The Key to Kant
With respect to Objects referred to in The Critique of Pure Reason

Philip McPherson Rudisill

January 7, 2012 and edited September 18, 2017

At the very beginning, before any experience, we are confronted with appearances, but we can't tell by looking whether these appearances are real things on their own and existing on their own physically just as we see them (growing smaller in the distance, for example); or whether they are merely representations of real things. There is nothing whatsoever in all of the appearances that would suggest appearances are not things on their own. Appearances are a constant, like the space and time* whenever we look and, like the light in the refrigerator when we open the door (and so appears to be always on because it is always on when we open the door and take a look), they seem to be present all the time and real on their own. And so there is nothing given to us that could ever suggest in any way that things do not exist as they appear and that these appearances do not express an objective reality, and indeed are all of reality. For example, there is nothing to suggest that trees or tables don't get physically smaller as they, i.e., as the appearances of the tree or table, obviously do at a distance and indeed every time we pay attention.

* Space and time are always present whenever we look or view or inspect anything, because they are not real things on their own, but merely the form of our looking at anything.

This then obviously means that the “real” object that these appearances represent is something that we humans have dreamed up (for all that is ever given to us in experience is the appearance). This, as David Hume has so eloquently shown, is the metaphysical deduction of the categories of understanding (our means for mental connections), showing that our view of the world (the recognition that appearances are not real things on their own) could not have been obtained through any experience or exposure whatsoever.

In Kant's transcendental deduction we conceive of the thing on its own and we call it (and here we have to be careful in our speech) the object of experience, and mean by that that it is what is “really there” such that we are able to recognize the brainarium* world and the appearances of that world. Basically we conceive of this thing on its own in order to explain and connect the appearances. We undertake experiments and come to realize that the real tree remains always the same and it is only the appearances that are changing, e.g., getting smaller at a distance, based on our perspective.

* The brainarium world can be quickly presented in this wise. The light of the sun, for example, strikes a tree and some of the light is absorbed by the tree and some light (which is called the color of the tree) is reflected and some of that reflected light enters the looking eye and passes through the lens and is impressed (upside down and with left and right reversed) onto the retina where it is transformed into impulses which travel along the optical nerve into the brain, and there in brain a panorama unfolds (the brainarium) of a vista which includes the appearance of the tree (the retinal image having been corrected in and by the brain). The tree in this brainarium is called an appearance and as such goes out of existence every time the looking eyes blink.

Now here is where it can get murky. The object of experience is what we mean in common and scientific talk when we speak of the thing on its own, i.e., what is really there in objective time and space apart from our (personal) brainarium. What we are doing is dreaming up a giant brainarium as an objective thing on its own such that we are able to grasp and recognize our own personal brainarium as just that, where trees, for example, are only images (in our brainariums). And so this objective world that we recognize as a fact is nothing more than a projection of our own imagination*, and our own thinking about our own brainarium and its appearances.

* In saying this we do not mean that this objective world of the giant brainarium is not real, but only that in order to recognize it as real we must first dream it up in order to let it contrast with the appearances in our own personal brainarium in order to recognize them as appearances and not as things on their own. Obviously we must imagine this world, for, as we mentioned above in the metaphysical deduction, nothing in all of our looking could ever possibly suggest to us that what we see are not real things existing exactly as they are seen, and so there is nothing which could suggest that the appearances of our looking are only representation of things, and not themselves things.

Kant uses the rain and the rainbow to demonstrate this point. In our common talk we speak of the rainbow as an appearance and the rain as the thing on its own. But in transcendental parlance we realize that the rain that we are speaking of is the “object of experience”, i.e., our own contribution and which reflects the make up of our connective understanding.* And so it is not the thing on its own when conceived of as independent of the human brainarium in general, but always only the object of experience (a conception). The thing on its own, the raindrops on their own, even the particles of the raindrop on their own, are merely appearances in our brainarium, and indeed even the space and time in which these drops fall are modifications of our brainarium and have no existence apart from our looking.**

* In the transcendental understanding the object of experience is the summary of various appearances and their connection via a concept in accordance with the categories of our connective understanding, e.g., substance, causation, etc., such that we recognize an object which the appearances then merely represent, e.g., the drops of rain at a distance and then close up look different and this difference is unified by means of the concept of the rain drop such that we recognize these differences as different viewings of one and the same object. As a result, while we speak of the rain or the drops as the object of experience, strictly and transcendentally speaking the object of experience remains always merely a summation and mental connection of the appearances and so, therefore, essentially itself is only an appearance.****

** It is one thing to see a rainbow and another thing to see it over there. Here and there as well as now and then, etc., are not real things existing on their own which we might glean from experience, but are merely the way that we look at things appearing within the brainarium. There is nothing in the rainbow which tells us here or there, for neither the colors in the rainbow nor the shape of the rainbow can tell us this. Noticing that it is here or there or now or before is entirely in the way that we look at the rainbow. Thus space and time are not real things on their own, but only our way of looking at the appearances within the brainarium.***

*** Looking at = schauen an and is the root of Anschauung. This is usually translated into English by "intuition", but I prefer "envisagement" or "looking" or "viewing". See also Kant and the meaning of the Anschauung.

**** Without a doubt the most significant contribution that the mind brings to the table of experience is the original and subjectively seated assumption that all appearances whatsoever are connected either directly or indirectly. It is by means of this assumption (Kant calls it the "affinity of all appearances") that we originally look out for hints of connection (especially suggested in patterns and in coincidences) such that we are able eventually to combine various appearances into representations of the object of experience. See The Affinity and Experience.

So we have three objects to deal with here in Kant:

1. the appearance,

2. the object of experience by means of which we recognize our own brainarium and point of view and connect relevant appearances, and finally

3. the thing on its own which we recognize only as an existence, but not at all what it might be apart from the human brainarium.

Hence the object of experience and the thing on its own are two different conceptions, but are treated as the same thing in common and scientific speech. In Kant's transcendental realm, however they are considered as different.

The object of experience is what is commonly and scientifically understood as what is “really there now”, and is a representation in the brainarium. The thing on its own is “really” but without the “there now”, for the “there” and the “now” are simply forms of our looking, our ways of looking at the projections within our brainarium. The thing on its own is what is real without being looked at or even being imagined as being looked at. As soon as we imagine we are looking at it (or anything), we are confronted with an appearance in the imagination. And so if we picture anything at all when asked to imagine a real thing, we are only picturing the object of experience (represented by an appearance) and never the thing on its own.*

* We imagine, per the connective categories of the understanding, the thing on its own in order to be able to make a connection of the appearances, but we never come to recognize any such thing, but always only the object of experience. The term "thing on its own" or "what is really there" and the "object of experience" are treated the same in common and scientific thinking, and where there is no problem, but which does cause confusion in a transcendental consideration in philosophy. We might say that the object of experience represents the thing on its own as it appears to humans in space and time and as it is thought according to the categories of understanding. But in a transcendental sense we must remember that the thing on its own is not the object of experience (for this object of experience remains always merely an appearance) and concerning which (thing on its own) nothing can be recognized at all.

Briefly then: we are confronted with appearances (in the brainarium), and conceive of the thing on its own (in order to recognize the appearances as mere representations) and end up with the object of experience (conceived of as apart from the individual bainarium) and can only imagine, but not express, the thing on its own. The primary confusion or illusion in philosophical thinking is the identification and treatment of these latter two terms as synonyms. This can be made clearer by a brief reference to the antinomies from the dialectic of pure reason.*

* By antinomy Kant means two contrary assertions, each one of which can be proven true by showing that the contrary is false. For example: all events in the world are caused and subject to the laws of nature versus some events in the world are caused by a free action which is not subject to the laws of nature. Obviously one of these must be true and one must be false. Or else, as Kant will show, perhaps they are both false or perhaps they are both true, and where we are comparing the thing on its own with the object of experience, and which leads to confusion and even illusion, for transcendentally speaking they are different.

When we keep this distinction in mind we are able to tackle Kant's antinomies of pure reason. We look (scientifically) at the appearances as all determined totally by laws of nature (ultimately applications of our own categories of understanding). Here we are thinking of the object of experience, and so of course it is always subject to laws of nature. For that is what we mean with the object of experience.

At the same time and in specific reference to the Third Antinomy we can also think of the thing on its own, and in that wise are able to dream up an intelligible existence which is free of all the limitations of the brainarium world and which can act independently of the laws of nature. This can be done as a sheer fiction just to argue the point, for example. A leaf, for example, can be considered 1. as an object of experience which has to fall when the weather is cold and windy and per laws of nature, and 2. still also as a thing on its own (again, here as a sheer whim) and thus as free and thus which freely chooses to fall at a time which just also happens to be when it is cold and windy. For all that is said when promoting this arbitrary notion of freedom is that what happened did not have to happen. And this does not contradict the laws of nature (per science), for all we are saying is that the leaf chose to fall and did not have to, and not that the leaf did not actually fall (which would be a contradiction of the appearances and of science). Thus we can say anything we wish as long as we are consistent with the conclusions of science and as long as we do not contradict our own thinking.* Not that simply avoiding a contradiction makes some assertion truthful.

* This two-fold way of considering things will prove to be very important when Kant leaves The Critique of Pure Reason and moves on to The Critique of Practical Reason.

Briefly expressed: whenever we look, anything we spy is an appearance and does not exist as such when we blink our eyes. In order to recognize that what we see are appearances we must conceive of the thing on its own such then that the appearances are representations and not themselves things on their own. But still, whenever we are speaking of these things on their own in common and scientific parlance, we are really speaking of the objects of experience which are, strictly speaking, composites of appearances and so in a transcendental sense are nothing more than appearances. When we are engaged in transcendental talk, the thing on its own becomes merely an unknown, real something, and is not an appearance at all. When speaking of the rain for example and in a transcendental sense, the rain drops are appearances as well as the atoms which compose the rain drops and the particles which make up the atoms. It's like asking what the rain looks like when it is not being look at or what something sounds like when no one is listening or what something feels like when no one is touching it. There is no answer to this question except: I don't know. And indeed: I cannot imagine.

Modification. We have been speaking of three objects, i.e., appearances, objects of experience and the things on their own. Strictly speaking there are four. The fourth object would be a pure viewing, e.g., a circle or a triangle traced out in mid air or traced out on paper. Accordingly we have:

1. pure viewing, e.g., a pantomimicly traced out circle in the air,

2. empirical viewing, i.e., an appearance, e.g., a sighting of a table in the brainarium,

3. object of experience, i.e., a composite of appearances, and also the thing on its own in common and scientific talk, e.g., the real table which stays a constant size and which only looks larger or smaller depending on the distance of viewing, and finally

4. thing on its own in a transcendental sense, i.e., a something which is considered independently of any viewing, and about which nothing can be said except: it is a something. This concept of the thing on its own is meaningful only in a transcendental discussion, and is without meaning in common and scientific talk.

Return to Nutshell.