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Appearance and Reality

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Kant at the Bar: Transcendental Idealism in Daily Life

Patrick Cannon uses a popular setting to explain Kant’s metaphysics.

It’s Friday night and you’re at the bar. It’s packed. You snake through the sea of bodies.

Ah! There’s a free spot!” exclaims your friend, pointing to some stools across the counter. You part your way through a boisterous group of young women, sit down, and catch the bartender’s eye. “Two beers, please,” you say, holding up the peace sign.

“IDs please,” she responds skeptically, holding her hand out.

Uh!” you both harmonize, and dig through your wallets. She examines the two cards, carefully comparing each of you to your state-approved appearance. Finally, the incredulous bartender trades your IDs for two golden glasses of beer.

You toast your friend. You’re glad the week is over, glad you didn’t finally throw your perpetually-jammed printer out the window. Taking a drink of the amber liquid, the carbonation tickles your mouth. There’s a mild burn as you swallow. A group of men are playing pool in the next room, and billiard balls can be faintly heard cracking into one another through the ambient noise. A country song plays on the digital jukebox, but all that can be heard through the fogbank of conversation is a rhythmic drumming and a faint fiddle.

What you might not know is how much the moment is loaded with Kantian philosophy. Sitting at the bar, drinking a beer, thinking about the bartender who just carded you, are all perfect illustrations of Immanuel Kant’s ‘transcendental idealism’. For example, the bartender examining the correlation between you and your driver’s license photo was wondering if the appearances laid before her – concerning both you and your ID – are an informative portrayal of reality. In other words, does either the appearance of you being over twenty-one, or your ID saying that you are, genuinely reflect whether you are actually over twenty-one? In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant was challenged with a similar question: ‘Is appearance a reasonable reflection of reality?’ He asked this on the way to answering the further question, ‘Can we know what things are like beyond their appearance to us, that is, in and of themselves?’ Kant is famous for concluding ‘No’ – that despite what we might think, there’s very little we can know about what reality is like in and of itself, either from its appearance to us, or from any other source.

But what does this mean, ‘reality in and of itself?’

The word Kant uses for a thing in and of itself, is ‘thing-in-itself’ (‘ding-an-sich’); and the collective word for reality as it is in itself is ‘noumenon, taken from the Greek word ‘nous’ roughly meaning ‘intellect’ or ‘pure thought’ or ‘pure reason’ (because Kant thinks what little we can know about it we can only know in terms of pure reason). This noumenal world is reality as it really is, divorced from or independent of our sense perceptions of it. Our sense perceptions of the world – the feeling of the cold glass in your hand, the taste of the beer, the smell of it as it nears your lips, the gold color of the liquid – are referred to by Kant as ‘phenomena’.

This way of dividing the world is both very interesting and very troubling. Take the mahogany bar counter before you. When you see the table, the dark topography of engrained lines, you experience phenomena, or sense experiences: color, shape, sound when you set down your glass, and tactile feelings as you lean against it. While one may be inclined to believe one is simply experiencing the table as it is in and of itself, that would be mistaken. These phenomena we experience are not the ultimate cause of the experience. For example, if I look up at the sky I can’t change it from blue to pink just by thinking about it, which might be thought possible if all that existed were the experiences themselves. Instead, Kant was convinced that there was something beyond our immediate sensations causing these phenomena. There’s something out there, insisted Kant, the source of these sense perceptions: something behind or beyond them called the noumenal world.

But aye, there’s the rub. Kant maintained that although there is a noumenal world that is the initial cause of our subjective (phenomenal) experience of the world, we can never access that noumenal world directly. What then can we know directly? Kant thought that all we could know directly were our phenomena. But there’s more to experience and reality than this. He maintained that the world as experienced is the product of a ‘Matrix’.

Kant In The Matrix

In the first Matrix film (1999), Morpheus tells Neo, “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Kant didn’t believe in any robotic conspiracies to systematically delude humanity. Instead, Kant takes a position which I believe is just as striking: for him, our minds are the Matrix. This idea is at the heart of Kant’s philosophy, and he called this position transcendental idealism. That is to say, the mind has structures which impose structure on the data our senses receive from the world, and so actually create our worlds in certain ways. These mental structures organize all our diverse sense data into experiential context for us, turning the physical data our senses receive from the world into our experienced sense perceptions of the world. This means we’re not perceiving or experiencing a pre-existing world. Rather, the structures of the mind are bringing forth phenomena, created as much by the workings of the mind as by (noumenal) reality, and thus the world as we experience it is dependent for its form upon the way the mind works.

The more you think about it, the more intuitive the idea of mind structuring the world we experience seems. For example, you get up to go to the bathroom, and on your way you see a painting of dogs playing poker. What are you really seeing? Paintings give the illusion of having ‘organised meaning’ – but in fact any painting, even da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or van Gogh’s The Starry Night, is just dots and streaks of color smeared on canvas. Our minds apprehend these colored blotches and make sense of them as images. And that’s just the start of how our minds influence our experience. More radically, Kant thought that even time and space are aspects of our experience created by the mind, independent of reality in and of itself. Looking around the bar as you walk on, it’s hard to see how this might be the case; but, then, how could we possibly organize our experience without the experiences being organized in space and time?

Take time. We all have something of a biological clock inside ticking away, allowing us to locate a given experience along a sequential continuum. Yet have too much beer and suddenly your psychological filter goes a little haywire, maybe everything seems to be on fast-forward; the girls next to you are waving their hands a little faster, and your friend’s story about the dream they had last night is getting a little shorter (thank God). This experience is called ‘temporal compression’, and can be a very real firsthand experience when one ingests too much of a sedative like alcohol. Stimulants like caffeine or amphetamines can have the opposite effect, called ‘temporal dilation’, making it seem like the world has slowed down. The same holds for changes in body temperature. When your ambient body temperature is dramatically raised, say, in the case of a fever, it feels as if time is moving slowly. When exposed to extreme cold for long enough, it can feel like time is moving more quickly.

It would seem that Kant was right – time is indeed a subjective aspect of our experience.

Kant And The Smashing Beer Glass

You get back from the bathroom.

“Two more, please,” your friend mouths to the bartender, holding up two fingers. She nods subtly in recognition. You watch as the busy woman reaches for two glasses with one hand, working the cash register with the other. In a moment of inattention, she looses grip of one of the glasses. It smashes as it hits the wooden floor. The shards glisten like toothed diamonds against the dull background.

While this event may seem trivial, a glass falling and hitting the floor actually brings up another interesting topic in metaphysics: causality.

When Kant was only twenty-four, the Scottish philosopher David Hume published his magnum opus, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Among other things, Hume was interested in our commonsense understanding of causality. We usually think we can know about what’s going to happen in the future based on our intuitive knowledge of the laws of nature, that is, how things behave. For example, we know that if we lift up something heavier than air, like a beer glass, and let go of that object, it will definitely fall downwards, and, being glass, may shatter. Hume, being a skeptic, asked, “How do we know that?”

Hume argued that we often assume that if event B always follows event A, then A caused B. We believe there is a necessary connection, that is, a relationship which can be no other way, between A and B. Strictly speaking though, Hume added, the most we can logically claim is that up until now heavy objects have always fallen downwards. And the only basis for thinking that the same connection will hold (for example, a cup will subsequently hit the floor when dropped), is our belief that the future will continue to resemble the past. That belief, Hume continued, we gain merely through custom or habit. In other words, Hume was saying that all our ideas about causation are down our own habituation to associated events, and that’s it. Thus, the causal connections we make have nothing to do with knowledge of any necessary connection, but rather we derive them from our experience. Strictly speaking, we have no justification for claiming knowledge of causality.

This skepticism about causality freaked Kant out. It was this work by Hume that, Kant tells us, “interrupted my dogmatic slumber” – changing the direction of Kant’s philosophy.

As said above, Kant believes that in our experience of the world we use a ‘cognitive matrix’ to make sense of the stimuli around us. In addition to time and space (which Kant called the forms of sensibility), he posited a complex mental architecture he called the categories of the understanding, which also play their part in bringing forth the phenomenal world. He posited twelve categories in all, including plurality (how many objects there are), existence, and possibility (what does exist; and what, in principle, could exist). The categories basically comprise our cognitive toolbox for making sense of our sense data, and for making judgements about our experiences too. Most relevant to our present discussion is the category of causal dependence, or cause and effect. In other words, for Kant, our perception of the world in terms of cause and effect is something our minds impose on our experience of the world.

Since cause and effect are thus ineradicable features of the mind to Kant, this means causality isn’t as uncertain as Hume made it out to be. Just before watching the glass fall and shatter on the floor, Kant would say we could know for certain the glass would fall downwards. How could we know this? Kant tells us that the phenomenal world, the world as we experience it, is governed by deterministic laws. (Kant was very impressed with Newton’s three laws of motion.) However, physical laws only apply to the phenomenal world, not the noumenal, Kant argued. So he’s saying that physical laws don’t say anything about the world in and of itself. In other words, the deterministic physical laws we’re familiar with, like the law of gravitation, are only representative of human psychology, or how our minds organise the world for our experience. But given that our minds do organize the world in this way, we can know that we’re going to experience the world as being organized in this way.

Kant As He Is

There’s an old Talmudic proverb anticipating Kant which says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Kant’s transcendental idealism gives this proverb an entirely new meaning. A Kantian might rightly amend it to say, “We can never know things in themselves, we can only knows things as processed through our psychological filters.” Certainly not as memorable a saying, but more philosophically accurate.

Interestingly, Kant presumed we all have the same cognitive architecture (with a few minor exceptions, such as colorblindness). This is why, when the glass fell from the woman’s hand, everyone in the bar watching would have had suitably similar experiences of the same event. That is to say, although the perspectives of the bar patrons will obviously differ according to their location, every single person would have perceived the same event: the glass was let go of, it fell downwards, and then it shattered on the wooden floor. Kant called the assumed similarity of human experiences empirical realism.

Turning away from looking at the fragments of glass on the floor, you go back to talking to your friend. As your friend continues on and on about their dream, your attention begins to wander. Suddenly you become aware of the pressure of the bar stool under you, the weight of your T-shirt against your shoulders, the music and the ambient noise, the aftertaste of the beer, the fragrance of perfume, and the glare of the florescent signs advertising alcohol brands. ‘Isn’t it weird,’ you think, ‘that all my disparate experiences – touch, sound, taste, smell, and sight – are in some way united as a consistent whole? How does my mind weave all these diverse stimuli into a single, seamless, unified conscious experience?’

With his knack for catchy phrases, Kant called the personal unity of our experience the transcendental unity of apperception. How it comes about, Kant tells us, is again through the operation of our minds. With the forms of sensibility (time and space) providing the groundwork for experience, the categories of the mind synthesize the raw sense data into our rich-textured subjectivity, and this synthesis of all the aspects of our experience happens simultaneously. That is, as well as having rational understanding, we feel, hear, taste, smell, see all at the same time, even when we privilege one sense modality over the others. Kant says this thing to which we attach the word ‘I’ is the product of our minds necessarily functioning in this unitary way: because we must each perceive all our experience through a unified mind, this stream of consciousness flowing from our mental architecture gives us the experience of having a transcendental ego, a self, or a soul.

“So… what do you think it means?” your friend asks.

“What do I think what means?” you respond.

“My dream. What do you thinks it means? It doesn’t seem like it can mean anything other than that.”

“Well…” you reply hesitantly, realizing you were thinking about transcendental idealism the entire time your friend was relaying their dream. After taking a thoughtful sip of your drink you state resolutely, “I think that we don’t see things as they are… we see things as we are.”

© Patrick Cannon 2013

Patrick Cannon graduated in Philosophy at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.


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