I came across a great post today and wanted to let me readers in on the discussion. The author is the amazingly accomplished Dr. Emily Thomas, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Durham University. In this post, she asks the question, “what is space?”
Mountains. Whales. The distant stars. All these things exist in space, and so do we. Our bodies take up a certain amount of space. When we walk to work, we are moving through space. But what is space? Is it even an actual, physical entity?
In answering this question, she mentions a little known debate, fostered by Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737), between the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and the English philosopher Samuel Clarke. The two men had very different answers to the question of space: the relationist vs. the absolutist.
Is there space between the stars? The relationist Leibniz argued that space is the spatial relations between things. Australia is “south of” Singapore. The tree is “three meters left of” the bush. Sean Spicer is “behind” the bush. That means space would not exist independently of the things it connects. For Leibniz, if nothing existed, there couldn’t be any spatial relations. If our universe were destroyed, space would not exist.
Then there was Clarke:
In contrast, the absolutist Clarke argued that space is a sort of substance that is everywhere. Space is a giant container, containing all the things in the universe: stars, planets, us. Space allows us to make sense of how things move from one place to another, of how our entire material universe could move through space. What’s more, Clarke argued that space is divine: space is God’s presence in the world. In a way, space is God. For Clarke, if our universe were destroyed, space would be left behind. Just as you can’t delete God, you can’t delete space.
Dr. Thomas goes in to quite a bit more detail in her blog, so I encourage everyone interested in this topic to visit The Conversation and check out this article along with some of her other work on space and time.
The Debate Papers
A Collection of Papers, Which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leibnitz, and Dr. Clarke, In the Years 1715 and 1716 (London: 1717)
- Front Matter to A Collection of Papers … between the late Learned Mr. Leibnitz and Dr. Clarke
- Mr. Leibnitz’s First Paper
- Dr. Clarke’s First Reply
- Mr. Leibnitz’s Second Paper
- Dr. Clarke’s Second Reply
- Mr. Leibnitz’s Third Paper
- Dr. Clarke’s Third Reply
- Mr. Leibnitz’s Fourth Paper
- Dr. Clarke’s Fourth Reply
- Mr. Leibnitz’s Fifth Paper
- Dr. Clarke’s Fifth Reply
- The Appendix