The Origins of Critique II: The Limits of Knowledge

We have seen that even in 1770, eleven years before the first edition of the Critique was published, Kant recognized that our sensible intuitions gave us appearances of objects but not the objects as they really are and that the status of the noumenal and its relationship to the phenomenal is quite different than what is described in the Critique and indeed in conflict with it. In altering the latter term of the phenomenal/noumenal relationship, Kant has needed to consequently reconfigure the what of the noumenal in order to explain what work it is doing in the analysis of our sensible intuitions. That is, the question of what the noumenal “is” must always be related to the question of how it operates, and, as I  discussed briefly in the last post, the two dominate views[1] on the matter are either that Kant is espousing two ontologically distinct “worlds” of objects or that objects have two aspects, in which “Kant’s transcendental distinction is between the ways in which things (empirical objects) can be ‘considered’ at the metalevel of philosophical reflection rather than between the kinds of thing that are considered in such reflection. Things can be considered either as they appear, that is, as they are in relation to the subjective conditions of human knowledge, or as they are in themselves, independently of these conditions.”[2]

The former view is perhaps the most classical interpretation of Kant and is indeed one of the sources of early criticism against him (which will be important as we go on to discuss later post-Kantian figures.) Typically, the reading is that unity of the appearances that are given to our mind as the manifold of sensible intuition is made possible through the application of the categories to the manifold, which in turn comes to us from the affection of objects on the mind. “But, so the argument goes, if the object is an appearance, interpreted here as a representation, it could scarcely produce the very sensory manifold out of which it itself was first formed. The only alternative is affection through things in themselves. But Kant explicitly denies that the object can be a thing in itself.”[3] Thus, the problem of affection is the most common objection to the transcendental distinction between phenomena and noumena as an ontological distinction. Something outside of space in time could scarcely have an effect upon things in space and time.

Henry Allison’s version of the two aspect view differs significantly from this two world view in that Allison argues the distinction should be understood methodologically rather than metaphysically. The label “two aspect” is a bit misleading in this respect as it seems to suggest just another ontological description of objects, namely, that they have both phenomenal and noumenal aspects simultaneously. Indeed, Allison acknowledges the worry that if this is what is meant by “two aspect,” then the problem of affection has not really been solved but only condensed into objects as a single class. However, this is not Allison’s claim. Rather, the claim is that by setting up his project as the identification of the “epistemic conditions” of sensible experience, Kant is claiming to have discovered the conditions for our discursive knowledge specifically—a knowledge that is limited and finite. This suggests that there is another type of knowledge which we cannot have, namely, knowledge of the thing-in-itself which is outside of the conditions of possible sense experience. Thus, Allison writes, “It is precisely because sensibility has its own a priori forms that we are forced to distinguish between things as they appear, that is, as they are sensibly represented, and the same things as they are in themselves, independently of the conditions of their sensible representation. In other words, Kant’s theory of sensibility, which is itself an essential ingredient in his account of the discursivity of human knowledge, entails that the things that we intuit are not in themselves as we intuit them.”[4] The thing-in-itself becomes a way of thinking about sensible intuition as belonging to us and conditioned by the very categories that make it possible in the first place. The thing-in-itself, in other words, is a conceptual tool that helps us understand how our sensible experience is both ours and is of objects that are real and not ideal.

In the next post, we will turn to Kant’s own account of the thing-in-itself in order to spell out the most helpful way to think about it in light of the problem of conflating knowledge of the thing-in-itself with objective judgment.


[1] It must be noted that there are also other, “third way” views, which cannot necessarily be categorized together that attempt to criticize the two aspect view as set forth by Henry Allison but not from the defense of the two world view. Rather, they espouse either a “two perspective” view (i.e. Hoke Robinson), or by attempting to minimalize the importance of the noumenal in Kant’s philosophy altogether. See: Hoke Robinson, “Two Perspectives on Kant’s Appearances and Things in Themselves,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 32, no. 3 (July 1994): 411-441; Lior Nitzan, “Thought of an Object and the Object of Thought: A Critique of Henry Allison’s ‘Two Aspect’ View,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 92, no. 2 (June 2010): 176-198.

[2] Henry Allison, “Transcendental Idealism: The ‘Two Aspect’ View,” New Essays on Kant, ed. Bernard den Ouden (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1987): 155.

[3] Hoke Robinson, “Two Perspectives,” 415.

[4] Allison, “The ‘Two Aspect’ View,” 158-9.

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2 thoughts on “The Origins of Critique II: The Limits of Knowledge

  1. Pingback: The Origins of Critique I: What is Critical Discourse? | fluxofthought

  2. Pingback: The Origins of Critique III: The Function of the Noumenal | fluxofthought

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