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Tallis in Wonderland

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An Overdue Appearance of Immanuel Kant

Raymond Tallis introduces a giant of philosophy to Wonderland.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) has had scarcely a walk-on part in this column. This is a serious omission: the Sage of Königsberg has a position in European philosophy similar to that occupied by Johann Sebastian Bach in Western classical music. Like Bach, Kant in some sense gathered up all that came before him and has been a decisive influence on all that followed him.

His work has been an important presence in my life since my teens. My paperback copy of the classic Kemp Smith translation of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), purchased in the late Sixties, shows signs of intense study. Much sellotape has been applied to the cover, the spine is wizened by cracks, and every page bears biro marks of intense attention – underlinings and marginal notes and explanations to self. Reading the Critique was clearly an important experience to me, though, disturbingly, I remember nothing of it.

Over the subsequent half-century, other writers have prompted me to engage indirectly with the Critique. Highlights include P.F. Strawson’s famous response The Bounds of Sense (1966), Quentin Meillassoux’ penetrating analysis After Finitude (2008), where Kant is rejected for his ‘correlationist’ refusal to separate objective reality from subjective experience, and Sebastian Gardner’s engrossing, closely-argued Guide to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1999), which I have just finished.

The latter made clear something that may justify Kant’s virtual absence from Wonderland. His thought is not only subtle, complex, and profound, but also densely interconnected. His arguments about the nature of reality and the limitations of our access to it, about the self and its freedom, about ethics, and about political philosophy, are all of a piece. You cannot fully understand any part of the mature Kant, without engaging with the whole. Not a philosopher to be trifled with, then, in a column of 1,800 words.

Even so, I cannot resist sharing some thoughts I have had recently, provoked in part by a conversation with Sebastian Gardner that led me to his Guide. It took place mostly at Venice Airport, and it is a miracle that we did not miss our plane. Our dialogue is still ongoing, and I will focus only on the question that has prompted it because I haven’t fully digested Sebastian’s responses, and would almost certainly misrepresent them if I attempted a summary.

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant, the Sage of Königsberg

Kant’s World

Anyone who knows anything about Kant knows that his central idea is that the mind structures our experiences. And since (he argues) all our knowledge begins from experience, the world we take account of in our lives is also shaped by the mind. We do not have access to ‘things-in-themselves’ – denizens of what he calls the ‘noumenal’ realm – reality as it is independent of our experience of it. We have access only to what he called the ‘phenomenal’ world of our experience. Still, we know that there must be things-in-themselves providing the ultimate ground of our experiences, underpinning them. By proclaiming the existence of this underlying reality, Kant distanced his ‘transcendental’ idealism from the straight idealism of Berkeley, for whom the world consists simply of perceptions and perceivers. (Berkeley’s ideas were superbly summarised by Hugh Hunter in ‘Berkeley’s Suitcase’ in last issue’s Philosophy Now.)

There is much that is intuitively attractive in Kant’s arguments. It is obvious that we are not just passive recipients of what is ‘out there’, transparent lenses through which reality passes en route to a mind that is effectively a plane mirror. And his argument that what is really real may be entirely unlike the deliverances of ordinary experience is hardly shocking to anyone accustomed to the world-picture of physics, according to which what is out there is profoundly different from anything we would recognise from daily life. Even so, Kant reaches some strange, indeed outrageous, conclusions, based on his view of the degree to which the mind shapes its own experiences. The shaping activity works at two levels: the imposition on our sensations of what he calls ‘the forms of sensible intuition’ to make them into representations of external objects; and the imposition of the so-called ‘categories’ of understanding on our experiences.

His boldest claim is that space and time are neither substances in themselves nor a set of relations between pre-existing objects, but are the forms of sensible intuition. This means that it is courtesy of the mind that sensory experiences are referred to, or are representations of, enduring objects ‘out there’ located in a unified space and connected by a temporal order. In short, space and time are in the mind.

Almost as bold is his choice of categories, or ‘pure concepts of the understanding’. They’re a varied collection of items; but perhaps the most eye-catching is causality. Kant reported having been woken out of his ‘dogmatic slumber’ by David Hume’s attack on metaphysics, but more specifically by Hume’s critique of the notion of causal necessity as the cement of the universe. For Hume, causal connections are not intrinsic relationships between material events, but generated by the mind’s capacity for making associations between experiences. This capacity leads us to infer from the fact that A has always been seen to be followed by B that A must always be followed by B, and this because A has the causal power to bring about B. Kant agreed with Hume that causation was not inherent in an extra-mental world, but felt that Hume had not gone far enough. It was not only the putative causal relationship between A and B, but also their location and spatial and temporal relations, that were constructed by the mind.

More (seemingly) outrageous conclusions follow. What appear to be independently-constituted external objects, with a multitude of properties and enduring over time – and, indeed, the unity of the world itself – all require “the synthetic power of the mind.” This power is manifest in “the unity of apperception,” which we might see as the binding of an individual’s perceptions of the world into a single coherent picture. This, says Kant, is underwritten by the ‘I think’ that accompanies all our perceptions. This line of thought took him to his most startling conclusion: that “the synthetic power of the mind is the lawgiver of nature.”

It would be foolish to mock this last assertion by asking whether, say, the General Theory of Relativity was arrived at by collective introspection. This would not do justice to what is admirable in Kant; namely the depth at which he addressed questions such as ‘How can I know what is outside of myself?’ The bankruptcy of the favourite contemporary answer - that we know the world outside us because it is represented inside us by neural activity triggered by what is outside of us – should warn us against condescension. And there are many other reasons for taking Kant’s ideas seriously enough to challenge their implications. Let me focus on one that has been preoccupying me.

A Critique of The Critique

Kant argued that pure sensations without concepts (that is, without the categories of the understanding) are ‘blind’, and that concepts without sensory content – products of the pure operation of the intellect – are ‘empty’. There’s consequently nothing to be said about the things-in-themselves, independent of our sensations of them, since they can be thought about only through the pure intellect. Nevertheless – and this is a key concession, and a source of vulnerability for Kant’s system – the noumenal realm must be the ultimate ground of experiences, of the phenomenal world we know and live in. If there were no such ground, we would be back with Berkeleian idealism. But what exactly do noumena do? Clearly the noumenal realm cannot cause the contents of the phenomenal realm, because causation belongs exclusively to the phenomenal realm, being one of the categories of the understanding that shape our experienced world. Is there any other sense in which the phenomena are underpinned, or somehow justified, by the noumena? Given that the latter share none of the properties of the phenomenal realm, not even fundamental ones such as location in space and time, it is difficult to see what work the thing-in-itself does. In what respect does it determine, or constrain, experience?

The question comes into even sharper focus if we think about space and time and ask whether the Kantian mind can be an individual consciousness, or must be mind-in-general. My world is characterised by objects that are present to me; some near at hand and others that are remote. Other objects lie beyond my experience. Your world has different contents. What explains my experiencing the desk on which I am writing, and not experiencing the Battle of Hastings or a rock on the far side of the Moon? It can’t be something imposed by my individual mind, for we are asking what makes my mind individual. So there must be extra-mental, indeed extra-experiential, grounds for my experiencing my desk and not the Battle of Hastings, and indeed, underpinning the difference between a true experience and an hallucination, or an experience and the mere idea of an experience. The difference must be due, at least chiefly, to where my body is. But since to Kant my body, being an object located in space and time, is not a native of the noumenal realm, it cannot play any part in grounding my experiences and explaining why I experience this rather than that. If, on the other hand, we think of spatio-temporal location as a function of mind-in-general rather than of individual consciousnesses, there is no basis for the allocation of distinct phenomenal worlds to individual subjects, and for the privileging of certain items to be experienced. There seem to be no grounds for the desk at which I am working being located near to me but distant from you, and even more distant from William the Conqueror. Mind-in-general is not anchored in any (particular) where.

It is starting to look as if the noumenal realm is not only unknowable but featureless, and not only featureless but functionless. This may not be altogether surprising, given that Kant’s starting point is that all our knowledge comes from experience, which, by definition, is phenomenal. This implies that we can’t get to know the reality underpinning our experience, even less the means by which it underpins it. We cannot get past our experience to have empirical knowledge of what lies beyond it. (This is a message lost on those who think they can point to brain activity to completely explain experience, or who look to the general properties of matter to understand the totality of things, including ourselves who do the understanding.)

Kant’s mind-bogglingly complex arguments are a way of saying how, while we are not imprisoned by our experiences, we cannot get outside of them because they are that in virtue of which there is ‘outside’. And his Critique reminds us that reason can point to places where there is nothing that can be known, and nevertheless can raise questions that will fruitfully disturb us without obliging us, or philosophy, to answer them.

If I have recently understood this more clearly, it is thanks to Sebastian Gardner’s Guide and our still-ongoing discussion. I intend to return to that tattered paperback. Kant may not have made his last appearance in Wonderland.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2017

Raymond Tallis’s latest book The Mystery of Being Human: God, Freedom and the NHS was published in September. His website is


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