The theory of phenomena and noumena

Paul asked:

Why do you think the problem of phenomena and noumena has baffled great
philosophers up to today?

Answer by Helier Robinson

The words phenomena and noumena are old fashioned words meaning the same as the modern theoretical and empirical. The empirical or phenomenal is known by the senses, and the theoretical or noumenal is known by the mind because it cannot be known through the senses, only evidence for it can be so known. The noumenal is invoked when trying to explain the phenomenal, by describing underlying causes. Explanation is causal: to describe causes is to explain their effects. For example, to explain why the wires in an electric toaster are hot, we invoke the underlying cause of an electric current in the wires; the toaster and its wires, and the heat, are phenomenal, and the electricity is noumenal. Or, in modern language, the toaster and the hot wires are empirical and the electricity is theoretical. As David Hume pointed out, there are no empirical causes, only correlations; all causes are underlying — noumenal — or theoretical. Theoretical science tries to describe the noumenal world, and thereby explain the findings of empirical science. Everything you read about molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, the curvature of space-time, black holes, the Big Bang, etc. is about noumena. Theoretical scientists, unlike most metaphysicians of the past, work it out by paying very careful attention to empirical science. The empirical science provides the evidence for the noumenal knowledge; in particular, theoretical prediction of empirical novelties is a potent form of verification of theoretical science.

A second reason for postulating noumena is that they are what are sometimes called the thing in itself. If you think carefully about empirical objects, you find that they are structures of sensations; indeed, that is why they are called empirical objects. (This leads to difficulties because sensations are manufactured in the brain of the perceiver and are thereby internal to the perceiver s head, mental, and private, while to the perceiver everything empirical is outside his/her head, material, and public; but these difficulties can be resolved.) Also, all empirical objects are somewhat illusory, and to this extent, unreal. So some philosophers argued that empirical objects are representations, or images, or copies, or reproductions, of real objects, and these real objects became known are things in themselves, or noumena.

So now we can come to your question. The problem of noumena and phenomena is the problem that noumena are, according to empiricists, radically unknowable. For empiricists, all knowledge is empirical: our only source of knowledge is our senses. So we cannot have any noumenal knowledge whatsoever. However, it is incorrect to say that this problem has baffled great philosophers up to this day. It has only baffled minor philosophers.

Noumenal knowledge is speculative knowledge. Speculation can be wild and rash, as it often was with bad metaphysics (although not all metaphysics was bad: consider Leibniz, for example) but speculation can be disciplined and careful and lead to genuine noumenal knowledge. Theoretical science, in particular, is disciplined by empirical fact and by mathematical rigour, and is highly successful; much more successful than other explanatory attempts, such as myth, theology, metaphysics, and common sense.

6 thoughts on “The theory of phenomena and noumena

  1. Spacetime, numbers and letters are all nonempirical, therefore noumenal. Numbers and letters are all “things in themselves”: they are only what their definitions are. The number 1 like the letter A is what its name is and only what its name is; unlike phenomenal things which possess qualities unknown to their erstwhile knowers. Space and time, like numbers and letters, do not exist empirically but they are not things in themselves, because neither can be defined except by clocks and rulers-which are the phenomenal equivalent of the symbols 1 and A. It is funny that these three highly useful things are all noumena. Do you disagree?

    1. Numbers are empirical, not noumenal. For example, in order to have a conception of the quantity “three”, you must see or imagine three things. And for three things to be conceived as “three”, space or time is required between them. It’s an empirical experience. If you think of “three” but don’t conceive it, then you’re not dealing with the number /per se/, you’re just thinking the sound “three”, which is still an empirical experience of course.

      Regarding larger numbers, for example 8 643 235, you can’t have a conception of such a number (unless maybe you’re an autistic genius). It would rather be experienced as “very big”. The empirical experience could be of any kind. Maybe you’ll compare the number to your city population, in order to have a “feeling” of its size. That would be an empirical experience.

      So yeah, numbers are totally empirical!

      1. But when you’re thinking of three things, three apples for example, then how did you know that the apples are three in number? That knowledge requires the a priori (pre-empirical) knowledge of the number three.

        Hold on. This article’s discussion of phenomena and noumena is ridiculous! They’re not the same as the distinction between empirical and theoretical!

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