The Self as Noumenon
We are now going to embark on a new direction for the class that will occupy our attention for some time. Having summarized a set of contemporary philosophical positions of non-dualism, those of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, we will now back up in time and explore a particular trajectory of Western philosophical thought on the theme of non-dualism. This will lead us through a diverse and fascinating terrain, eventually taking us full circle back to where we began and forward on that basis. By beginning with two 20th Century philosophers, rather than proceeding along a purely historical chronology we will be on a firmer footing in orienting ourselves toward our material critically by having an advance viewpoint on the importance of certain ideas and positions.
Although, strictly speaking, not himself a non-dualist, Immanuel Kant articulates a fundamentally new paradigm within the Western philosophical tradition that lays the foundation for the issues that we will engage with as we proceed. His primary work is the Critique of Pure Reason, conceived and written over a ten-year period, published in 1781 and republished with revisions in 1787. Its main project is to reconstruct metaphysics as a philosophical discipline in the wake of the skeptical conclusions of David Hume.
Kant does this by performing what he characterizes as a "Copernican Revolution" within epistomology. In the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes, "Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given. We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus' primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects. If intuition must conform to the constitution of the objects, I do not see how we could know anything of the latter a priori; but if the object (as object of the senses) must conform to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, I have no difficulty in conceiving such a possibility." (pg. 22)
That objects must conform to our faculty of knowledge for us to know them, has been left out of earlier pre-Kantian epistomologies. The main example of this would be Locke's empiricism, which conceives of the mind as a blank slate or tabula rasa lacking any innate structure or form prior to its being imprinted with experiences from sense impressions. Locke then constructs a story of how those impressions associate with each other to build up our knowledge of our world. Empiricism is a good example of a philosophical position that seems on its face to be obvious or intuitively correct, only to prove upon further critical examination to be flawed or incomplete. For, as David Hume demonstrates in his famous argument in the Treatise Concerning the Human Understanding, there is no way for the sense impressions to organize themselves into coherent experiences if strict empiricism is assumed.
The argument for Humean skepticism is actually quite simple, and quite devastating for the project of a pure empiricism. Let us take the example of causality. On what basis do I have knowledge of causality? According to empiricism, I acquire all knowledge from my experience. So I observe a sequence of events - say, the sun comes up each morning, and I form the idea of a causal sequence on that basis: if morning, the sun comes up. But, Hume asks, do we have any rational basis for knowing that the connection is necessary, that is to say that it could not be otherwise? His answer is no, because in our experience, which is the basis for our knowledge, we never encounter a necessary connection between events, only particular, contingent incidences of events in sequence. Therefore, we have no empirical basis for a concept of causality.
How does Kant respond to this form of epistemological skepticism? He begins by making an innovative set of logical distinctions.
In order to proceed further we must make a two-fold logical distinction between propositions that are -
- a priori vs a posteriori
- analytic vs synthetic.
- Propositions that are a priori are known to be true independent of experience, independent of our need to check some particular circumstance to see if they are true. For example, "7 + 5 = 12" is a proposition that is known to be true a priori.
- Propositions that are a posteriori are known to be true dependent on experience. We need to check whether some matter of fact is the case or not to determine the truth value of an a posteriori proposition. For example, "The cat is on the mat" is something I need to investigate and look and see if the cat is indeed upon the mat, or not.
- Propositions that are analytic are true in virtue of the definitions of the concepts involved. For example, "All bachelors are unmarried" is an analytic proposition because the definition of a bachelor is that he is unmarried. Therefore analytic statements are in a sense tautological, or in another way of putting the same point they are "explicative" rather than "ampliative", they do not add to our knowledge.
- Propositions that are synthetic are all propositions that are not analytic.
In the tradition of the use of these distinctions before Kant, specifically by Leibniz and Hume, it was always assumed that there was a full correspondence between these two sets of terms. In other words, that all a priori propositions are also analytic and vice versa, and that all a posteriori propositions are also synthetic and vice versa. Kant's innovation in the Critique of Pure Reason is to deny this equivalence, and instead to assert the existence of synthetic a priori propositions.
What would it mean for a statement to be true synthetic a priori? It would be a statement that adds to our knowledge of states of affairs, i.e. that is non-tautological, but that is also known prior to experience.
Kant attempts to demonstrate that the contextualizing of our cognition within space and time is a synthetic a priori truth about our experience. It is a priori because for me to have an experience it must already be the case as the condition of its possibility that it occurs within the context of space and time. It is further synthetic because this feature of experience is not contained within the concept of experience per se, or so Kant must assert for this argument to work.
Indeed, Kant argues that space and time are what he calls a "pure a priori intuition" which is not in the components of our sensations (i.e. for a rose: the petals, the stem, the red patch of color against the surrounding blue of the sky, the gestalt of all the above, etc.), but rather presupposes all sensation as the condition of its possibility. More on this in a moment.
Kant also believes all mathematical judgments to consist in synthetic a priori knowledge. This, again, is in distinction from the more traditional view preceding him, which is that all mathematical propositions are analytic a priori. Leibniz held this position, for example.
Kant writes, "We might, indeed, at first suppose that the proposition 7 + 5 = 12 is a merely analytic proposition, and follows by the principle of contradiction from the concept of a sum of 7 and 5. But if we look more closely, we find that the concept of the sum of 7 and 5 contain nothing save the union of the two numbers into one, and in this no thought is being taken as to what that single number may be which combines both. The concept of 12 is by no means already thought in merely thinking this union of 7 and 5; and I may analyze my concept of such a possible sum as long as I please, still I shall never find the 12 in it." (pp 52-53)
The previous information can be usefully represented in the following chart:
|a priori||"all bachelors are unmarried"
"2 + 2 = 4" (for Leibniz)
|"2 + 2 = 4" (for Kant)
"all experience is within the categories of space and time"
||"the cat is on the mat"|
(Note that according to this logical schema there are no analytic a posteriori propositions; the set of these propositions is an empty set.)
Looking beyond Kant for a moment, into the later history of analytical philosophy, there is strong reason to doubt the adequacy of the traditional analytic/synthetic distinction in Western philosophy. It turns out there may be no clear way to strictly logically define what it means for a concept to be "contained" in another without ambiguity, or as Leibniz characterizes it, for a predicate concept to be contained in the subject concept of an analytic proposition. This definition relies on the idea that subject concepts are divisible into other concepts. But where do we demarcate, by strictly enforceable logical rules, what makes the cut and what doesn't? For example the concept of "iron" could contain the concepts 1) metal and 2) hardness. But what about 3) rusts in water? Is this logically innate to the concept, making the proposition "iron rusts in water" analytic, or is it something that is merely associated with rather than contained in the concept, making the proposition synthetic? To give another example, the proposition "grass is green" is traditionally considered a synthetic a posteriori proposition, because one supposedly needs to go out and check some grass to see if it's green to assign a truth value to this proposition, therefore the proposition is a posteriori and therefore it is necessarily also synthetic, as there are no analytic a posteriori propositions, according to the rules of the logical model.
But if this is so, how is it unambiguously the case that iron's capacity to rust is not known a posteriori like grass being green? And why isn't the color of grass contained in its concept? When looked at this way, the logical clarity of the analytic/synthetic distinction breaks down. For a more systematic critique along these lines, a useful text is Quine's essay Two Dogmas of Empiricism, to which I must refer in lieu of a fuller discussion of this point here.
I think that the import we should derive from Kant's characterization of his position as identifying synthetic a priori knowledge is the general nature of such knowledge in these logical terms. Specifically, that the categories of space and time are known a priori because they are the condition of the possibility of us having any experience at all, and furthermore, that this insight adds to our metaphysical understanding; that it is not merely tautological in the way that analytic knowledge is defined, but rather that it is synthetic, i.e. it is additive, not self-referential to our knowledge.
Kant's metaphysics can be understood as having a positive and a negative result. Positively, it overcomes the aspects of skepticism inherent in the cartesian project and demonstrates that we have knowledge of the external world. Negatively, it asserts that we can have no rationally provable knowledge of the noumenal world of things in themselves outside the categories of our experience in space and time. Therefore, Kant's critique refutes both the skepticism inherent in empiricism, represented by Hume, as well as the claims to metaphysical knowledge of rationalists such as Leibniz.
To proceed further we will first need a schema of Kant's model of the mind. In common with other Enlightenment psychologies this is a "faculty" model, dividing the mind into clearly demarcated and classifiable aspects, each performing a specific function or activity.
This can be summarized in the following diagram, which we will now explain:
There are two primary faculties, the sensibility and the understanding. The sensibility is "the capacity (receptivity) for receiving representations through the mode in which we are affected by objects." (pg 65) These representations take the form of intuitions. Kant writes, "In whatever manner and by whatever means a mode of knowledge [eine Erkenntnis] may relate to objects, intuition is that through which it is in immediate relation to them, and to which all thought as a means is directed." (pg 65) The sensibility divides into a pure and an empirical component yielding, respectively, pure and empirical intuitions. Empirical intuitions are concrete sensations, i.e. seeing a rose, smelling it, touching it, etc. In contrast, pure intuitions are those "in which there is nothing that belongs to sensation. The pure form of sensible intuitions in general, in which all the manifold of intuition is intuited in certain relations, must be found in the mind a priori." (pg 66) For Kant, space and time are the pure intuitions of the sensibility.
The other faculty of cognition besides the sensibility is the understanding. If the sensibility is the passive faculty of the mind, being a receptivity to being affected by objects, the understanding is the active faculty of the mind. Intuitions, "are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts." (pg 65)
Concepts are, like the intuitions, either pure or empirical. Empirical concepts are the whole content of the mind and its possible thought, excepting all intuitions, i.e. memory, abstract ideas like weight or freedom, etc. This would include all working over and reflection on intuitions in thought (for example, picturing or remembering something), intuitions being solely the sensations themselves in their moment of sensation.
Pure concepts of the understanding, like the pure intuitions of the sensibility, have a formal relationship to empirical concepts such that they express the a priori form, or the condition of the possibility of empirical concepts. Kant writes that the content of thought, in order for it to be thought, must first already, "all be ordered, connected, and brought into relation." (pg 131) Kant calls this activity of cognition synthetic, or an activity of synthesis.
Synthetic is the same term used in the synthetic/analytic distinction, because in terms of the the logical form in question an analytic proposition only breaks open or analyzes a concept, while a synthetic proposition brings into relation two distinct concepts in an act of synthesis.
Following in the footsteps of the Aristotelian tradition, Kant constructs a table of categories, "of pure concepts of the understanding which apply a priori to thought concerning objects of intuition in general," (pg 113) and which constitute, "the list of all original pure concepts of synthesis that the understanding contains within itself a priori." (pg 113) The section of the Critique of Pure Reason where Kant constructs the table of categories is called the Transcendental Logic, and is where he deduces the pure concepts of the understanding in parallel with the deduction of the pure intuitions of the sensibility in the Transcendental Aesthetic.
We will not be discussing the Transcendental Logic further in this presentation, so that we can instead focus our attention on the argument of the Transcendental Aesthetic, where space and time are found to be the a priori pure intuitions of the sensibility, and the condition of the possibility of our cognition of objects. This will allow us to see clearly the procedure of what Kant calls the transcendental deduction, which is a philosophical method original to Kant that forms one of his most important contributions to philosophy, and which is central to later thought.
The Transcendental Aesthetic, then, is the portion of the Critique of Pure Reason to which we will now turn our attention and investigate Kant's deduction of space and time as the a priori condition of the possibility of any experiences of the world.
We will begin with space. Kant inherits two competing notions of space: 1) the absolutist or Newtonian view, which sees space as an infinitely extended container within which we are present; and 2) the relationist or Leibnizian view, which sees space as reducible to the expression of relations between a more fundamental, non-spatial reality — monads in the case of Leibniz's philosophy.
Kant began his career highly influenced by the prevalent philosophy of Germany at the time, which was that of the Leibnizian Rationalist Christian Wolff, who held a relationist position on space. However, Kant came to shift his views on space, and in a work he called Regions in Space, written in 1768 prior to the Critique of Pure Reason, he opts for a more Newtonian conception of space.
The issue that grabbed Kant's attention was that of what he calls "incongruent counterparts". Kant illustrates this phenomenon of a property of space with a simple example, that of our two hands. These are identical in form, but due to their placement in space there is no way to rotate or move them in three dimensions such as to make them coincide. Kant feels that this feature of space, which we would today call a global property, cannot be adequately accounted for by the relationist model, and therefore space must be considered a quality presupposing objects rather than presupposed by them. But in exactly what way is space prior to objects for Kant? To understand this, let us turn directly to the argument in the Critique of Pure Reason.
Kant presents a number of arguments, and a great deal of time could be spent engaging with each of them. My intention in this presentation is to summarize Kant's position so that we can broadly understand it.
Kant's analysis of space is basically phenomenological, although the modern sense of this term postdates him. He observes that all of our sensible intuitions occur within the context of space, but that space is not itself an empirical intuition. "For in order that certain sensations be referred to something outside me (that is, to something in another region of space from that in which I find myself), and similarly in order that I may be able to represent them as outside and alongside one another, and accordingly as not only different but as in different places, the representation of space must be presupposed. The representation of space cannot, therefore, be empirically obtained from the relations of outer appearance. On the contrary, this outer appearance is itself possible at all only through that representation." (pg 68)
Furthermore, we cannot have a representation of the absence of space, although we can abstract away the concept of objects within space to arrive at a notion of an objectless space. We cannot have an empirical intuition of the absence of space itself, only of objects already within space. Kant concludes that space, "must therefore be regarded as the condition of the possibility of appearances, and not as a determination dependent upon them. It is an a priori representation, which necessarily underlies outer appearances." (pg 68)
Also, the space of our intuitions is fundamentally unitary. There is one space that everything appears within as objects, so that when we have a sensible intuition it is always of an object in the same essential space as all other objects and related to them within that space. "And," Kant writes, "if we speak of diverse spaces, we mean only parts of one and the same unique space. [Also] these parts cannot precede the one all-embracing space, as being, as it were, constituents out of which it can be composed; on the contrary, they can be only thought as in it." (pg 69)
Space is an intuition, not a concept, because, Kant argues, no concept can contain, "an infinite number of representations within itself. It is in this latter way, however, that space is thought; for all the parts of space exist ad infinitum. Consequently, the original representation of space is as an a priori intuition, not a concept." (pg 70)
Finally, Kant argues from the existence of geometry as a synthetic a priori branch of knowledge that space must be an intuition of the sensibility rather than a concept of the understanding, because the spatial representations that occur in geometrical concepts cannot come from a concept of space. Kant writes, "For from a mere concept no propositions can be obtained which go beyond the concept — as happens in geometry." (pg 70) Geometry, we will recall, is a synthetic a priori knowledge because it is a mathematical judgment, and Kant has previously argued that mathematical judgments fall under that logical form. Since concepts of the understanding cannot go beyond themselves, the quality of synthesis that space provides to allow geometrical knowledge to occur must come from the intuition, not from concepts.
These, in broad outline, are Kant's arguments that space is "in us", that it is a pure intuition of the sensibility.
We will now discuss Kant's deduction of time as another pure intuition of the sensibility. He gives five arguments, all of them parallel to similar arguments made concerning space. Therefore, we will summarize them more quickly.
First, like space, time is presupposed in our experience. "Only on the presupposition of time can we represent to ourselves a number of things as existing at one and the same time (simultaneously) or at different times (successively)." (pg 74)
Second, like space, time cannot be abstracted from appearances, only appearances from time. "Appearances may, one and all, vanish; but time (as the universal condition of their possibility) cannot itself be removed." (pg 75)
Third, mathematical judgments including a time factor (e.g. the Newtonian formula for acceleration) imply that time is a synthetic a priori principle in an analogous manner as geometry does for space.
Fourth, time is fundamentally unitary in the same manner as space.
Fifth, since time is an "infinitude", and since an infinitude cannot be given in a concept, time must therefore be an intuition.
This completes Kant's argument, in general outline, from the Critique of Pure Reason concerning the internalization of space and time as conditions of the possibility of our experience.
We are now in a position to more fully characterize and understand Kant's philosophical method of transcendental deduction, which is a fundamental Kantian technique which he uses throughout his mature work.
Logically, transcendental deduction can be characterized as follows:
- A presupposes B, or as Kant would say, A is the condition of the possibility of B.
- Therefore, if B then necessarily A.
- B is the case, therefore A.
So in the case of the Transcendental Aesthetic the argument works like this:
- Space and time must be present for objects to appear in our experience.
- Therefore if objects appear to us, space and time must necessarily be present as well.
- Objects appear to us, therefore space and time are present.
A conclusion is then drawn, which is that A has a logical priority over B that can translate, when applied in certain arguments, into demonstration of an epistemic and ontological priority. We will illustrate the meaning of this by again using the Transcendental Aesthetic as our example. Space and time have epistemic priority over appearances of objects, because they must already be present for cognition of objects to occur. We cannot know objects without first having space and time. Note that this method of priority is not temporal: space and time do not show up first and then objects after them. This couldn't work for time in any case, as time must presuppose its own possible appearance as part of a temporal sequence. Rather, objects are in space and time and appear together with them. Kant expresses by saying that space and time are the "form of experience", sort of like Aristotle's position that Plato's forms are in objects as their form, and not apart in a higher realm.
There is more, though. Space and time have a kind of ontological priority over appearances. Kant is cagey about this, but I think his transcendental deduction hides a covert conclusion (and to say this is covert is not to say it is correct or incorrect), which is that space and time are more real than appearances.
But in what way? It is not that their transcendence, as Kant calls it, is metaphysical in a traditional dualistic spirit/matter, heaven/earth, manner. Rather, they appear, as Heidegger would say, equiprimordially, all together as one real event, but with a kind of layering to it, with certain features of the event, in this case the form of the appearances within space and time, being the necessary essence of the event within which is a contingent content. Space and time are always present, but the appearances of objects comes, goes, takes different configurations; and Kant thinks, at least logically, that we can abstract all objects and events from space and time and still have concepts of space and time. Transcendence is also not reductive. The appearances of objects are not nothing but space and time, but rather appear in space and time as the "form" of that appearance.
This understanding of a standing transcendence, as I am calling it, is the main aspect of Kant's philosophy that I want to draw attention to in this presentation as being a form of non-dualism.
It does this not by eliminating, absorbing, or reducing differences, as in other philosophies, but rather by effecting a synthesis of elements into a phenomenal unity, while preserving epistemic and ontological degrees of priority between the elements.
This method in various forms proves to be extremely influential. It underlies Husserl's eidetic reduction and is adopted and modified by Heidegger in his existential analytic and formal indication.
From his conclusions regarding the nature of space and time Kant articulates a metaphysical position, which he calls transcendental idealism. We will now turn to examine and critique this position.
Space and time, Kant says, are in us, as the form of our sensibility. Therefore, he argues, they are not properties of things in themselves [ding an sich], but only of objects as appearances.
He writes, "What we have meant to say is that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of appearance; that the things which we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them as being, nor their relations so constituted in themselves as they appear to us, and that if the subject, or even only the subjective constitution of the senses in general, be removed, the whole constitution and all the relations of objects in space and time, nay space and time themselves, would vanish. As appearances, they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibility, remains completely unknown to us." (pg 82)
Objects within space and time are empirically real. Simultaneously space and time are transcendentally ideal, while objects exist in some unknown manner independent of us as things in themselves. Regarding appearances, Kant wants to be clear that he does not consider them to be "a mere illusion. For in an appearance the objects, nay even the properties that we ascribe to them, are always regarded as something actually given. Since, however, in relation of the given object to the subject, such properties depend upon the mode of intuition of the subject, this object as appearance [Erscheinung] is to be distinguished from itself as object in itself [scheinen]." (pg 88)
Transcendental idealism therefore posits two distinct realms of reality, the phenomenal realm of the appearances of objects in space and time and the noumenal realm of things in themselves. As all our knowledge comes from experience, according to Kant's adoption of the empiricist model of cognition, and as we can have no experience of things in themselves, but only appearances, we cannot draw any metaphysical conclustions regarding the nature of the noumenal realm on the basis of pure reason.
Kant does feel that in addition to the pure reason there is also a practical reason, which he says "makes things actual" rather than "determining" them as does the pure reason. (pg 18) Morality, for example, is a form of practical reason for Kant. Kant feels we have practical reasons for belief in God, immortality of the soul, etc., and that the realm of these metaphysical realities can coincide with the noumenal, although we have no proof of these things through the pure reason. This leaves open a possibility for "faith" in the Protestant sense, and we can see that Kant's philosophy is compatible with Protestantism.
There is a back door, however, a loophole in Kant's epistemology that would allow for direct perception of the noumenal realm through what Kant calls an intellectual intuition. He writes, "If by 'noumenon' we mean a thing so far as it is not an object of our sensible intuition, and so abstract from our mode of intuiting it, this is a noumenon in the negative sense of the term. But if we understood by it an object of a non-sensible intuition, we thereby presuppose a special mode of intuition, namely, the intellectual, which is not that which we possess, and of which we cannot comprehend even the possibility. This would be 'noumenon' in the positive sense of the term." (pg 268)
"In other words a [kind of] knowledge must be possible, in which there is no sensibility, and which alone has reality that is absolutely objective. Through it objects will be represented as they are, whereas in the empirical employment of our understanding things will be known only as they appear. If this be so, it would seem to follow that we cannot assert, what we have hitherto maintained, that the pure modes of knowledge yielded by our understanding are never anything more than principles of the exposition of appearance, and that even in the a priori application they relate only to the formal possibility of experience. On the contrary, we should have to recognize that in addition to the empirical employment of the categories, which is limited to sensible conditions, there is likewise a pure and yet objectively valid employment. For a field quite different from that of the senses would there lie open to us, a world which is thought as it were in the spirit [im Geiste] (or even perhaps intuited), and which would therefore be for the understanding a far nobler, not a less noble, object of contemplation." (pg 267)
Kant denies, however, that we can have an intellectual intuition. Indeed, there seems to be a kind of covert motive in Kant to assert this possibility only to deny it, only to have us doubt this denial. Is Kant really intimating that the vision can still come by grace, but we cannot understand how this works? Naturally, the intellectual intuition becomes the starting point for German Idealism following him.
In the meantime, what are we to make of transcendental idealism? It seems on the face of it to be a covert, though in other ways quite traditional, version of the spirit/matter dualism. Like in Augustine, where God is outside time and space, the noumenal realm is non-spatial and non-temporal. One can relate to it through faith (practical reason) or contact it through mystical vision (intellectual intuition). Attempts to overcome this implied dualism will become central in German Idealism and its successor philosophies. We will follow the whole internal logic of this movement.
More basically, however, what are we to make of transcendental idealism as an epistemological position describing our knowledge of the world, and the division of that world into appearances and things in themselves?
Kant may run into trouble with his position right off the bat, in problems with his central argument for the ideality of space and time. This argument is called the "problem of the neglected alternative" and originally derives from a late 19th Century exchange between the philosophers Kuno Fischer and Adolf Trendelenburg. Kant asserts either that space and time are "in us" as the form of our cognition, or that space and time are features of things in themselves. But there is another, neglected alternative. What if space and time are "in us" as the form of our cognition, and are features of things-in-themselves? We might designate the former argument, by Kant, the "disjunctive option", but as we can see there is also a "conjunctive option". Only by presenting an argument against the conjunctive option can Kant assert that space and time are ideal. He has no argument against this possibility in the Critique of Pure Reason.
There is another issue. Assuming things-in-themselves are non-spatial and non-temporal, how are we causally affected by them to recognize their appearances? How do we understand this process in a coherent way? Are we affected somehow through our body? But according to a strict reading of Kant's position, this is impossible, because my body is also an appearance, not a thing-in-itself. But then the appearance of my body cannot really be receiving sensations from other appearances to cognize experiences, because its own appearance is part of its field of identity and cannot itself be a substratum for receiving sense impressions, because it must itself be first cognized as appearances at which point it is already alongside other appearances, not existentially prior to them and experiencing them. An implication of this would be that our experience of being a body sensing a world is an illusion, an ideal projection within purely mentally created categories of some actual, but completely unknown and invisible, state of affairs of the "real" world of things-in-themselves.
I am sitting in this room with you, an object among other objects, in addition to whatever else we might be, and here you are with me. I experience, visually, a part of the room in front of me. I move my head, and a new part of the room comes into view in my eyesight. According to transcendental idealism none of that is actual, but only an appearance. Furthermore, the idea of a causal contact between us and an object implies a time element. I am not having an experience at time T1, then at a temporally later time T2 I somehow encounter a thing-in-itself and cognize it within my subjective context of space and time. But this is impossible if the noumenal is atemporal, that is, outside of sequences of time within which it would have to be encountered.
Under the force of these arguments, Kant's dualism of phenomenal/noumenal becomes untenable. We cannot make a coherent model of reality out of it. At best, it simply seems to collapse into a pure Berkelian idealism, where we're really just souls afloat in pure mind, like "Donovan's Brain" — the brain afloat in the tank, being fed (for it is not the source of it) some illuory, somehow completely self-consistent image, with a fake "it" inside it moving about meeting all its other fake "its", somehow caught up in the same illusion.
Let us back up a bit and come at a critique of transcendental idealism from another angle, that of Kant's presupposition that he inherits from his historical context as part of a tradition.
Kant begins the Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason by stating: "There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. For how should our faculty of knowledge be awakened into action did not objects affecting our senses partly of themselves produce representations, partly arouse the activity of our understanding to compare these representations, and, by combining or separating them, work up the raw material of the sensible impressions into that knowledge of objects which is entitled experience?" (pg 41) In asserting this as his starting point, Kant places his ontology of human essence within the orbit of the Cartesian paradigm, specifically the empiricist branch, and in so doing he has already missed the ontology of Being-in-the-world because he has already assumed that cognitive noticing of objects is the only way we can know the world. This is incorrect because, as Being-in-the-world describes, I know, or rather dwell in my world most primordially in the mode of circumspective concern, not of the noticing of objects present-at-hand of the Cartesian subject. To put it another way, Kant adopts uncritically the view that a human being is essentially a conscious mind possessed of cognitive knowledge that corresponds to a world and which then pilots itself, as it were, in its body within that world, making rational decisions based upon its knowledge. We should be able to see, based on the discussions of the last two months, that this cannot be the way we actually function to acquire and use knowledge.
There is one more subject we need to cover to complete our survey of Kant prior to delving into the depths of German idealism. This is perhaps the subtlest but also one of the most important of Kant's doctrines. I am referring to the concept of the synthetic unity of apperception, which is Kant's answer to Hume's skepticism of the self.
Apperception is when the perceiver perceives itself. It means to look "inwards", as it were, at oneself, rather than "outward" into one's experiences. Descarte believed that it was possible to have an immediate apperception of the self as a mental substantive unity, simply in virtue of noticing the presence of one's mental content. Or, as Descarte famously formulated it, "I think, therefore I am."
David Hume challenges this assumption. He notes that when I introspect and encounter thought, I do not thereby come into contact with a substantial abiding self. Rather, I only encounter thoughts that come and go, change and modify. Where is this hypothetical entity the "self" in all of this? Hume comes to a skeptical, and also somewhat Buddhist, conclusion that we can have no basis for knowledge of the self, and therefore no reason for believing in such a thing.
To overcome Hume's skepticism, Kant begins by assuming his premises — that we encounter in apperception sequences of mental content, thoughts, emotions, volitions, etc., and that I do not encounter an immediate intuition of a metaphysical, substantive or otherwise unitary self on that basis.
Kant then performs a transcendental deduction, and finds that it is the condition of the possibility of there being any representations, any mental cognition, that they be attributable to the subject that thinks them.
He writes, "It must be possible for the 'I think' to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying that the representation would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me. ... For the manifold representations, which are given in an intuition, would not be one and all my representations, if they did not all belon to one self-consciousness. As my representations (even if I am not conscious of them as such) they must conform to the condition under which alone they can stand together in one universal self-consciousness, because otherwise they would not all without exception belong to me." (pp 152-153)
This bringing together of my representations as my representations is an activity of synthesis bringing a manifold together into a unity, therefore Kant calls it a "synthetic unity", or to give it its full title, the synthetic unity of apperception. Therefore, for Kant the self is not located as a substance, but as an activity — as the activity of the existentially prior synthesis of my representations as my representations.
Note that it is not necessary for me actually to accompany in thought, through an act of apperception, the concept "I think" alongside each representation as it occurs for Kant's argument to work — it is only necessary that the "I think" could accompany all possible representations of mine, in simple virtue of them already being mine.
This is a form of epistemic priority. But, as we described earlier, the transcendental deduction also contains an aspect of ontological priority. In the case of the synthetic unity of apperception Kant asserts the existence of a transcendental subject existing in the noumenal realm projecting the phenomenal content of thought, the self-in-itself essentially, which is the metaphysical ground of the activity of the synthesis of my representations.
As the synthetic unity of apperception is the condition of the possibility of all my representations, it has epistemic priority over all other transcendental categories of human existence and, by implication, ontological priority as well. Kant does not develop this implication, but it leads German Idealism to posit the Absolute Spirit as the transcendental subject.
Instead, Kant dissolves his account of the transcendental subject into an insoluble mystery. For him the, "transcendental subject of the thoughts = X. It is known only through the thoughts which are its predicates, and of it, apart from them, we cannot have any concept whatsoever, but can only revolve in a perpetual circle, since any judgment upon it has always already made use of its representation." (pg 331)
"Although to the question, what is the constitution of a transcendental object, no answer can be given stating what it is we can yet reply that the question itself is nothing, because there is no given object [corresponding] to it. Accordingly all questions dealt with in the transcendental doctrine of the soul are answerable in this latter manner, and have indeed been so answered: its questions refer to the transcendental subject of all inner appearances, which is not itself appearance and consequently not given as object, and in which none of the categories (and it is to them that the question is really directed) meet with the condition required for their application. We have here a case where the common saying holds, that no answer is itself an answer. A question as to the constitution of that something which cannot be thought through any determinate predicate — inasmuch as it is completely outside the sphere of those objects which can be given to us — is entirely null and void." (pg 432)
Amongst his contemporaries this conclusion of course satisfied no one, and German Idealism was launched as a result. Next month we will discuss Fichte's deduction of an intellectual intuition of the transcendental subject.
Page citations in this text are from Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith
The text of this Kemp Smith translation is available online.