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Joshua Mozersky argues that reality itself might be accessible to us.
Immanuel Kant is the grandfather of social constructivism – the theory that people construct reality out of a shared human experience. According to Kant, the world we experience of space, time, matter, and causation, is structured by the human mind. His point is not just that our concepts of the world are determined by our mental architecture. Rather, space, time, matter, and causation themselves are mentally structured kinds.
Kant assumes that the structure of rational thought is universal. Hence, we are not each trapped in an individual reality of our individual making, but instead share a common world of experience. Today, sociologists tend to emphasize the variety of human thought that arises from differences in culture, history, or social position. The result is a more fragmented view of human thought than Kant imagined. Where he saw everyone inhabiting a single mentally constructed reality, many today see us as occupying different realities, each dependent on contingent background features. But this does mean that Kant + contingent variability = social constructivism. Hence, he is the grandfather of social constructivism.
Kant deployed his own ‘constructivism’ to respond to Hume, who argued that the senses can only deliver imperfect information about the view just from your particular perspective and there is no way to push beyond personal experience to knowledge of the universal or general structure of the world. Kant points out that this only follows if we assume that gaining knowledge is a matter of the mind conforming itself to what lies outside of it, and so is separate from it. If, on the other hand, the mind is responsible for the general features of the empirical experience of the world, then we can uncover the large-scale properties of reality from sufficiently critical reflection on the workings of the mind, and in particular, from reason itself.
Consider, for example, geometry. One might construct a proof that the interior angles of a triangle are equivalent to two right angles. This proof is usually carried out a priori, or purely theoretically, by applying logical transformations to Euclid’s geometrical axioms. There is, however, Hume points out, a great mystery as to how the result of such a theoretical process could apply to real space at all. There is an even greater mystery as to how it could accurately capture the structure of huge swaths of space that have never been, and never will be, observed, as we assume it does. How could a mathematical idea have such power and range? It can, Kant argues, if the mind is responsible for both the persuasiveness of geometric reasoning and the structure of space itself. Indeed, the central argument of his Critique of Pure Reason is that because the conceptual structure of the mind is both accessible to rational reflection and responsible for the fundamental organization of empirical reality, it is possible for us to know synthetic (that is, non-self-evident) things about the world through a priori (prior to experience) methods of thought, such as geometry, mathematics, or philosophical reflection.
Kantian Thinking & Beyond
In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant argues (as do more recent scholars, such as Barry Stroud in Engagement and Metaphysical Dissatisfaction, 2011), that fundamental categories of thought such as causal necessitation or difference in number are not just useful but essential for having any coherent idea of the external world. Furthermore, anything beyond a fleeting idea, disconnected from all other cognition, requires that we take some thoughts to be the result of others. There is no possibility of forming a coherent line of reasoning without recognizing such necessity: “Every contingently existing thing has a cause.’ One could never get further than to prove that without this relation we could not comprehend the existence of the contingent at all” (Critique of Pure Reason, B289). In Kant’s terms, this renders causation a transcendent mental category – that is, one presupposed by any mental act. And so it is with all that Kant generally terms ‘categories’.
Proposing that certain categories are essential for the very possibility of rational thought can look much like the proposition that our knowledge of the world is mediated by such categories – that is, that they stand between us and the experienced world. Many Kant scholars interpret him this way. For an example from this very magazine:
“When the mind looks at the world, it has no choice but to view it with ideas that are built into the mind… they come before any experience and they shape the experiences we subsequently have… And what follows from that is that we can have no direct knowledge of the world as it is before this mediation has happened.”
‘Kant and the Thing in Itself’ by Ralph Blumenau, Philosophy Now Issue 31, 2001.
That Kant distinguishes the world as it is in itself – the unconditioned or noumenal world – from the world as structured and experienced by us – the phenomenal world – suggests that things in themselves are unknowable because knowing them would require that we gain access to the world independently of that which is essential for any possible access to it, namely the categories of thought. But there is something important here that we should not overlook. Even if Kant is right that rational thought presupposes or is in some other way impossible without fundamental categories such as causal necessity, it does not follow that the world in itself is inaccessible to the mind. For even when something does mediate between a knowing subject and their object of knowledge, it is possible that the mediator clarifies rather than distorts, informs rather than misleads.
Take, for example, eyeglasses. If I were to remove my glasses, my access to the outside world would be diminished; I would lose information that I am able to gather when my glasses are on my face. In this case, inserting a medium between myself and the trees across the street is a way for me to know them better. Or consider that without telescopes we would lack most of our current knowledge of distant stars and galaxies. We could use our astronomical theories to deduce some general conclusions about celestial bodies, but without visual instruments, the details would be nothing but guesswork. Nonetheless, the fact that we can see the distant heavens only through telescopes does not entail that we only see the telescopes. Of course, things such as glasses and telescopes are not essential or universal media of experience and thought, as categories such as causation are supposed to be. But let’s extend the analogy, and consider eyes themselves. Without eyes, we would gain no visual information about our surroundings, whereas with eyes, that information is available. So even though our eyes are mediators between ourselves and the world, it does not follow that they fail to deliver information about the world. It is a logical possibility that glasses, telescopes, and even eyes cut us off from, or deeply distort, the world they reveal; but the mere fact that access to something involves a mediating structure does not entail that the object itself is inaccessible. It could be, for example, that the mind evolved to be receptive to the spatial form of the external world, and the eyes to deliver information of that very form.
Image © Laura Mckenzie 2022. Follow her on Instagram @Laur_art00
Three Possibilities for Access to Reality
If we assume that our access to reality is mediated by categories of thought, as Kant argues, then there are in fact three possibilities concerning what this implies.
First, the mediators could be transparent: although perhaps limited in scope, when working properly they transmit accurate information about independently existing things. If this is so, then we can combine this idea with mathematical and logical principles to construct general theories which can then be tested against observation and experiment to build up knowledge of the mind-independent world. It may take some hard work to figure all of this out, and the results may always be tentative to some degree, but none of that entails that it’s impossible to know reality itself.
Second, the mediators of thought could be translucent, that is, only partially transparent. If this is the case, then we may not know how much of our experience is a projection from the mind, and how much is the appearance of the things themselves. As a result, we should either remain sceptics about knowledge of the world, as Hume argues, or else search for evidence that we have sometimes somehow managed to separate out these two elements. For example, perhaps we can draw reasonable conclusions about what lies beyond the mind from our knowledge of its observed responses in different circumstances, much as we might draw conclusions about what lies outside of windowless walls based on how they shake at different times of day.
Third, the mediators of thought could be opaque. In this case, no information about the true nature of reality as it is in itself gets through, and the mediators and the experiences they generate are all that we can access. If this is the case, then we must assume either that there are no things themselves, or that they make no perceivable contribution to our thought and experience. Either way, they can be safely dropped from consideration.
It is important to note that all three possibilities are compatible with the mind-independent existence of space, time, matter, causation, and whatever else that Kant claims is mind-dependent. In the first two cases, such independent structures make at least some contribution to our experience, and so are potentially knowable. In the third, they make no such contribution. However it does not follow from this last case that these structures fail to exist independently of our minds, for it is possible that we exist in a world whose structure outstrips our capacity to know it. As an illustration, insects inhabit relativistic spacetime yet have no idea that this is the case. Perhaps we are in a similar boat, in some sense.
Kant argues that coherent thought and experience presuppose mental categories; but it does not follow that the mind-independent world is inaccessible, or that the empirical world of space, time, matter, and causation is entirely our free construct. The fact that access to something is mediated does not mean that how it is accessed is entirely a construct of the mediator. On the contrary, it is possible that our mental categories work with our senses to deliver accurate objective information about objects, at least some of the time. In short, Kant has not given us conclusive reason to suppose that our world is entirely of our own making.
© Prof. Joshua Mozersky 2022
Joshua Mozersky is Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.