Kant’s Understanding of Time and ConsciousnessJune 27, 2021
Immanuel Kant considers it “scandalous” that no one in the 2000-year history of philosophy has produced a thesis to prove that there really is a world outside of us.
While saying this, he especially has Rene Descartes and George Berkeley in mind, both of whom think that it is impossible to prove an external world. In the introduction to the “Meditations,” Descartes argues that as thinking beings we should doubt all knowledge—even the existence of an external world—except for the existence of ourselves. Later, he opposes this skeptical approach with a thesis claiming that it proves the existence of God and therefore the reality of an external world. However, many philosophers (including Kant) believe that the reasoning of Descartes’ God proof is not valid. On the other hand, Berkeley argues that knowledge is actually possible—but comes from experiences that our consciousness perceives. We have no evidence to believe that these experiences have an external existence other than our own minds.
According to Kant, we can only experience time through things that change or move, such as the hands of a clock. So time can only be experienced by us indirectly.
Kant wants to show that there is an external, material world and that its existence should not be doubted. His thesis begins like this: for something to exist, it must be definite in time, that is, we must be able to say when it was present and for how long. But how will this work as far as my own consciousness is concerned? Although consciousness seems to be constantly changing with a constant stream of sensations and thoughts, we can use the word “now” to describe what is happening in our consciousness in the present situation. However, “Now” does not indicate a specific time or date. Every time we say “now”, our consciousness is different. Herein lies the problem: by what means is it possible to determine the “time” of my own presence? We cannot experience time directly, we experience it more through things that move, change or stay the same. Think of the slow but constantly moving hands of a clock. These moving hands determine the time themselves. They are useless on their own; they need something in return for exchange, like numbers on the face of a clock.
Every resource I have for measuring my ever-changing “Now” resides in material objects outside of myself (including my own body) in space. I need a certain point in time to say that I exist, and that point needs another truly existing world in which time resides. My level of certainty about the existence of an external world is therefore the same as my level of certainty about the existence of my consciousness, of which Descartes was absolutely certain.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Atatürk University Department of Sociology Lecture Notes for Grade 1 “Introduction to Philosophy” and Grade 3 “History of Contemporary Philosophy” (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook