Notes on difficult subjects: Confusing our concepts, experiences, and reality

By | February 6, 2011

It is true that we must presuppose the spatial-temporal dimensions to make sense of our experience of the physical world. But this does not logically imply that the spatial-temporal dimensions are not objective features of the physical world. The objectivity of space and time is consistent with the notion that our analysis of experience discloses that experience of the world cannot happen devoid of spatial-temporal ordering. That our experience is ordered temporally and spatially by our cognitive faculty is consistent with the proposition that time and space are properties of the objective order of reality.

Our epistemological models do not have to posit the subjective starting point, i.e., a conscious subject (an “homunculous”) inside the head, isolated from physical and social reality. The subjective starting point is common to Descartes, Locke, Hume, and in part to Kant, and sets up the epistemological problem the task of showing how the subject can achieve knowledge of the objective world.

Ultimately, the notion of an isolated, conscious subject who can reflect on his own ideas and impressions and speculate about to their external causes (viz., use language and concepts) is an incoherent notion. But this incoherent notion is required for the epistemological model presupposed by Cartesians, Locke, Hume, and Kant.

The epistemological model of realism starts with a conscious, perceiving, acting organism (e.g. a human being) existing in a natural and social environment, experiencing that object world, causally interacting with it and with other organisms who co-exist in those worlds. This more desirable model is one found in the work of Thomas Reid and can be seen as presupposed by a Darwinian evolutionary biology, and the scientific pragmatism of John Dewey.

Intuitively it strikes me as correct to say that the world of phenomena (objects, processes, forces, etc.) is a spatio-temporal world, i.e., one existing in space and time.

According to Kant our cognitive faculties (of the experiencing subject) provide the spatio-temporal template by which our phenomenal world (the world experienced) is ordered. Any phenomenal object (the tree and its lemons that occupy my backyard) must be described in terms of the intuition of space and time and the categories of the understanding. These intuitions and categories are imposed on experience by the subject’s cognitive faculties. But world behind the phenomena, the world separate and independent of the ordering activity of the cognitive mind, is one outside our knowledge and comprehension. This is Kant’s world-in-itself, or noumena. Presumably the real tree-in-itself and lemons-in-themselves are neither knowable nor conceivable by me. I cannot even claim that they’re found in my backyard!

Something has gone terribly awry when we assert that any answer to the question ‘What is the real object?’ must be given in terms of the obscure notion of thing-in-itself, i.e., in terms of some object which we cannot know, experience, or even conceive.

There’s nothing whatsoever that we can say about this putative world-in-itself. We cannot legitimately say that it is the real world, or that it is the partial cause of our phenomenal world.
At best, the notion of thing-in-itself or noumena is a limiting concept (See Strawson’s book, The Bounds of Sense).

To hold that noumena is the world as it really is, rather than world as it appears to human cognition, is erroneously to take a limiting concept as have metaphysical, ontological import.

Insofar as our coherent language and thought allows, the so-called “phenomenal world” is the real world, i.e., the world in which we exist, the one we experience and one accessible to human understanding. Of course, our concept of this reality can be refined through analysis, mathematical modeling, scientific theorizing and investigation. The resulting picture or model, a refined one when compared to our untrained intuitions, will be a picture or model of the world of experience. It does not point to a “world-in-itself.”

The real world is one that humans and other creatures inhabit, experience, and one with which they continually interact. Existence and experience can be characterized as transactions between the subject and the world. When humans think about or conceptualize physical aspects of this world they do so in terms of spatial extensions and a temporal dimension; and apply basic categories like object-hood, substance, cause-effect, force, and such. Conceptualization of the world presupposes application of these basic categories and intuitions. It is because the real world has the properties it has, i.e., a spatial, temporal, physical nature, that this application is an apt one.

(Yes, I know that modern physical theory — relativity physics, quantum physics, and the latest theories of particle physics — raise many questions about the ‘objective’ nature of the real world. But I’m not prepared to accept the paradoxes of particle physics as determining what we can and cannot say about the world we inhabit.)

Our “Kantian problem” is rooted in the tendency to confuse conceptual analysis with psychology, i.e. to confuse the analysis of basic elements in our concept of experience with the scientific work of describing our cognitive faculties. Both David Hume and Immanuel Kant fall into this confusion.

With Kant it is his tendency to proceed as if he were exposing the structure of our cognitive faculties, rather than exposing the basic ideas in our concept of experience. This leads (or misleads) him to claim that the world of experience is a world of appearances only (a phenomenal world), not reality independent of the ordering activity of our cognitive faculties.
According to Robert P. Wolff, Kant offers a “theory of mental activity.” See his book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity.

Does Kant carry out an exploration of the conditions of experience? Alternatively, does he carry out a conceptual inquiry regarding our concepts of objective experience?

To think of an object (e.g. a tree) we must presuppose that the object is a spatial-temporal object. We cannot think of the object except as existing in time and space, having spatial extension and duration. This is a claim about our conceptual scheme. It is not a description of our cognitive faculties. It is not the work of psychology.

We should keep these two areas of work separate from one another:
• Logic-Epistemology-Conceptual Analysis
• Empirical Psychology – theory of mental activity – description of experience.

See Richard Rorty’s The Mirror of Nature for a sustained critique of the epistemological project from Descartes through Locke and Hume and culminating in Kant’s First Critique.
Too many philosophers confuse their talk and thinking about the world with the world itself. Too many confuse talk about experience (e.g. perception) with a psychological account of the mental processes underlying experience.
What would a metaphysician basing himself on Kantian philosophy say? Maybe he would assert that the California Redwood forests of the northern California coast only represent phenomena conditioned by the subject who experiences them. (?) In truth, the rugged coast and the California Redwoods are a reality independent and prior to any human experience of them.
[If certain tribes of philosophers refer to this position as naïve realism, so be it.]

Yesterday Virginia called me out to the backyard to pick lemons from our tree. What would a metaphysically inclined Kantian say? Would he assert that those lemons were not real lemons, since the lemons that I experienced (picked) were partly conditioned by my cognitive faculties? Would he declare that the real lemons, viz. the lemons-in-themselves, were unknowable and outside any possibility of my experience (I could not possibly pick them)?

A Kantian view: The world that we experience is mere phenomena (appearance only?). The real world — the noumena is forever hidden from us. Reality lies behind the stage of phenomenal objects, processes, and actions. [Does this make any sense?]

When we argue that the perception of X presupposes fundamental concepts of X, our argument takes place in the area of conceptual analysis; we are not doing a psychological study of the mental processes underlying perception.

When we attempt to sort and clarify perceptual concepts, and attempt to say how people can coherently speak about (and think about) perceptual experience, we do not attempt to conduct scientific (psychological) investigation into the mental processes underlying perception.

(Caveat: Yet these two lines of inquiry, conceptual and scientific, may relate to each other. The scientific results of a psychological-neurological study of perception may significantly influence our conceptual efforts. Conversely, philosophical analysis of relevant concepts may influence how scientists approach their investigation of the mental processes related to perception, although scientist are not restricted by our ordinary ways of thinking and talking about perception. {* see note below.})

(2nd Caveat: Philosophers engaged in epistemological work have a great difficulty keeping these two forms of inquiry separated.)

* The cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker (psycho-linguist), makes use of Kantian ideas in his study of human nature via our fundamental ideas and language. See his work The Stuff of Thought.

Scientific study of mental activity, e.g. psychology, neurology, is distinct from the work of conceptual analysis (e.g. epistemological philosophy) in which one attempts to sort and clarify such concepts as knowledge, belief, perception, truth, memory, doubt and such.

One thought on “Notes on difficult subjects: Confusing our concepts, experiences, and reality

  1. Firooz

    The seperation of phenomenal world perceptible to our 5 senses from noumena or real world is nothing but artificial. E.g. cows and some human animals live only in that phenomenal world. But also some go beyond and say for example the real spatio-tempral world is nothing but the gravity caused curvature etc. Also, for a conscientious human being, freedom, justice, love, sacrifice, service are of real world that is not shared by animals. So, both worlds are part of reality, which in its ultimate form is unknown and infinite.


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