Like Immanuel Kant, who sees time as the formal a priori condition of all phenomena in general, G. W. F. Hegel considers time as an absolutely universal determination of nature, which gives it a certain primacy over space. The Encyclopedia of Hegel seems to adopt the same presentation as Kant in his Transcendental Aesthetic: Time follows space, and the analysis of each of these two moments culminates in an examination of the corresponding sciences. Hegel refers to Kant several times, affirming that time is, like space, a pure form of sensibility or intuition. But behind these apparent affinities hides a systematic critique of the Kantian theory of time developed in the Critique of Pure Reason.
In the Transcendental Aesthetic, the objective of the metaphysical exposition of time is to analyze its a priori conditions, that which is necessary and universal. And yet, while taking up the main conclusion of this exposition, the very definition of time as a pure form of sensible intuition, Hegel gives it a resolutely different meaning. First of all, he sets out to show the dialectical relationship between space and time, whereas Kant merely juxtaposes them as two forms of our finite human intuition. But above all, Hegel interprets the pure intuition of space and time not through the subject, but through Nature. He thinks that one ought not to make space and time purely subjective forms of human nature, for time is not a condition of becoming; rather, it is becoming itself intuited, the destructive negativity inherent in Nature.
Certainly, Hegel grants Kant the claim that time, like space, is not something real, and is not, as Leibniz thought, an order of things. But the ideality of time does not make it one of the forms of our sensibility. Hegel expresses this Kantian concept in terms of his own thought and replaces the transcendental ideality of time with another form of ideality, designating its negativity, its power to dissolve all reality into the nothingness of the past. According to Hegel, it is therefore useless to want to classify time among subjective or objective beings. As the universal negativity inherent in nature, time might be described as “objective,” but as the existence of the Idea in the mode of Being out-of-itself, it is brought back to the mind, and is, in this sense, also “subjective.”
In Kant’s writing, the purpose of the transcendental exposition is to show the determinations of a concept that constitutes the principles capable of explaining a priori the possibility of certain sciences. Actually, it is rather in the Analysis of Principles that this essential aspect of time is described in detail by Kant, who affirms at the beginning of the Analogies of Experience that the three modes of time are permanence, succession, and simultaneity. Permanence is the schema of substance by virtue of which I know a priori that substance persists through all changes of phenomena. This permanence is the condition of two other temporal relations: succession, which is the schema of causality, and simultaneity, which corresponds to the schema of reciprocal action. And yet, based on his understanding of temporality as destructive negativity, Hegel refutes one by one these three fundamental attributes of Kantian time. Simultaneity is thus completely foreign to time, since the latter is defined by its exact opposite, impossible coexistence. The opposite predicate, succession, does not offer an adequate grasp of time, for it masks its specific negativity more than it highlights it. The concept of succession is defective because it represents time as a series of isolated instants split between two domains: the present Now, which is, and the non-present Nows, which are no longer or which are not yet. Being and non-Being are maintained separately by representation, whereas, in truth, the negativity of time that flows from the Now implies an indissoluble unity of Being and nothingness at the heart of each Now. From this point of view, the future and the past do not constitute other forms of Now but the presence of a negation in Being itself of each Now. By virtue of this negativity, time prohibits all a priori permanence in itself. Of course, certain beings last, but their duration is always of a relative permanence, a deferred death, even for things that we say defy time; for in time nothing persists, nothing remains. According to Hegel, the absolute nonpermanence of temporal things is due to the nonpermanence of time itself, which is ceaselessly transcending itself. Consequently, one should abandon the representation according to which time is a permanent receptacle in which things take place. Kant believes that things change in time, which is, in itself, immutable and fixed. But this, for Hegel, is failing to grasp the very negativity of time. The understanding of time as negativity and becoming therefore implies, in fact, a radical critique of the Kantian theory of time. Time is not that in which things take place, but their very becoming, their own disappearance, as is stated in §258 of the Encyclopedia.
In both the transcendental and metaphysical parts, the Kantian exposition of time in the Transcendental Aesthetic is therefore criticized by Hegel. Why? Precisely because the transcendental problematic impedes a real understanding of time as negativity, which is at the heart of Hegel’s philosophy. The ambiguity of the Kantian conception of time is that it tries to reveal the conditions of the possibility of experience in general and, at the same time, Newtonian physics in particular. This explains why the Kantian understanding of time is predetermined by categories coming from physics, such as causality, substance, and reciprocal action. For Hegel, time is not principally determined by the categories that make possible the physical science of nature, but by its proper dialectical structure, deployed in the present, the future, and the past. Time is the continual, reciprocal passage of Being into nothing—from the present into the past—and from non-Being into Being—from the future into the present.
See also Becoming and Being; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel
Hegel, G. W. F. (1970). Philosophy of nature (M. J. Petry, Ed. & Trans.). New York: Humanities Press.
Kant, I. (2003). Critique of pure reason (N. K. Smith, Trans.). New York/Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. (Original work published 1781 as Kritik der reinen Vernunft)