The argument that non-Euclidean geometries contradict Kant’s doctrine on the nature of space apparently goes back to Hermann Helmholtz and was retaken by several philosophers of science such as Hans Reichenbach (The Philosophy of Space and Time) who devoted much work to this subject. In a essay written in 1870, Helmholtz argued that the axioms of geometry are not a priori synthetic judgments (in the sense given by Kant), since they can be subjected to experiments. Given that Euclidian geometry is not the only possible geometry, as was believed in Kant’s time, it should be possible to determine by means of measurements whether, for instance, the sum of the three angles of a triangle is 180 degrees or whether two straight parallel lines always keep the same distance among them. If it were not the case, then it would have been demonstrated experimentally that space is not Euclidean. Thus the possibility of verifying the axioms of geometry would prove that they are empirical and not given a priori.
Helmholtz developed his own version of a non-Euclidean geometry on the basis of what he believed to be the fundamental condition for all geometries: “the possibility of figures moving without change of form or size”; without this possibility, it would be impossible to define what a measurement is. According to Helmholtz:
the axioms of geometry are not concerned with space-relations only but also at the same time with the mechanical deportment of solidest bodies in motion.
Nevertheless, he was aware that a strict Kantian might argue that the rigidity of bodies is an a priori property, but
then we should have to maintain that the axioms of geometry are not synthetic propositions… they would merely define what qualities and deportment a body must have to be recognized as rigid.
At this point, it is worth noticing that Helmholtz’s formulation of geometry is a rudimentary version of what was later developed as the theory of Lie groups. As for the transport of rigid bodies, it is well known that rigid motion cannot be defined in the framework of the theory of relativity: since there is no absolute simultaneity of events, it is impossible to move all parts of a material body in a coordinated and simultaneous way. What is defined as the length of a body depends on the reference frame from where it is observed. Thus, it is meaningless to invoke the rigidity of bodies as the basis of a geometry that pretend to describe the real world; it is only in the mathematical realm that the rigid displacement of a figure can be defined in terms of what mathematicians call a congruence.
Arguments similar to those of Helmholtz were given by Reichenbach in his intent to refute Kant’s doctrine on the nature of space and time. Essentially, the argument boils down to the following: Kant assumed that the axioms of geometry are given a priori and he only had classical geometry in mind, Einstein demonstrated that space is not Euclidean and that this could be verified empirically, ergo Kant was wrong. However, Kant did not state that space must be Euclidean; instead, he argued that it is a pure form of intuition. As such, space has no physical reality of its own, and therefore it is meaningless to ascribe physical properties to it. Actually, Kant never mentioned Euclid directly in his work, but he did refer many times to the physics of Newton, which is based on classical geometry. Kant had in mind the axioms of this geometry which is a most powerful tool of Newtonian mechanics. Actually, he did not even exclude the possibility of other geometries, as can be seen in his early speculations on the dimensionality of space.
The important point missed by Reichenbach is that Riemannian geometry is necessarily based on Euclidean geometry. More precisely, a Riemannian space must be considered as locally Euclidean in order to be able to define basic concepts such as distance and parallel transport; this is achieved by defining a flat tangent space at every point, and then extending all properties of this flat space to the globally curved space (Luther Pfahler Eisenhart Riemannian Geometry). To begin with, the structure of a Riemannian space is given by its metric tensor gμν from which the (differential) length is defined as ds2 = gμν dxμ dxν; but this is nothing less than a generalization of the usual Pythagoras theorem in Euclidean space. As for the fundamental concept of parallel transport, it is taken directly from its analogue in Euclidean space: it refers to the transport of abstract (not material, as Helmholtz believed) figures in such a space. Thus Riemann’s geometry cannot be free of synthetic a priori propositions because it is entirely based upon concepts such as length and congruence taken form Euclid. We may conclude that Euclids geometry is the condition of possibility for a more general geometry, such as Riemann’s, simply because it is the natural geometry adapted to our understanding; Kant would say that it is our form of grasping space intuitively. The possibility of constructing abstract spaces does not refute Kant’s thesis; on the contrary, it reinforces it.