January/February 2015

Kant As He Is

Written by Patrick Cannon

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 know 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 colour blindness). 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.