Descartes on the Infinity of Space vs. Time

In Ohad Nachtomy & Reed Winegar (eds.), Infinity in Early Modern Philosophy. Berlin: Brill. pp. 45-61 (2018)
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In two rarely discussed passages – from unpublished notes on the Principles of Philosophy and a 1647 letter to Chanut – Descartes argues that the question of the infinite extension of space is importantly different from the infinity of time. In both passages, he is anxious to block the application of his well-known argument for the indefinite extension of space to time, in order to avoid the theologically problematic implication that the world has no beginning. Descartes concedes that we always imagine an earlier time in which God might have created the world if he had wanted, but insists that this imaginary earlier existence of the world is not connected to its actual duration in the way that the indefinite extension of space is connected to the actual extension of the world. This paper considers whether Descartes’s metaphysics can sustain this asymmetrical attitude towards infinite space vs. time. I first consider Descartes’s relation to the ‘imaginary’ space/time tradition that extended from the late scholastics through Gassendi and More. I next examine carefully Descartes’s main argument for the indefinite extension of space and explain why it does not apply to time. Most crucially, since duration is merely conceptually distinct from enduring substance, the end or beginning of the world entails the end or beginning of real time. In contrast, extension does not depend on any enduring substance besides itself.

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Geoffrey Gorham
Macalester College


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