Of Space and Time

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book III, The Production of Wealth*

Chapter V
Of Space and Time

Showing That Human Reason Is One, And So Far As It Can Go May Be Relied On

Purpose of this work -- Of metaphysics -- Danger of thinking of words as things -- Space and time not conceptions of things but of relations of things -- They cannot, therefore, have independent beginning or ending -- The verbal habit which favors this idea -- How favored by poets and by religious teachers -- How favored by philosophers -- Of Kant -- Of Schopenhauer -- Mysteries and antinomies that are really confusions in the meaning of words -- Human reason and the eternal reason -- "Philosophers" who are really word-jugglers. 01

My purpose in this work is to explain the science of political economy so clearly that it may be understood by any one of common ability who will give to it reasonable attention. I wish therefore to avoid, as far as possible, everything that savors of metaphysics. For metaphysics, which in its proper meaning is the science of the relations recognized by human reason, has become in the hands of those who have assumed to teach it, a synonym for what cannot be understood, conveying to common thought some vague notion of a realm beyond the bounds of ordinary reason, into which common sense can venture only to shrink helpless and abashed.


Yet to trace to their root confusions involved in current economic teachings and to clear the ground for a coherent political economy, it is necessary to fix the real meaning of two conceptions which belong to metaphysics, and which are beset by confusions that have not only disturbed the teaching of political economy, but of philosophy in the higher sense. These conceptions are those of space and time.


All material existence is in space and in time. Hence, the production of wealth, which in all its modes consists in the bringing about by human exertion of changes in the place or relation of material things, so as to fit them for the satisfaction of human desire, involves both space and time.


This may seem like a truism -- a fact so self-evident as not to need statement. But much disquisition has been wasted and much confusion caused by the failure of economists to keep this in mind. Hence, to start from firm foundations, we must see clearly what is really meant by space and time. Here we come into the very heart of metaphysics, at a point where the teachings of what passes for the highest philosophy are most perplexed and perplexing.


In asking ourselves what we really mean by space and time, we must have a care, for there is a danger that the habitual use of words as instruments of thought may lead to the error of treating what they express as objects of thought, or things, when they really express not things, but only the qualities or relations of things. This is one of those sources of error which Bacon in his figurative classification called Idols of the Forum. Though a word is a thing, in the sense that its verbal form may be made an object of thought, yet all words are not things in the sense of representing to the mind what apart from mere verbal form may be made an object of thought. To clothe in a form of words which the eye and ear may distinguish from other words, yet which in their meaning involve contradictions, is not to make a thing, which in itself, and aside from that mere verbal form, can be thought of. To give a name to a form of words implying contradictions is to give name to what can be thought of only verbally, and which in any deeper sense than that is a negation -- that is to say, a no thing, or nothing.


Yet this is the trick of much that today passes for the most profound philosophy, as it was the trick of Plato and of much that he put into the mouth of Socrates. To try it, make up a word signifying opposite qualities, such as "lowhigh" or "squareround," or a phrase without thinkable meaning, such as a "fourth dimension of space." In this it will be wisest to use a tongue which being foreign to the vernacular is suggestive of learning. Latin or Greek, has long been used for this purpose, but among English-speaking people German will now do as well if not better, and those who call themselves Theosophists have taken Sanskrit or what they take to be Sanskrit very satisfactorily. Now, if you have the external associations of superior penetration, and will persist for a while in seeming to treat your new word or phrase as if you were really making it an object of deep thought, you will soon have others persuading themselves to think that they also can think of it, until finally, if it get the scholastic vogue, the man frank enough to say that he can get no meaning from it will be put down as an ignorant fellow whose education has been neglected. This is really the same trick as standing on a street and gazing into the sky, as if you saw something unusual there, until a crowd gathers to look also. But it has made great reputations in philosophy.


Now, in truth, when we come to analyze our apprehensions of space and time, we see that they are conceptions, not of things in themselves existing, but of relations which things in themselves existing may hold to each other -- space being a relation of extension or place between one thing and other things, such as far or near, hither or thither; and time being a relation of succession between one thing and other things, such as before or after, now and then. To think of space we must necessarily think of two points in place, and to make the relation of extension between them intelligible to our minds, we must also think of a third point which may serve as a measure of this relation. To think of time we must necessarily think of two points in appearance or disappearance, and to make this relation of sequence between them intelligible to our minds, we must also think of some third point which may serve as a measure of this relation.


Since space and time are thus not existences, but expressions of the relation to each other of things thought of as existing, we cannot conceive of their having beginning or ending, of their creation or annihilation, as apart from that of the things whose relation they express. Space being a relation of extension between things in place, and time a relation of succession between things in order of appearance or duration, the two words properly express relations which, like the relations of form and number with which mathematics deals in its two branches of geometry and arithmetic, are expressive of actual relation wherever the things they relate to have actual existence, and of potential relation wherever the things they relate to have merely potential existence. We cannot think of a when or where in which a whole was not equal to the sum of its parts, or will ever cease to be; or in which the lines and angles of a square were not, or can ever cease to be, equal to each other; or in which the three angles of a triangle were not, or can ever cease to be, equal to two right angles. Nor yet can we think of a when or where in which twice one did not make two, or can ever cease to do so; and twice two did not, or will ever cease to, make four. In the same way it is utterly impossible for us to think of a when or where in which space and time could begin or could end, as apart from the beginning or ending of the things whose relations to each other they express. To try to think of space and time without a presumption of things whose relations to each other are thus expressed, to try to think of shadow without reference to substance. It is to try to think of a no thing, or nothing -- a negation of thought.


This is perfectly clear to us when we attach an article to the noun and speak of "a space" or "the space," or of "a time" or "the time," for in such speech the relation of one thing or set of things to another thing or set of things is expressed by some such preposition as "from," "before," "after" or "when." But when the noun is used without the article, and men speak of space by itself and time by itself without any word of particularization or preposition of relation, the words have by the usage of our English tongue the meaning of all space or space in general, or all time or time in general. In this case the habit of regarding words as denoting things in themselves existing is apt to lead us to forget that space and time are but names for certain relations in which things stand to each other, and to come to regard them as things which in themselves, and apart from the things whose relationship they express, can become objects of thought. Thus, without analyzing the process, we come to accept in our minds the naked words as representing some sort of material existences -- vaguely picturing space as a sort of atmosphere or ether, in which all things swim, and time an ever-flowing current which bears all things on.


From this mode of mental picturing we are apt to assume that both space and time must have had beginning, before which there was no space and no time; and must have limits, beyond which neither space nor time can be. But when we try to think of this beginning or of these limits, we think of something which for the moment we assume to be the first or farthest of existing things. Yet no matter how far we may carry this assumption, we at the same moment see that it may be carried further still. To think of anything as first, involves the possibility of thinking of something before that, to which our momentary first would become second. To think of an utmost star in the material universe, involves the possibility of thinking of another star yet further still.


Thus in the effort to grasp such material conceptions of time and space they inevitably elude us. From trying to think of what are only names for relations which things have to each other as if they were things in themselves, we come to a point not merely of confusion, but of negation -- a conflict of absolutely opposing ideas resembling that brought about in the minds of the unwary by the schoolmen's question as to what would happen did an irresistible force meet an immovable body.


Now, this way of using the nouns space and time without an article, as though they mean things in themselves existing, has been much favored by the poets, whose use of words is necessarily metaphorical and loose. And it has been much favored by the teachers of religion, whose endeavor to embody spiritual truths tends to poetical expression, and who have been prone in all ages to make no distinction between the attribution to the higher power of what transcends our knowledge and of what is opposed to our reason -- assuming the repugnance of human reason to accept the contradictions to which they give the name of mysteries to be proofs of its weakness.


Thus the habit of trying to think of space and time as things in themselves and not merely relations of things, has been embedded in religious literature, and in our most susceptible years we hear of beings who know not space or time, and of whens and wheres in which space and time are not. And as the child recoils from the impossible attempt to think of the unthinkable and strives in vain to picture a when or where in which space and time have not been, or shall cease to be, he is hushed into silence by being told that he is impiously trying to measure with the shallow plummet of human reason the infinite depths of the Divine Mind.


But the disposition of the theologians to find an insolvable mystery in the contradiction that follows the attempt to think of space and time not as relations but as independent existences, has been followed or perhaps anticipated by philosophers who in the use of meaningless words, as though to them they really conveyed coherent ideas, have assumed what has passed for superior penetration. They (or at least those of them who have looked down upon the theologians with contempt) have not, it is true, called the inevitable conflict in thought which arises when we try mentally to treat of what is really a relation as though it were in itself a thing, a divine mystery. But they have recognized this conflict as something inherent, not in confusion of words, but in the weakness of human reason -- which human reason they themselves pretend to go behind and instruct.


Kant, whose ponderous incomprehensibility is a striking example of what (whether it was before him or because of him) seems to have become a peculiarly German facility for inventing words handy for philosophic juggling, dignified this point of assumed necessary conflict by calling it an "antinomy," which term suggesting in its derivation the idea of a conflict of laws, was employed by him to mean a self-contradiction or mutual destruction of unavoidable conclusions of the human reason; a what must be thought of, yet cannot be thought of. Thus the word antinomy in the scholastic philosophy that has followed Kant takes the place of the word mystery in the theological philosophy, as covering the idea of a necessary irreconcilability of human reason.


Kant, for instance, tells us that space and time are forms of human sensibility, which, as well as I can understand him, means that our mental nature imposes upon us the wearing of something like colored glasses, so that when we consider things they always seem to us to be in space and in time; but that this is merely their appearance to us, and that "things in themselves," that is, things as they really exist outside of our sensibility or apprehension of them, or as they would be apprehended by "pure reason" (i.e., some reason outside of human reason), are not in space and time at all.


In a passage I have already quoted, the much more readable Schopenhauer speaks of the destruction of the capacity for thinking which results from the industrious study of a logomachy made up by monstrous piecings together of words which abolish and contradict one another. But of this very thing, Schopenhauer himself with all his strength and brilliancy is a notable example. His industrious study of Kant had evidently reduced him to that state of mind of which he speaks, where "hollow phrases count with it for thoughts." His whole philosophy is based on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which he speaks of as "the most important phenomenon that has appeared in philosophy for two thousand years," and a thorough understanding of which he declares in the beginning and over and over again to be absolutely necessary to an understanding of his own works. Likening the effect of Kant's writings on the mind to which they truly speak to that of the operation for cataract on a blind man, he adds:


    The aim of my own work may be described by saying that I have sought to put into the hands of those upon whom that operation has been successfully performed a pair of spectacles suitable to eyes that have recovered their sight -- spectacles to whose use that operation is the absolutely necessary condition.

And through these spectacles of The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and the chief work to which that is preliminary, The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer introduces us into what seems to natural reason like a sort of philosophic Alice in Wonderland. If I can understand a man who seems to have a peculiar gift of lucid expression wherever it is applied to understandable things, and whose writings are illumined by many acute observations and sagacious reflections, this world in which I find myself and which from the outside is so immense, so varied, so wonderful, is from the inside, nothing but "I, myself" -- my idea, my presentment, my will; and space and time are only in my seeming, appearances imposed upon me by the forms of my consciousness. I behold, for instance, a kitten, which by and by becomes a cat and has kittens of its own, and at the same time or at different times and places I see or remember to have seen many cats -- tom-cats, pussy-cats, kitty-cats, black, white, gray, mottled and tortoise-shell cats, in different stages of age, from little cats whose eyes are not yet opened to decrepit cats that have lost their teeth. But in reality, on the inside of things as it were, there is only one cat, always existent without reference to time and space. This eternal cat is the idea of a cat, or cat idea, which is reflected in all sorts of guises in the kaleidoscopic facets of my apprehension. And as with cats, so with all things else in which this infinite and varied world presents itself to me -- planets and suns, plants and trees, animals and men, matter and forces, phenomena and laws. All that I see, hear, touch, taste, smell or otherwise apprehend -- all is mirage, presentment, delusion. It is all the baseless fabric of a vision, the self-imposed apprehensions of the evil dream, containing necessarily more pain than pleasure, in which what we call life essentially consists; yet which he who suffers in it cannot escape by suicide, since that only brings him into life again in other form and circumstance; but from which the truly wise man must seek relief by starving himself to death without wanting to die; or in other words by conquering "the will to live," the only road to the final goal of annihilation or Nirvana, to which all life ultimately tends.


And this philosophy of negation, this nineteenth-century Buddhism without the softening features of its Asiatic prototype, that makes us but rats in an everlasting trap, and substitutes for God an icy devil, is the outcome of the impression made upon a powerful and brilliant but morbid mind by "the industrious study of a logomachy made up by monstrous piecings together of words which abolish and contradict one another," that strives to turn human reason as it were inside out and consider in the light of what is dubbed "pure reason" the outside-in of things.


The fact is, that this seemingly destructive conflict of thought that theologians call a mystery and philosophers call an antinomy -- and which there must be very many of my readers who like myself can remember puzzling over in childhood in questionings of what might be beyond the limits of space and time, and what was before God was, and what might be after space and time had ceased -- is not in reality a failure of reason, but a confusion in the meaning of words. When we remember that by space and time we do not really mean things having existence but certain relations to each other of things that have existence, the mystery is solved and the antinomy disappears in the perception of a verbal confusion -- a confusion of the same kind as perplexes those who try to think at once of an irresistible force and an immovable body, two terms which being mutually exclusive cannot together exist.


There is a riddle about what a boy said, sometimes given among young people playing conundrums, which if not heard before, is almost certain to make the whole party "give it up," after trying all sorts of impossible answers, since its true and only possible answer, "The boy lied," is so obvious that they do not think of it.


We may be wise to distrust our knowledge; and, unless we have tested them, to distrust what we may call our reasonings; but never to distrust reason itself.


Even when we speak of lunacy or madness or similar mental afflictions as the loss of reason, analysis I think will show that it is not reason itself that is lost, but that those powers of perception and recollection that belong to the physical structure of the mind have become weakened or broken or dislocated, so that the things with which the reason deals are presented to it imperfectly or in wrong place or relation.


In testing for glasses an optician will put on you lenses through which you will see the flame of a candle above or below or right or left of its true position, or as two where there is only one. It is so with mental diseases.


And that the powers with which the human reason must work are limited and are subject to faults and failures, our reason itself teaches us as soon as it begins to examine what we find around us and to endeavor to look in upon our own consciousness. But human reason is the only reason that men can have, and to assume that in so far as it can see clearly it does not see truly, is in the man who does it not only to assume the possession of a superior to human reason, but it is to deny the validity of all thought and to reduce the mental world to chaos. As compared with the eternal reason which is manifested in the relations which we call laws of nature our human reason is clearly shallow and narrow; but that it is a perception and recognition of this eternal reason is perhaps the deepest fact of our certainty. Not as yet dreaming that this earth which seems to our first perceptions to be so firmly fixed could be in constant motion, men did not for a long time perceive what a closer and wider use of reason now shows to be the case, that the earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth, and spoke with literal meaning of sunrise and sunset. But as to the phenomena of day and night, and as to the proximate cause of these phenomena being in the relations of sun and earth towards each other, they were not deceived.


As for the philosophers since Kant or before him who profess to treat space and time as mere conditions of human perception, mental glasses, as it were, that compel us to recognize relations that do not in truth exist, they are mere jugglers with words, giving names such as "the absolute," "the unconditioned," "the unknowable" to what cannot be thought of, and then proceeding to treat them as things, and to reason with them and from them.

* No introduction or motto supplied for Book III in MS. H.G., Jr.