SHADOWS

KANT: HOW DO WE KNOW THAT WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) spent most of his life in his native Konigsberg, in East Prussia. He was raised as a Pietist, a Lutheran sect more concerned with moral duty than with religious doctrine. This upbringing, along with his reading of Rousseau (who championed freedom of the will) and his reverence for the goodness of common ordinary persons, gave Kant's thinking a primarily ethical slant. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was written to show the limits of theoretical reason in order to make room for "moral faith." According to Kant, the sphere of morality is not a sphere of knowledge. This, in his view, protects morality against encroachments by natural science, for which all things are determined by natural laws; for natural science does not discover "freedom" (the basis of moral action) in nature. Kant places freedom beyond and apart from science or knowledge in order to save moral faith in freedom from denial by scientific determinism.

Question: Do physical and behavioral sciences still hold a "deterministic" view? Discuss. How would such a view affect human persons' attitude toward themselves?

2. The word "Critique" in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason does not mean "passing negative judgment." Like the Platonic sense of "definition," it means to show limits and boundaries, to survey. Kant intends to survey or stake out the proper domain of knowledge and to lay to rest the pretense of philosophy to explain all things dogmatically. Like Socrates, Kant intends to define the limitations of human knowledge, the difference between human and "superhuman" kinds of knowledge, the "fence" between what can and cannot be known. Human knowledge is earthly knowledge; it is inseparable from experience.

3. In Kant's view, Descartes and other "rationalists" overestimated the power of reason, assuming an almost "divine point of view." The mere presence in the mind of clear and distinct "ideas" of God and the soul is, according to Descartes, "evidence" of the existence of real things corresponding to such ideas. For Kant, it is presumptuous to believe that "thinking something" makes it exist. For Kant, human reason cannot "see" supersensible entities; it does not in fact see anything. It merely "thinks" or plays with ideas and then falsely concludes that these "speculations" must correspond to real things. On the other hand, in Kant's view, empiricists, who believed the human mind to be a "blank tablet" (such as John Locke), underestimated the role of reason in the "building" of knowledge. According to Kant, the human mind is not passively formed by objects of perception; it actively "forms" the raw material of objects given in perception. It adds something of its own to knowledge. Kant endeavored to make clear once and for all the precise role the human knower plays in determining the "production" of knowledge.

4. Kant is in agreement with Descartes and Hobbes that objects of nature are determined by mechanical laws. But he disagrees with Descartes' claim to prove the existence of a separate realm of mind or absolute freedom, and he disagrees with Hobbes' view that there can be no such thing as spiritual substance. Kant maintains that the soul and freedom do exist, but that their existence can be neither proved nor disproved. The standard fare of metaphysics is beyond the scope of human experience and is therefore beyond the bounds of knowledge. For proof and disproof apply only to what can be sensibly experienced, and we cannot see the soul. Yet it is presumptuous to assume, because we cannot see something, that it does not exist. According to Kant, there are things that cannot be known. In fact all things, as they are in themselves and not as we reconstruct them in experience, are unknowable. We can only know things as they appear to us and are constituted in our consciousness. In this way, Kant corrects the error of both dogmatic rational metaphysics (such as in Descartes) and dogmatic scientific determinism (such as Hobbes). Kant confines knowledge to appearances and places things as they really are outside of appearances. Science is not reality; it is simply the best interpretation of reality. Beyond this interpretation is the thing in itself, an inscrutable and unknowable mystery or "X" or "?".

Question: What is wrong with both "dogmatic rationalism" and "dogmatic empiricism"?
5. Thus, Kant saves the "soul" from determinism by making the soul inaccessible to experience, by establishing an unbridgable chasm between man's empirical or "natural" appearance and his "genuine" moral and spiritual personality. It is like the citizen who is protected by being exiled. In this sense, Kant saves man's moral freedom and dignity at the expense of alienating personality from empirical ego and the subject from the world as it really is. The world as it really is and the self as it really is are outside of experience. From the standpoint of the aesthetic (our contact with the world), we touch the world, but what we touch eludes us. Our very touching adds subjective content that alters and "filters" things as they really are.
Question: If one follows Kant, what happens to the possibility of knowing things, persons, even oneself as they really are? What are some of the possible consequences of this view?
Question: Compare Kant's view to Werner Heisenberg's "indeterminacy principle," which states that the instruments we use to look at subatomic particles alters their behavior, so that we never see things as they really are.

6. Descartes initiated a dualism of inner and outer, mind and body, knowledge and practice. Kant overcomes this dualism with a new dualism -- the dualism of reality and appearance. According to Kant, there is a difference between the way things are in themselves (reality) and the way things appear to us. We cannot know things as they really are in themselves (noumena); we only know them as appearances (phenomena). Knowledge is not the transparent viewing of "bare facts." The mind is not a window, through which objects pass unaltered. Rather, knowledge is the making of a product. The mind converts the raw material of beings as they are into the finished product of objects, or beings as they are for us in perception and knowledge. To know is to reconstruct, to interpret reality. Knowledge is objective interpretation of reality, but it is not reality itself. According to Kant, human knowledge is a process that includes both sensibility (perception) and understanding (conception).

7. Sensibility is not the same thing as "sensation." Sensation is the chaotic array of impressions given by the senses. Sensibility gives order to these impressions; it arranges them next to one another in space and before and after one another in time. Sensibility is the perception of things in space and time. Space and time are not real things or "things in themselves" apart from the act of perceiving; they are frameworks or "forms" supplied by the perceiving subject. Space and time are ways we experience reality; they are not reality itself. But Kant maintains that even though space and time are subjective (human) ways of ordering sensations, they are nevertheless "objectively subjective." Apart from accidental differences, all human perceivers intuit space and time in the same way. To perceive is to perceive spatially and temporally; that is simply the way humans are made.

Question: Do you agree with Kant that space and time are not real things, but are modes of experience? What are space and time? What does contemporary physics have to say about these things?
8. Space is outer sense or the form of outer sensibility. It is the "outside," the "out-there" of things next to one another over against a "here" or the point of view of the one perceiving. The perceiver is here; the perceived is there. Whatever we experience is part of a "there." We cannot perceive what is not in space, because perception is the projection of space, the context of sensible impressions. Thus, everything perceived is "spatial." Perception means perspective (the same in all human perceivers), stretching between the here of the center (point of view) and the there of objects (things coming into view). Space is the "view" of things that come into view. It is pure "outwardness" or externality. All outward things that we experience are located in this field; there are situated somewhere in the field stretching from here to there. Geometry is based on the pure intuition of space, i.e. possible space or space in the abstract. Geometry is the measure of possible objects of experience in space. Geometry is valid for all objects of experience, because both experience of external objects and geometry are based of the same subjective form of space. Geometry and perception are both constructions based on the same subjective "frame of reference."
Question: How is geometry based on space? Why is it objective and universally valid?
9. Time is inner sense. It is the form of "inner sensibility." It is the framework of "before and after" that the subject experiences in himself as a succession of "nows." To perceive things in time is to put things in the perspective of before and after, to locate things within a succession of nows. Every point in time is either a then (a "past now") or a now. The present "now" is the reference point for every then. Time is not a thing in itself, but an inner counting of nows (like the ticking of a clock), the constant passing of now into then. The now and then of subjective experience includes both the passing psychological states of the subject as empirical ego (the self as it appears in time) as well as the changing states or motions of external objects. Time is not a "thing in itself." Time is subjective; it is the form which the perceiving subject gives to everything it experiences. Even the subject's experience of himself is that of an object located in time. The subject never experiences himself as beyond time, nor as an immaterial being or soul independent of bodies in motion; for experience means perceiving oneself and all things according to forms of space and time. Time, like space, is "subjectively objective." We all have the same inner sense of time. Our nows and thens may be different, but the way they succeed one another is the same. Arithmetic is based on this inner counting of time. Arithmetic is valid for all sciences because it is based on the same framework of time that is the basis of experience. Pure mechanics or pure physical science (apart from particular objects) is the putting together of pure geometry and pure arithmetic, i.e. it puts together principles discovered in the analysis of pure space and time.
Question: Do you agree with Kant's analysis of time? Is "subjective time" based on clocks or do clocks only make sense on the basis of the subjective human experience of time?
10. One must keep in mind that the "I" of the here and now as opposed to the then and there is not the I as it really is, as a thing in itself. The polarity of perceiver and perceived arises in the act of perception. But the real self, as it is in itself, is not simply a perceiver; it is not the same as its appearance to itself as a perceiver (or as a perceived). In the same way, things as they are in themselves are not simply objects of perception (spatialized and temporalized). The I, as it really is, is not in time and space, for time and space are subjective ways of perceiving. But we have no way of knowing or perceiving this I as it really is, for knowing and perceiving always come up with an empirical ego, an "observable" I. Thus for Kant, unlike Descartes, there is no direct evidence of one's own soul as spiritual substance or pure mind. Not only the "souls" of others hide from our view, but even our own soul fails to "appear." For every appearance is a locus within space and time. Introspection or "looking at ourselves" tells us little more about ourselves than we can learn of others. The I as it is in itself is different from the ego as an object of empirical psychology. Looking at oneself is not the way to discover that one has a soul.
Question: What is the effect of Kant's analysis on the dualism of Descartes?

11. But sensibility by itself is not knowledge. Knowledge requires a further processing of the material of sensation. For example, seeing one billiard ball strike another is different from judging that one billiard ball caused the other to move. For Kant, knowledge means science; science is the interpretation of experience according to categories or rules. The laws of physics are the result of judgments based on experience. What categorizes or classifies or "objectifies" the data of perception is the understanding. The understanding judges or "categorizes" what is perceived according to twelve basic concepts or "rules." These concepts are not "things in themselves" any more than space and time are things in themselves; they are forms for organizing experience. They are grouped under four basic headings:

Categories of the Understanding
As to: Quantity - Quality - Relation - Modality
Unity (Measure) Reality Substance Possibility
Plurality (Magnitude) Negation Cause Existence
Totality (Whole) Limitation Community Necessity

These concepts or categories are meant to be applied to objects of experience. They are for interpreting experience. For example, the concept of "causality" enables us to judge the relation between real events in space and time. We do not merely experience objects as next to one another and before and after, but we experience objects as acting upon one another in cause and effect relation- ships. Scientific judgment interprets what is experienced out there (bodies in motion) and what is experienced in here (psychological states) as belonging to an unbroken chain of causes and effects. The understanding orders experience under the category of causality. But "cause" is not a thing in itself; it is an organizing principle. Thus, the subject who examines objects of nature finds that they conform to laws of nature -- i.e., they act predictably or causally upon one another. Moreover, the subject who examines his own inner psychological states discovers the same sort of cause and effect relation. One's psychological life, as interpreted by understanding, appears to be completely determined by pre-existing conditions. We find causality in experience because understanding puts it there. With the two billiard balls, one is not really a "cause" and the other is not merely an "effect." Cause and effect are the way we understand and interpret their relation to one another.
Question: What happens if one asserts that everyone "forms" knowledge by means of "categories" or "rules," but that these, whether learned or innate, are not the same in all human beings?
12. This does not mean that the understanding is not tempted to use concepts to go beyond objects of experience. Indeed, one can think independently of sensible experience. One can think -- i.e., put together pure concepts of understanding without reference to perception in space and time; but such thinking does not produce knowledge. It is merely "speculative" or "dialect- ical." Traditional Metaphysics is the illicit use of concepts apart from application to experience. The concepts of the understanding become, in traditional Metaphysics, a playground of idle speculation. One can rearrange the concepts in any way one wishes; one can think whatever one wants. But the result is not knowledge. For knowledge requires that theories be verified by sensible experience. Knowledge is always tied to perception; it combines both understanding and sensibility. An object of knowledge is always at the same time an object that can be tied to a sensible intuition -- a percept (what is sensed). Traditional Metaphysics thought that the understanding can see things that the senses cannot, that the senses see a visible world whereas the mind sees an intelligible world (such as Plato or Descartes). For example, because it is possible to think of a cause that is not itself an effect of another cause, even though experience of nature reveals no such cause, Metaphysicians thought they had proved "freedom" or "God" and the like. But for Kant, all seeing is sensible; the mind does not see apart from the senses; it only makes sense of, categorizes, and interprets what is given through the senses. The mere putting together of concepts like "first cause," "necessary existence," etc. is idle speculation or mere thinking.
Question: If "mere dialectic" does not result in knowledge, what happens to philosophy as dialectic (weighing of alternative views)? Must philosophy give way to science?
13. Thus, one can think that the soul or freedom or God exists, but this thought cannot be linked to a sensible object. Therefore, the existence of non-sensible "objects" cannot be proved. On the other hand, such things cannot be disproved either. Because they are thinkable, they might theoretically exist. Only the clearly unthinkable can be false -- such as a square circle. Freedom, one should note, is both possible and thinkable, for one can think of a cause that is not itself an effect of another cause, a "pure spontaneity," even if such a thought cannot be verified by experience.
Question: Why is it important that freedom be thinkable? Reread the introductory quotation. Discuss.
14. Just as sensibility reveals the polarity of perceiver and perceived, so judgment or knowledge reveals the polarity of subject and object. The subject is the "I think" to which all objects are referred. But to be (as human personality) is not simply to be a "subject," a knower. Human beings as things in themselves (and not as they appear) are not simply thinking things (as Descartes believed). The subject -- the knowing and thinking I -- is not the I as it is in itself. Subject, like object, arises in the act of knowing or judging; it is a phenomenon. The genuine I as it is in itself does not appear in knowledge. The subject is but one polarity of the interpretation structure of knowledge; in that sense, it is part of the interpretation.
Question: How does this revise Descartes' priorities? If humans are not merely perceivers or knowers, what are they?
15. Besides sensibility and understanding, there is a third faculty -- the faculty of reason. Reason attempts to unify all objects of knowledge and judgments of experience under general principles or simple ideas. Reason aims at complete knowledge; it runs far ahead of understanding working slowly with sensible intuitions. It anticipates perfect knowledge. It envisions a coherent and orderly whole (a system). Thus, it motivates inquiry and investigation. It foresees unity and thereby stimulates the pursuit of knowledge. The ideas or ideals of reason, the unities anticipated by reason, are the idea of the soul (as the completely understood subject), the world (as the completely understood nexus of causes and effects), and God (as absolute perfection). All of these ideas or ideals point beyond experience and stimulate inquiry; they promote life. But they may or may not correspond to things in themselves. The purpose of reason is to assist understanding and perception, by giving them unity -- as projecting and anticipating ideal conditions. But reason can know nothing by itself. It merely brings unity to experience. The soul is the projected point of completion of all psychological inquiry, the idea of the self as a thing in itself. But knowledge never reaches such completion, for knowledge is, as before stated, a complex product. It never grasps a simple "unprocessed" essence. Yet the goal of knowledge is precisely the simple and the unprocessed. The same conditions hold for their attempt to understand the world as a whole and to grasp the absolute. The purpose of reason is to dream and to believe in its dreams, but dreaming is not knowing. Where "rationalism" or the unbridled use of reason fails is in its attempt to do the impossible, to link the ideas to real supersensible realities or things in themselves.
Question: Why is reason, as the idealizing faculty, necessary for both scientific inquiry and moral practice? How can it be misused?
16. Kant believed the judgments of mathematics and Newtonian physics to be instances of genuine knowledge. Mathematics and science are objective and universally valid, because all human beings know in the same way. All human beings possess the same equipment for sensing and understanding. Knowledge is objective if it is the same for all human knowers, if all human beings are universally in agreement. But since this equipment and the way it filters or processes things is a human condition, God (or other possible rational beings) might know things differently. The divine point of view -- for which knowledge is creative and productive -- may be entirely different from a human point of view, which does not "create" things, but creates only the interpretation of things that are already there. Human knowledge is after the fact; divine knowledge is before the fact. Humans know things as they appear (i.e. are processed under forms of space and time and according to categories of the understanding), but God might know things as they are in themselves. Yet, human knowledge, though perhaps inferior to other possible ways of knowing, is valid for all humans. It is objective because all humans "objectify" or make objects in experience in the same way -- humanly.
Question: Was Kant too enamored of Newtonian physics? How does contemporary physics differ from Newtonian physics? How might this change the Kantian view?
Question: Compare Kant's distinction between divine and human knowledge with that of Socrates. Would Socrates agree that human knowledge is but knowledge of appearances? In terms of Plato, is the import of Kant's "phenomenalism" the view that human beings can never leave the "cave"? Or have both life in the cave and life above the cave been redefined?
17. Thus, Newtonian physics works because all human beings experience in the same way. According to Kant, Newtonian physics is a reliable account of the way things are as experienced and processed by human perception and understanding. It is the true interpretation of nature as humanly experienced. But the way we see and understand things is not the way they really are. Objects of knowledge are not things in themselves. Empirical knowledge, the knowledge of appearances or objects, is an "outsider's" knowledge. We do not know things as they are in themselves, but as they are for us. All humans are outsiders insofar as they merely look or observe or understand; even introspection means treating oneself as an object, as outside of oneself. But science is the true and objective account of objects as they show themselves to outsiders.
Question: To what extent is technology, based on scientific interpretations that work, alienated from human and non-human nature as it really is? Does the fact that technology works make us forget that we are outsiders? To what extent does artistic perception and moral practice require an ability to appreciate things or persons "from the inside" or as they really are in themselves? Discuss.
18. One principle of Newtonian physics (or mechanics) is that every effect has a cause. All events are chain-reactions. Whatever happens is part of a tightly woven nexus of causes and effects. In this perspective (in terms of empirical psychology), every human action can be understood as a response to a stimulus (one thinks of B.F. Skinner's theory of behavioral modification), as dependent on some previous conditions. From the standpoint of human psychology, all human behavior is conditioned or determined. One does not act without some reason; one is "moved" by some force or motive or desire or incentive. One's actions are predictable, as long as one knows the pre-existing conditions. What a person is and does is solely a "product" of forces outside of his control; an absolutely free act, from this point of view, is an impossibility. A free or purely spontaneous act would be an effect without a cause. Nature -- as the realm of all objects of experience -- is a realm of determinism. Freedom makes no sense from an empirical point of view.
Question: Does Kant's dualism of reality and appearance save personality (as free) from behaviorisms such as that of B.F. Skinner?

19. But even if we appear to ourselves and to others as determined by factors outside of our control, when we stand back and look at ourselves as objects like other objects, we must keep in mind that the way things look is not the way they are. Thus freedom, which represents nothing in experience, may be something real that cannot be known. In the same way, the "soul," as substance not existing in space and time, might also be real. But this also we cannot know. Human beings, as things-in-themselves, may be in fact free beings, who can act spontaneously and despite conditions, but whose "behavior" is interpreted and constructed by perception and understanding so that it always "appears" determined. The human mind, when it looks at objects, when it "objectifies," always views through filters of space and time, cause and effect. "Mere looking" will never reveal real being. "Mere looking" is not being. Action is different from looking at action. One must look to Kant's ethics, in his Critique of Practical Reason, for an account of human freedom and human personality.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What is the purpose of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason?

2. What is Kant's fundamental attitude?

3. Compare Kant's "critique" to Plato's "definition." Does Plato compartmentalize knowledge and morality? Explain.

4. What are "rationalism" and "empiricism"? Discuss Kant's response to rationalism and empiricism.

5. Describe Kant's dualism and how it differs from Descartes' dualism.

6. How might Kant's dualism lead to contemporary alienation between the person and non-human nature, between the person and society, between the person and himself? To what extent is the human person "out of touch" or alienated from his environment?

7. Describe how sensibility receives the "data" of sensation.

8. Describe how the understanding "acts upon" the material of sensible experience.

9. If one accepts Kant's view that knowledge is constituted by the individual knower and one denies that all human knowers know in the same way, what happens to the objectivity of knowledge?

10. Would Kant agree of disagree with Hobbes' view of determinism? Explain.

11. What is the basis of the validity of arithmetic, geometry, and mechanistic natural science? Explain.

12. Compare Kant and Descartes with regard to the possibility of self-awareness.

13. Does Kant believe that the existence of God and of the human soul can be proved? Explain.

14. In what sense is a behaviorist empirical psychology correct, according to Kant?

15. Discuss the importance of the category of causality.

16. What is the proper use of reason? How may reason be misused?

17. How does the "I" appear? What is the "I" as it is in itself?

18. If the existence of the real I or "self" is beyond experience and cannot be known, but only "believed in," why cannot we simply deny its existence altogether?

19. What happens if Kant's subjective "forms" are retained, but the existence of things in themselves is denied? What do we have? Discuss.

20. Why is Newtonian physics correct? Is it correct for things as they really are? Explain.

21. What is the importance of freedom for Kant?

22. Is aesthetic perception attached to or detached from what is perceived? What are the consequences of such a view?

23. Describe the effect of Kant's view on the self-confidence of modern science. To what extent might Kant's view lead to a radical uncertainty and insecurity with regard to the things that surround us? What are the positive and negative effects of such an uncertainty?

24. To what extent can philosophy not be the same after Kant? In other words, can playing with concepts (dialectic) ever be taken seriously again? Why are humans tempted to "play with concepts" or generalize beyond possible experience about ultimate questions such as the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the possibility of freedom, the meaning of life, etc.? Is it possible or desirable for human beings to stop asking such questions? Do the answers to such questions, however dialectical and controvertible, have some bearing on human life? Discuss.


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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.