word ‘space’ designates an empty or potentially empty expanse among things, for example, when a driver finds a space in a crowded parking lot, or when a typesetter increases the space between words on a page. In other uses, ‘space’ is meant to stand for a boundless extension which supposedly contains everything, or every thing of a certain sort. The former sense is well-grounded in ordinary experience and can be traced back to the etymology of the word (from the Latin word spatium, meaning ‘race-track’, or generally ‘distance’, ‘interval’, ‘terrain’). The latter sense originated in scholarly circles – possibly as late as the fourteenth century – by a bold extrapolation of the former; it does not refer to anything that can be exhibited in sense-perception; and yet, through the influence of Newtonian science on Euro-American common sense, it has become so entrenched in ordinary usage that it is normally viewed as the primary meaning of ‘space’, from which all others are derived.

According to Cornford, the ‘invention of space’ as a boundless, all-encompassing container happened in the fifth century bc. However, it is more likely to have occurred in the late Middle Ages. At any rate, the idea was rampant in Cambridge in the 1660s, when Newton made it a fundamental ingredient in his framework for the description of the phenomena of motion. In a posthumous paper, Newton stressed that space evades the traditional classification of entities into substances and attributes, and has ‘its own manner of existence’. Until the publication of this paper in 1962, philosophers took Newtonian space for a substance, and most of them thought this to be utterly absurd. In view of the role of all-encompassing space in Newtonian physics, Kant opted for regarding it as a precondition of human knowledge, contributed once and for all by the human mind. Newton had written that the points of space owe their individual identity to the relational system in which they are set. Nineteenth-century mathematicians vastly extended this concept of space by conceiving many such relational systems. They thus made it possible for relativity theory to substitute four-dimensional spacetime for Newtonian space and time, and for current string theory to countenance a ten-dimensional physical space. These developments confirm the productivity, but not the fixity, of the knowing mind.

Citing this article:
Torretti, Roberto. Space, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q098-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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