What is space? By Víctor Gómez Pin

This post is also available in: Spanish

What do Philosophers talk about? Well, they talk about space. Something which Aristotle already talked about… there’s a marvellous text in his Physics, in which he talks about it. The word for space in Greek is TOPOS. It’s not always translated as “space”, sometimes it’s translated as “place”. If you translate it as “space”, this leads us to think about an answer to the problem of space of a Newtonian type, which is very different to the Aristotelian notion. Aristotle, funny thing, quotes Hesiod, who said there’s nothing without a place. That is, topos, since there’s nothing which doesn’t have it. And Aristotle adds that it’s true, we can see the extraordinary power of the topos, but that nobody knows what TOPOS actually is. There is someone, he says, talking about Plato, who had the dignity of asking himself what that is. And Aristotle tries to give an answer to the problem of topos. If you take the answers which have been given, from Aristotle to contemporary topology, going through Relativity Theory, the Scientific Revolution, you realize the Aristotelian problem of the topos is still unsolved. Today we know what topos is not. We know it’s not what Kant and Newton thought: an empty frame which would remain even if we removed all matter and fields. That is, we know topos is not previous to matter and fields. We know that, from contemporary topology and Relativity Theory, we get a new outlook on topos which would be closer to Aristotle than to Newton. We can make a list with all the inadequate answers, but we still don’t know what it is. I suggest this is the case for each and every one of the great questions of Philosophy.

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