The American Philosophers from the Transcendentalists to the Pragmatists were all following in the footsteps of the great German Idealist Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). This isn’t too surprising because all of Western Philosophy follows in the footsteps of Kant. In 1781 Kant published The Critique of Pure Reason and rocked the world of philosophy. What Kant articulated and what later generations of philosophers picked up on was that reality as we perceive it is not purely objective – it is at least partly subjective.
It is easy to believe that reality as we see it is a reflection of reality as it actually is. In other words we tend to assume that the perceptual function that the mind plays is passive, like a mirror, and doesn’t alter the image of reality that it reflects to us. Not so, said Kant. Our perception of reality might start with sensations of something outside of ourselves, but by the time we perceive it our mind has organized, categorized and arranged those raw sensations into reality as it appears to us.
We can’t know reality directly. We don’t perceive of things in themselves. What we perceive as reality is in part created by our minds. And this creation of reality isn’t only the unconscious work of the mind as a machine, as some before Kant had believed, the creative process that constructs reality as we see it is also influenced by us. Of all of the infinite sensations, physical, emotional and conceptual that we experience at any given time we are only aware of a small percentage. The rest we ignore, but those that we attend to are compiled into reality as we see it.
One of the things that influences what we attend to and therefore what we see is our purpose at any given moment. If we are late for a train we will notice the sound of a clock ticking and use it to find the clock that we need to look at, while at other times when our purposes do not involve time we might not notice the sound of the clock at all.
In addition the picture of reality that we construct has to be consistent with reality as we have known it in the past. All of the incoming information that we get from our senses has to be ordered not to conflict with the past. We constantly must create a necessary unity between the present moment and the past.
What Kant did for Western Philosophy was make human beings part of the creative process of reality as we see it. In this he dealt a blow to both religion and science. To religion he insisted that we can’t perceive of God directly because our perception of God will also be partly of our own construction. To science likewise he takes away the ruse of objectivity because everything we observe will always be influenced by us.
This profound connection between human perception and the creation of reality set the stage for the rest of Western Philosophy and more recently for the pursuit of Evolutionary Spirituality. The American Pragmatists were building on Kant’s insight when they connected truth to human activity. In their view, not only was our perception of reality partly a product of our own influence, but truth itself was partly created by our own actions. Ideas became true when they were acted on. Reality was created as we lived it out. Charles Sanders Peirce – yes finally back to Peirce – in his early writings was very directly trying to rearticulate Kant's work.
What Kant did for us was redefine reality. Where we at one time had a fixed stage that we observed passively from a seat in the audience, we now had a cooperative process of creation right in the middle of the production. This insight opened doors that philosophers have been walking though ever since and I intend to walk through a few myself.
Like that 50.000 foot view on Kant’s approach, Jeff. It is always helpful to get a fresh, digestible perspective on things you thought you knew something about!
Doesn’t this put Kant at the foundation of Constructivism, the postmodern perspective that we create our own reality?
This connection, though obvious, had never occurred to me before, probably because my interest in postmodern thinking is only relatively recent while my study of Kant occurred 40 years ago. The term “postmodern” originated about 30 years ago, before impact of this perspective on culture had become as pervasive as it seems today.
I had to go back to what I wrote down when I was studying Kant. I had a completely different memory of it (which proves how right he is..). But re-reading it: ‘Kant’s philosophy replaced ontological objects with structures of the subject. He showed that what appears as a pre-given reality is really a co-creation of the knowing subject and the known object’. I absolutely love this blog (and the comments), thank you all.
I agree with you Carl and from what I have been reading everything that occured after Kant – including post-modernism – has occured in his wake. What an enormous thinker! I have a few other brewing thoughts on the topic that I am getting from reading a new book that was recommended to me by a Professor named Robert Brandom. Thanks Liesbeth and Eb as well. Fascinating what you found in your notes on all this Liesbeth. I felt the same way. I had read some, but not much, about Kant, but hadn’t heard it quite like this.
Having been a specialist in St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher/theologian, who devoted his life to showing that the “science” of his day (Aristotle and the great Arab philosophers/mathematicians) was consistent with Christian theology, I spent at least a year at the end of my undergraduate career and beginning of grad school arguing against what I saw as the relativism of Kant. Later, after studying experimental psychology, I had to agree with Alan Watts (and Kant) that our experience of reality is apparently “activity in our nerve endings,” assuming that there is such a thing as nerve endings!
Thanks Jeff for this succinct post. I only challenge one aspect of Kantian thinking, which Hegel introduced with his idea of greater and greater degrees of Self Reflection in and through the manifest process of Spirit. Though we would be silly to think we could ever experience all of reality “in itself” there is still some portion of our subjective engagement that can reflect more of reality, through philosophical, ethical, and spiritual development. In this sense, we are attenuating the obfuscation of our internal cognitive and cultural processes and beginning to open a hole into Reality, even if always coming… Read more »
Ben I appreciate your thoughts. I am don’t quite understand what you mean by our subjective expreince seeing reality more clearly. It makes sense to me, but I am not sure exactly what you mean and how we would know if we were seeing objective reality more clearly or less clearly.
Well, it does get complex. My understanding, in part thanks to Kant, is that there are many subjective components that animate and color our perceptions, but our worlds are also largely shared by objective and intersubjective realities that we share. I get nervous with the full ramifications of Kant’s categories that configure experience and which include such crucial dimension of reality as Time; that said, I really do appreciate his contribution, which you point to in your post. My question is how can we take this powerful insight, which does lead to a lot of postmodern understandings which debunk a… Read more »
Jeff, did these perceptions creep into science with the theory of relativity, the uncertainty principle, and the Hawthorne effect? If so, could you use your amazingly clear writing skills to teach us about these subjects and how they fit into the philosophical landscape?
Brian, I think that they did creep in – although the creeping between philosophy and science tends to go both ways. Indeed I want to especially look into the affects of relativity theory because I know it had a huge affect on philosophy and that it was almost certainly influenced by philosophy as well.
As I understand it, we create reality as we move forward. This is simple but quite overwhelming to realise the depth of where it leads us in accepting fully the truth of it. It means we include all of reality even what we don’t perceive fully. Thanks for this great and clear and bright blog Jeff.
It’s my impression that relativity, Heisenberg’s principle, and the Hawthorne effect — each of which describe the impact of the observer/measurer and it’s position on the observations or measures themselves — are less radical than Kant’s idea. The distinction Kant made between the noumena and the phenomena was more far-reaching, it seems to me. The noumena, in Kant’s terms, meant the “things” behind our perceptions which are truly, utterly beyond perception; and the phenomena are the perceptions themselves, caused by the noumena. I think it is as radical as what Alan Watts often said with his usual humor, that we… Read more »
Hello to all, I come back after a while and it is as interesting as usual. It seems to me that the kantian vision of the world, is indeed a complete separation between what we perceive (Phenomena) and what is reality (noumea), in that sense isn’t it completely the opposite of Skinner’s behaviorism which states (Carl I am wrong) that everything is perception ? Well t is not exactly the opposite, let’s say it is a distinct notion. Recently I was reading a biography of Rudolf Steiner, and when he was young, he stumbled onto the Kantian paradigm of total… Read more »
Of course one of your key phrases is “reality as we perceive it.” Far too many people have taken the wrong route with Kant and the problems of subjectivism (my word, probably the wrong choice) and come to the conclusion that we actually construct reality itself, as if the universe is truly some sort of solipsistic apparition for each of us. General Semantics – typically ignored by nearly everyone in recent decades – is useful. It’s central tenet is that it is impossible for us to perceive the universe-in-itself (to modify a Kantian term). Our of the infinity of process-events… Read more »
Talking about reality, it’s seems such incredible coincidence that Lincoln and Darwin, two superstars of evolutionary consciousness, were born on the same day! They each changed the way humans perceive reality in profound ways, Darwin so much so that there are those who still haven’t accepted his discovery as truth. Lincoln saw that the American Experiment, so threatened with dissolution, was enabled to continue to enlighten the world, giving other nations a shining example of democracy, even with our considerable shortcomings. PBS is now running the beautiful 21st century encomium to St. Lincoln. Check it out if you can, worth… Read more »
PBS show “Looking for Lincoln”.
Check it out!
Manohar Tilak a Cosmic Realist and the Proponent of The Evoluon Theory of Cosmic Evolution says that it is impossible that anything can exist without Energy. Effect of energy is physical perturbation and Cosmos does present it as the factual reality accepted in Physics as the Anthropocentric Principle, which hereby is extended to mean that existence is ever continuing case of overall cosmic existence! After having published 1970s Evoluon theory as sequence of 8 Evoluons as a case of 8 Cosmically operational informational systems -stated as colored chart after page 58 of the 1998 book “Infinities to Eternities” I further… Read more »
She pressed her lips together and looked at me directly and gently.
Rounding out the game day initiatives in October, the team will hold a series of silent auctions
for items, including a number of game-worn equipment
and signed pink merchandise. The electricity to run the mill is generated by the water wheel which powers a 15 kw