Kant on our ignorance of things in themselves

Sylvia asked:

According to Kant, does the fact that we experience objects through our mental framework mean that we can know only how things appear to us, and not know objects as they are in themselves?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Sylvia, the short answer to this is yes: Immanuel Kant does say that we can only know things as they appear to us, and not as ‘things-in-themselves’. However to look at the issue in a little more depth we should consider how Kant came to this conclusion.

Empiricist David Hume had maintained that it was only the force of habit that made us see the causal connection behind all natural processes. Kant refuted this argument: the law of causality, he held, is eternal and absolute: it is an attribute of human reason. Human reason, he said, perceives everything that happens as a matter of cause and effect. That is, Kant’s transcendental philosophy states that the law of causality is inherent in the human mind. He agreed with Hume that we cannot know with certainty what the world is like in itself, but we can know what it is like ‘for me’ – or for all human beings. We can never know things – in -themselves (noumena), said Kant, we can only know them as they appear to us (phenomena). However, before we experience ‘things’ we can know how they will be perceived by the mind – we know a priori.

Thus, for Kant, the mind contains conditions that contribute to our understanding of the world. As well as the law of causality these conditions include the modes of perception, space and time. Space and time, he says, are not concepts, but forms of intuition. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and so on, happening in the phenomenal world occurs in space and time. However, we do not know that space and time is part of the phenomenal world; all we know is that they are part of the way in which we perceive the world. Time and space, he says, are irremovable spectacles through which we view the world. They are a priori forms of intuition that shape our sensory experience on the way to being processed into thought. Space and time are innate modes of perception that predetermine the way we think. It cannot be said that space and time exist in things themselves, things ‘out there’ in the world, rather they inherent intuitions through which we perceive and conceive our world. Time and space, says Kant, belong to the human condition. They are first and foremost modes of perception, not attributes of the physical world. Kant called this approach the Copernican Revolution in the problem of human knowledge. That is, it was just as radically different from earlier thinking as Copernicus’ claim that the earth revolved around the sun.

Drawing from both Empiricism and Rationalism, Kant formed a synthesis between two schools of thought and created his own model. He argued that both sense and reason are integral to our understanding of the world. He accepted Hume’s theory that all our knowledge comes from sensory experience, but he also agreed with the Rationalists that our reason contains certain decisive factors that determine how we see and understand our world. Everything we experience will first and foremost be perceived as phenomena in space and time, and for everything that happens we will want to know the reason for its occurrence: its causality. For Kant these conditions are inherent in our minds (or as you say, part of our ‘mental framework’): they are a priori, and they are what it is to be a human being.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Yes, that is indeed the case. The whole point of Kant ‘s Critique of Pure Reason was to establish the limits of human knowledge. And this begins and ends with human experience. Kant tells us himself on the first page of his book: ‘That all our cognitions begin with experience cannot be doubted.’

It is by ‘objects touching our senses’ (in the same paragraph) that the world communicates its contents to us. We act and suffer by being in contact with the world of objects and processes, and in doing so we accumulate experiences that are remembered, become knowledge and end up, at an advanced stage in our own evolution, in cognitions.

When we begin to notice how many of our experiences resemble each other, we grow more sophisticated in dealing with our impressions. One difficulty, until Kant appeared on the scene, was to make philosophical sense of our ability to understand resemblance and the many other features of experience that yield knowledge. Kant says our knowledge is the product of our own thinking faculty. This is what had to be unravelled.

Let us suppose that our senses just registered the impressions they pick up and do nothing else with them. We would be overwhelmed by sounds, colours, smells etc., without knowing what they all indicate to us. Let me remind you that people who are born blind and have sight given to them operatively must be assisted for at least a year, so that they learn to ‘filter’ out the meaningless colours from the meaningful visual experiences.

And this tells us something important about our faculties. They are structured in a certain way to enhance what is important to us and to discard what we don’t need.

For example, you recognize a dog as being similar to another dog you saw before. Thus one of the capabilities of our mind is to perceive similarity. Another such capability enabled us group certain objects by recognising that they are not particulars, but collectives, e.g. ash or water or a dune. Kant finds altogether 12 such capabilities (or categories) by which we analyze and understand our experiences.

This is what your question calls the ‘mental framework’. It comprises one aspect of experience by which we acquire knowledge. But this world of experiences is the phenomenal world. The word phenomena means the way things appear to us.

Now it is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with this. We often, and very foolishly, believe this is all sham and want to know what’s behind it all. It is foolish when it carried to the extreme of supposing that the ‘underlying reality’ is deeper, or more meaningful, than appearing reality. But this depends very much on how we handle this ‘deeper’ reality.

Cultures with no science began to create mythologies which explain ‘real’ reality by supposing trees and animals, mountains and streams all to be inhabited by invisible spirits. In a way this is an attempt to explain the causes of natural processes. But when you tell a story like this, you really get nowhere. It explains nothing and appeals only to your capacity for believing stories. The alternative for people with science is to make experiments and see if there are circumstances that repeat themselves. Then we can talk about cause and effect–still a story, because causes and effects are not things or processes, but judgments of our cognition. Still, we can work with this knowledge, and we can understand it because it is repetitive and allows us to call these phenomena ‘laws of nature’. But note that experience is still the beginning and end of it!

Then there are other issues that we know about, and we can’t call them phenomena. Things like the mind which we don’t know what it is; and the way the mind works in giving us a sense of beauty, justice, love, laws of nature, ultimate particles, God etc. None of these are experiences in themselves; they are concepts. When you say, ‘I’ve experienced love’, you are really speaking about your feelings and desires, not about love. But we can talk and reason about love. Also about justice, God, laws and the other metaphysical things. But they don’t appear, because they are ‘noumena’, which translates into English as ‘creatures of reason’.

Now try this on the ‘thing in itself’. Look at a chair and ask yourself, why can’t I experience this in itself rather than as a phenomenon? Well, consider that you cannot push your finger into the wood. But a microbe has a different experience. For the microbe there is no chair, but just a landscape with no chair-like or wood-like qualities at all. The microbe’s world is simply another level of phenomena. The microbe may well ask, why can’t I experience this landscape as it is in itself?

Now you can see the problem. Some of our noumena are phenomena for other creatures. But other noumena would still be noumena for microbes as well, namely those I mentioned before — the real creatures of reason, and especially those we might call ‘metaphysical authorities’.

These were the very noumena that inspired Kant to his work. He was a man of faith, but he realised (as no one else before him did) that you cannot argue about God, Christ, the devil or the angels. Metaphysical authorities are not items of knowledge. They cannot be experienced. So this is what it was necessary to establish.

By this means Kant gave us a new perspective on the fundamental question of how human reason can be understood. The most important issue is, that we are not missing out. Kant himself tells us so by concluding that he has done us a great favor. By clarifying what we can know and cannot know, he opened up a domain of reason that has always been misunderstood.

Namely, that we expect we should be able to experience and understand faith, like we understand how to grow potatoes and know the feel of leather. But God and faith are not knowledge, therefore, (he said) knowledge has to move over and make room for faith, which is in another domain altogether. And the same applies to ethics, beauty, justice, love, laws etc. All these we know to exist, but they are not part of the domain of exact knowledge.

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