A Critique of Kant on the Noumenal World / Phenomenal World Distinction (“Thing-in-Itself” vs “Appearance”)

Portrait of Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher and writer of the Critique of Pure Reason, whose philosophy is under discussion.

Immanuel Kant

Another reddit user with an interest in Ayn Rand and Objectivism, /u/Abstract_Atheist, posted a “Quick and Easy Refutation of the Noumenal Realm” on reddit. (The “noumenal realm” is commonly described to be Immanuel Kant’s term for the universe “as it is in itself,” apart from human perception. According to Kant, the human apparatus of perception renders the “things-in-themselves” as “appearances,” or roughly synonymously, as “phenomena.”)

Abstract_Atheist’s supposed refutation was to say that, for example, the noumenal realm is either yellow or non-yellow. If it is yellow, then one of our concepts applies to it, (“yellow.”) If it is not yellow, then one of our concepts still applies to it, (“non-yellow.”) In either case, a human concept applies to it, thus (supposedly) negating the noumenal realm’s defining status as outside human cognition.

I, however, do not consider this a good refutation for a reason I outline below. In this, I loosely agree with a comment made by another user (/u/drunkentune.)

My own refutation of Kant’s distinction between “appearance” and “thing-in-itself,” along with my defense of it against /u/wokeupabug, is the subject of my comments below. (I am Sword_of_Apollo):

Sword_of_Apollo:

/u/drunkentune has a point. Non-axiomatic concepts are contextual and can’t generally be said to divide all of existence between themselves and their antitheses. I make this point in my discussion of fairness and justice.

I think the real quick and easy refutation of the “noumenal realm” is a statement of the axioms:

1. Existence exists.

2. An existent is itself.

3. Consciousness perceives existence.

This last axiom directly eliminates any distinction between a “noumenal” and “phenomenal” realm. I discussed this with /u/ReallyNicole in a thread, here.

Also, as a side-note, have you listened to or read Understanding Objectivism and/or Objectivism Through Induction?

wokeupabug: 

This last axiom directly eliminates any distinction between a “noumenal” and “phenomenal” realm.

There doesn’t seem to be any proposed elimination of this distinction in what you say. Your refutation does not even mention the terms “noumena” and “phenomena”, let alone any of Kant’s arguments for this distinction, let alone a refutation of these arguments.

Sword_of_Apollo:

1. My consciousness perceives existence.

2. My consciousness perceives some thing, X, that is part of existence.

3. What is the “X-in-itself”? The X that I do not perceive?

4. But I already said that I perceive X.

And so the basic metaphysical distinction of the Great Circumlocutor collapses.

If you want another angle on it that provides a little more detail on how people get confused, feel free to click on the link to my discussion with /u/ReallyNicole, above.

wokeupabug:

And so the basic metaphysical distinction of the Great Circumlocutor collapses.

Again, you have not even mentioned the distinction in your supposed refutation. There is not even the barest appearance of a refutation offered here, since you would at least have to reference the things being refuted to give even the barest appearance of a refutation.

If you want another angle on it that provides a little more detail on how people get confused…

What’s confusing me is you saying nothing at all about the phenomena/noumena distinction, and then asserting with a triumphant non sequitur that you’ve refuted it.

I’ll try to salvage a refutation from what you’ve said by imagining that you mean to refute not the phenomena/noumena distinction, but rather the notion of the thing-in-itself, and that your argument goes like this:

  • 1. I perceive some thing, X.
  • 2. The notion of the thing-in-itself entails that I do not perceive X.
  • 3. But it’s not true that I do not perceive X (by 1, PNC), therefore the notion of the thing-in-itself entails a falsehood and we should reject it (by RAA).

Of course, (2) is false. So that supposed refutation isn’t going to work.

Sword_of_Apollo:

I’ll try to salvage a refutation from what you’ve said by imagining that you mean to refute not the phenomena/noumena distinction, but rather the notion of the thing-in-itself…

The distinction that you make between “noumena” and “things-in-themselves” is controversial, and is often not the way Kant is presented: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noumenon#Noumenon_and_the_thing-in-itself

But since Kant’s terminology is frequently vague and open to wide interpretation, anyway, I went with your terminology and called the existent Kant says is extramental, the “thing-in-itself.”

…and that your argument goes like this:

    • 1. I perceive some thing, X.
    • 2. The notion of the thing-in-itself entails that I do not perceive X.
    • 3. But it’s not true that I do not perceive X (by 1, PNC), therefore the notion of the thing-in-itself entails a falsehood and we should reject it (by RAA).

Yes, that’s accurate. I thought it was obvious enough not to need that sort of formalizing.

Of course, (2) is false. So that supposed refutation isn’t going to work.

If “thing-in-itself” is meaningful and distinct from what I directly perceive, then it needs a definition. Could you define “thing-in-itself” and distinguish it from the things that I perceive?

wokeupabug:

Yes, that’s accurate. I thought it was obvious enough not to need that sort of formalizing.

I’m not sure how to reconcile this idea that you didn’t state your refutation because you thought it was too obvious to be worth the trouble, with the trouble you did take to write a longer bullet point list than was needed to state the supposed refutation, but which left the supposed refutation obscure.

In any case, if this is your intended refutation, then it fails, since the notion of the thing-in-itself does not entail that we do not perceive the things that we perceive. Kant nowhere rejects but rather defends the idea that we perceive the things we perceive, i.e. appearances. He denies that we perceive things-in-themselves, but there is no contradiction here, since appearances and things-in-themselves are not identical, as the nature of appearances is determined by the nature of our capacity to perceive (i.e. the form of our sensibility) whereas this is precisely not true of the thing-in-itself.

If “thing-in-itself” is meaningful and distinct from what I directly perceive, then it needs a definition. Could you define “thing-in-itself” and distinguish it from the things that I perceive?

I can, but in this context I shouldn’t have to. Your allegation was that you have a refutation of Kant’s position, indeed a “real quick and easy” one. If it turns out that you don’t know what Kant’s position is, then this allegation was nothing but empty bravado.

On the assumption that your allegation was not empty bravado, but rather based on a capacity to meaningfully discuss Kant’s position, let us proceed with our discussion:

You have charged that Kant’s notion of the thing-in-itself is incoherent since it claims that we can’t perceive the thing we perceive. But this charge is a straw man, since Kant nowhere claims anything of the sort. Do you have anything further to say in defense of this charge?

Sword_of_Apollo:

I can, but in this context I shouldn’t have to. Your allegation was that you have a refutation of Kant’s position, indeed a “real quick and easy” one. If it turns out that you don’t know what Kant’s position is, then this allegation was nothing but empty bravado.

Okay, if you won’t define “thing-in-itself,” then I will:

“thing-in-itself”: a thing that, in the process of the human perception of it, is transformed–for all sensory intents and purposes–into that which it is not: a perceivable thing or “appearance.”

That is: a thing that is perceived by humans through a human means, but is not, itself, perceived by humans.

That is: the object of the process of human sensory perception that is not, itself, the object of the process of human sensory perception.

That is: a self-contradiction.

wokeupabug:

“thing-in-itself”: a thing that, in the process of the human perception of it, is transformed–for all sensory intents and purposes–into that which it is not: a perceivable thing or “appearance.”

There is no transformation of the “thing-in-itself”, which always designates an object regarded as it is independently of our forms of cognition (sensibility and understanding).

What I presume you’re proposing is that we regard the object which affects our sensibility so as to produce appearances as being a thing-in-itself.

That is: a thing that is perceived by humans through a human means, but is not, itself, perceived by humans.

It is “perceived” in the sense of being that which affects our sensibility. And it is not “perceived” if we take this term as referring to the state which is apprehended as appearance. By introducing the same term to refer to these two different ideas, you introduce the equivocation which allows you to feign that there’s a contradiction.

That is: the object of the process of human sensory perception that is not, itself, the object of the process of human sensory perception.
That is: a self-contradiction.

But there is no contradiction here when we repair your equivocation: there is no contradiction in saying that that which affects sensibility is not the state which is apprehended as appearances.

Your charge is a fallacy of equivocation, and accordingly offers no substantial objection to Kant’s position.

Sword_of_Apollo:

…if we take this term as referring to the state which is apprehended as appearance.

We don’t apprehend “states,” apart from objects, in extrospection. (What is it a state of? A state of some sort of things.) We apprehend objects or things (the state and actions of extramental entities, if you like) by means of the process of perception.

The light traveling from a source to an object, from the object to my eye, being absorbed by my retina, the resultant excitation being processed by my optic nerve and brain, are all a part of the overall process of perception. These sub-processes determine the form in which I perceive extramental things; (how I perceive them.) The objects of that process are the extramental things that emit and reflect the light.

They are the things I see. There’s no basis for any separate “things-in-themselves.”

wokeupabug:

We don’t apprehend “states,” apart from objects…

No one has proposed anything about apprehending states apart from objects, although since you’ve raised the point, this does in fact happen: for example, in dreams, hallucinations, optical illusions, and so forth. And if the square quotes around the word ‘states’ is meant to suggest that you prefer some other word to refer to perceptual states, you’re welcome to your preferred terminology, so long as equivocations you introduce with your terminology are not used fallaciously, as they were in the supposed refutation of your previous comment.

If what you mean to say here is that perceptual states are, in principle, numerically identical to the objects which affect us to produce those perceptual states, this is obviously not true, as is evident from the many well-known demonstrations of the differences between perceptual states and their intentional objects: for example, the appearance of a bent stick that results from looking at a straight stick put half-way in water, objects taking on different colors under different lights, again various optical illusions, the feeling of pain one locates in one’s extremities following injury to one’s central nervous system, and, more systematically, the entire sensory fields of the so-called “secondary properties” (of color, scent, taste, and so forth), which we are told do not belong in the external world regarded in itself and yet which we situate there in our perceptual understanding.

This is just the commonsensical approach to the issue. Furthermore, but rather significantly on point, Kant gives a series of arguments in defense of this distinction in the “transcendental aesthetic” and “transcendental analytic”, which you have conspicuously failed to so much as vaguely reference by implication, let alone refute. The reader looking for substantiation of your claim to have refuted Kant–refuted him really quickly and easily, you boasted–would naturally inspect your comments for refutations of these arguments; but, so far, entirely in vain.

There’s no basis for any separate “things-in-themselves.”

I understand that this is the thesis you wish to assert against Kant’s position, however the argument you have provided against Kant on this point was a fallacy of equivocation and you’ve yet to so much as mention the arguments of Kant’s which you purport to have refuted.

Sword_of_Apollo:

I said,

We don’t apprehend “states,” apart from objects, in extrospection.

Dreams and hallucinations are forms of introspection. They are produced from memories of sensory information. Optical illusions are extrospective, and so are a form of perceiving some object. I cannot actually see the seemingly bent pencil in water apart from the pencil and the water. I see the whole physical situation by means of the light travelling to my eye. But for me to actually see this scene, the objects must be present, and their actual properties are involved in making them look the way they do.

In regard to perception and the “thing-in-itself”: Perception is the receipt of information about an external object by a mind. The whole process of the transfer of that information is the process of perception. There is no other sense in which I’m using “perception,” so there’s no equivocation.

Either my senses provide information about the “thing-in-itself,” to my mind, or they do not. If they do provide such information, then I perceive the “thing-in-itself” by means of my senses. In the case of sight, I perceive the “thing-in-itself” by means of emitted light being reflected off of the object and its surroundings, being absorbed by my retina, processed by my optic nerve and brain. The self-evident object of my sight is the “thing-in-itself,” which turns out simply to be synonymous with the “thing.” This case corresponds to the Objectivist axiom that “Consciousness perceives existence.”

If my senses do not provide information about the “thing-in-itself” to my mind, and everything external to my mind is a “thing-in-itself,” (only becoming an “appearance,” unrelated to the “thing-in-itself,” within my mind) then the only thing I have any information about is my own mind. I am lost in a solipsistic dead end of my mind thinking about itself thinking about nothing: a process of thought processing itself processing nothing; “consciousness” without any thing to be conscious of. This case corresponds to the effective denial of the axiom that “Consciousness perceives existence.”

Kant’s notion of a sensorially unknowable “thing-in-itself” is an attempt to “have perception and eat it too.” He is attempting to say “Yes, there are external things that humans perceive. But no, we can gain no information about these things by perception.” Or, in other words, “Yes, we perceive external things, but no, we don’t perceive external things.”

The negative side of this contradiction dominates in Kant’s philosophy and forms the basis of his “Copernican Revolution,” in which “objects conform to our knowledge,” [“appearances”] but we can’t have any sensory contact with actual, external things [“things-in-themselves”.]

This is why Ayn Rand wrote of Kant:

His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.

This inability to know the true reality of “things-in-themselves,” says Kant, opens the door for faith:

“I have found it necessary to deny knowledge, … in order to make room for faith.”

(The last word is sometimes translated as “belief,” but the context makes it clear that Kant means sheer belief, without any objective justification, based solely on personal feelings. So “faith” is a good translation.)

If you keep these points in mind when reading any of Ayn Rand’s other comments about Kant, you should see that she’s quite accurate about him when you strip away all of his extra verbiage and obfuscation and focus on the essentials of his system.

If one can show that the conclusion of Kant’s argument implies a self-contradiction, then one has a reductio, and there is no need to go through the argument point-by-point to show were Kant went wrong in his reasoning. One can do a postmortem of that kind, if one is interested, but it isn’t necessary to know that the conclusion has been refuted. (Note also that a contradiction of one of the axioms is a form of self-contradiction, since the axioms must be accepted in any attempt to deny them.)

…the entire sensory fields of the so-called “secondary properties” (of color, scent, taste, and so forth), which we are told do not belong in the external world regarded in itself and yet which we situate there in our perceptual understanding.

These “secondary properties” are part of the form in which we perceive the objects, including their properties, actions and relationships. The objects are the things that are perceived, and the form is how we perceive them, (or the way in which we perceive them.) We see the ball. (object of perception) And we see the ball as blue. (form of perception) We taste the cinnamon roll. (object of perception) And we taste the cinnamon roll as sweet. (form of perception)

For more on this, I refer you to David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses.

/u/wokeupabug responded to my last comment, but it’s a weak response that does not even attempt to comprehend what I refer to as perception. All it does is repeat the same misconceptions and attempt to obfuscate the essential issue at hand with Kant’s rationalizations. You can read it if you like here.

Addendum: In response to this blog post, another reddit user questioned my dismissal of /u/wokeupabug’s response to my last comment. I gave a substantive response, so I’ll repost those comments here:

Him: 

In your blog post you quote a discussion you had with /u/wokeupabug but then at the end you say this:

/u/wokeupabug responded to my last comment, but it’s a weak response that does not even attempt to comprehend what I refer to as perception. All it does is repeat the same misconceptions and attempt to obfuscate the essential issue at hand with Kant’s rationalizations. You can read it if you like.

That doesn’t seem very charitable at all, and after reading through it, he seems to be quite comprehensively addressing what you were saying. Perhaps you could explain in what ways he isn’t addressing it? What misconceptions do you mean? And what obfuscation do you have in mind?

Sword_of_Apollo:

I said:

Optical illusions are extrospective, and so are a form of perceiving some object. I cannot actually see the seemingly bent pencil in water apart from the pencil and the water. I see the whole physical situation by means of the light travelling to my eye. But for me to actually see this scene, the objects must be present, and their actual properties are involved in making them look the way they do.

In regard to perception and the “thing-in-itself”: Perception is the receipt of information about an external object by a mind. The whole process of the transfer of that information is the process of perception. There is no other sense in which I’m using “perception,” so there’s no equivocation.

Rather than taking a step back and saying, “Huh, that’s an interesting view of what perception is. Let me investigate this further by asking /u/Sword_of_Apollo to clarify, or reading the free online book, The Evidence of the Senses by David Kelley,” /u/wokeupabug persisted in taking representationalism for granted and reasserted that there is “a meaningful difference between the state made immediately present to us in conscious awareness and the external object…”. As a professional in philosophy, /u/wokeupabug should know better than to take representationalism for granted, and doing so obfuscates the issue of perception.

Let me be as clear and explicit as I can about this: I reject representationalism of any sort, including when it goes by the name of “Sense-Data Theory.” The immediate object of our conscious awareness is the object out there, in its full physical context.

I deny that I am a “homunculus” within myself watching “sense data”; I am I. And I consider it nonsensical to say, in any sense, that I am literally perceiving my own perceptions. I am perceiving external objects in their physical situation; that is, information about (from) those objects is being transmitted to my mind.

Perception is not a static awareness of “mental states,” but a process with extramental entities as the objects being processed. (If, somehow, time were frozen such that there was no change in a sphere centered around a man’s body, he would not be conscious, because the processes that constitute his consciousness would be stopped. No light would be entering his eyes and no visual processing could occur in his brain.)

Consider an analogy for the process of perception: A piece of denim goes through a factory process that makes it into a pair of jeans. The object of the process is this piece of denim; it is the thing on which the process works–the input. It is analogous to the physical object being perceived. The process that turns the denim into jeans is analogous to the process of light reflection, retinal absorption, brain processing, etc. The freshly-made pair of jeans is analogous to my awareness of the object of perception (the piece of denim.) The pair of jeans in storage is analogous to my memory of seeing the denim.

I must stress here that the pair of jeans is my conscious awareness of the denim: It makes no sense to say that one must perceive one’s awareness, just as it makes no sense to say that the jeans need further processing before they can become jeans. This nonsense is what representationalism puts forward, and it is what /u/wokeupabug takes for granted: (“…your equivocal use of the term “perception” to refer to these two very different ideas: [perception] of what is immediately given in conscious awareness and [perception] of the external object which is the cause of this conscious awareness…”)

Differences in an object’s appearance from moment to moment mean that the means by which I am seeing that object has changed in some way, (for example, different light reflection/refraction, angle of view, etc.)

As I said to /u/wokeupabug:

“[S]econdary properties” are part of the form in which we perceive the objects, including their properties, actions and relationships. The objects are the things that are perceived, and the form is how we perceive them, (or the way in which we perceive them.) We see the ball. (object of perception) And we see the ball as blue. (form of perception) We taste the cinnamon roll. (object of perception) And we taste the cinnamon roll as sweet. (form of perception)

“That pencil in water is bent,” is a conceptual misidentification of a wordless, stereoscopic view on the world (perception) that is self-evidently and immediately given to you. What we call “optical illusions” are simply perceptions of external things that we consider unusual or difficult to interpret, conceptually.

Kant used the widespread errors of Descartes, the British empiricists, and others–including their acceptance of representationalism–to push people into a system that effectively makes consciousness the master of (“phenomenal”) reality, (his “Copernican Revolution.”) He says, in effect, “Your mental representations are all you have in reasoning about sensory reality, and they are governed by your innate ideas (Categories, Space and Time.) You cannot really get at the external reality of things-in-themselves, unless it’s by an unprovable subjective feeling that it’s right; that is, by faith. Morality, God and free will are not natural or sense-based phenomena and cannot be objectively proven by reference to such, but they belong to our inner, subjective world. (Oh, and by the way, it is objectively necessary for you to accept these things that are alien to Pure Reason and don’t constitute knowledge, because you can’t exercise Practical Reason without them. (This is my way of saying that we have to make up garbage and lie to ourselves to get along in life.)”

—–

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The Axioms of Objectivism

Ontology and The Problem of Universals: An Objectivist Comments

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

QuickPoint 5: Any Claim to a Probability is Also a Claim to a Certainty

The Arbitrary (from The Objectivism Seminar)

2 thoughts on “A Critique of Kant on the Noumenal World / Phenomenal World Distinction (“Thing-in-Itself” vs “Appearance”)

  1. It’s interesting re. Kant. The major tradition of interpretation (which Rand obviously followed – main contemporary representative being Paul Guyer) has him as an Idealist, but since he denied that he was an Idealist many times, there’s a minority interpretation of him (main representative being Henry Allinson) that tries to take him seriously in that denial, and emphasizes that he was an Empirical Realist, and that the “Transcendental Idealism” that pairs with that, refers simple to questions about God, the world as a whole, etc. (those are the things that have a purely ideal, not an empirical, interpretation).

    Under this alternative interpretation of him, the “thing in itself” is actually more comparable to the Objectivist notion of “intrinsic”, and the things we experience are real objects, independent of us, nothing is hidden from us, it’s just that we can only conceive of objects insofar as they may be objects of possible experience (i.e. in conceptual terms that are drawn from experience, and in terms of what’s necessary for experience to be possible). Re. the noumenal, that term refers to things conceived in an “intrinsic” sense with a direct faculty of knowing similar to God’s – that’s what he was denying we have access to.

    The key would be that what “awoke him from his slumbers” re. Hume was that he realized the whole idea of “representation” as that had hitherto been put forward in the tradition from Descartes, to Berkeley and Locke and Leibniz and Hume, that Kant had worked in up to that point, in terms of which we perceive only perceptions, experience only experiences, was wrong.

    This would mean, in essence, that he’s actually more like Thomas Reid (with Reid’s “common sense” being akin to the inbuilt Categories), and ironically enough, also a bit like Objectivism (with both of these being akin to the Axioms). IOW, when he called his system Empirical Realism, he meant precisely that the Real is what we encounter in experience, not something intrinsic “behind” what we experience in any way, and in this he was going AGAINST the tradition that takes “experience” to refer to an interposed medium, the representation, that’s the only thing we’re immediately aware of.

    So in this interpretation, the confusion re. his writing arises because he’s using jargon from the tradition he’s “awakened” from, to critique it (and from the older, scholastic traditions at the same time, which he’s also criticizing). Hence it’s possible to sort of “oscillate” in one’s reading of him – sometimes you can indeed read him as if he were an Idealist, but if you key into him not being a Cartesian (i.e. that being the tradition he’s trying to get away from) then those same passages can look quite Objectivist, just in a confusing jargon.

    For this interpretation, I would highly recommend Arthur W. Collins excellent “Possible Experience”. It’s not a comprehensive book, but it goes very deep on a few important points. Here’s the first page of a laudatory review just to get a feel of it:- https://www.jstor.org/stable/3541784?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    That said, while if this interpretation were true he’s one of the most misunderstood philosophers in history, it’s still true that he did have a belief in God and wanted to “deny reason” to make room for “faith” re. God, and it’s still true that how this affected his altruistic moral philosophy did tremendous harm, and it’s still unfortunately true that the Idealist interpretation of him (what many subsequent philosophers THOUGHT he was saying, and used his authority to bolster) re. epistemology, even though it’s a faux philosophy that he didn’t mean, has done tremendous harm.

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