Critical Theories and Conspiracy Theories

There has been a veritable explosion of counter-stream movements in the last few years that have not only gained ground but have actually had serious social effects: Anti-vaccination (fear of medical professionals in general), anti-chemicals-in-food (or “chemicals” in general), continued climate change denial, etc. These movements all operate with a very similar rhetoric which points to a nefarious plot to profit off of an ill-informed and vulnerable public. The key to resistance is to arm yourself with the true scientific (or “alternative”) knowledge that isn’t being produced for profit. The recent surge of hidden camera footage produced by pro-life activists in an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is exemplary of this logic as well. That case is particularly interesting because we have a now decades old position (anti-abortion/pro-life) being presented as an exposé of a conspiracy to profit from the sale of dead babies and in the name of “mainstream science.”

For those of us arguing against this kind of rhetoric, it often feels like talking to a wall. The response is typically that we have been sucked in, are blind to the reality that is all around us, are uncritical shills ourselves. It often feels as though the very arguments that we generate against these theories get turned on us. “You think I’m being uncritical? You’re the one being controlled by Big Pharma/the liberal media/the abortion industry/etc. Wake up!” The script is flipped. And the truth is, the rhetoric of these claims is eerily similar to the kind of social philosophy that has been the core of the humanities since the middle of the 20th century–the kind of social and cultural criticism out of which many of us are attempting to build a career. Furthermore, given the proliferation of the theories mentioned above, we are force to ask: What is the difference between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory? Why can’t a conspiracy theory be critical or vice versa–or are those in fact interchangeable?

The French sociologist Bruno Latour thinks, in general, they are. In his 2004 essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Latour laments this very thing: that a suspicion of “fact” first leveled in the post-structural and critical theory of the mid-20th century has become almost indistinguishable from contemporary conspiracy theories. He begins the essay citing a number of examples where dissenters engaged in political discourse surrounding particular matters of fact cast those facts as somehow “undecided,” “produced,” “contested” in some way. For example, even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty.

Do you see why I am worried? Latour writes. I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

Latour’s concern here is heightened even more today in a way that he probably could not have imagined even just ten years ago. Though the Internet was already showing signs of movement toward larger and larger echo-chamberfication, there were certain mediums that did not yet exist; namely, vast networks of social media. YouTube didn’t exist. MySpace, Friendster and the like were at nowhere near the level of information production and circulation that Facebook and Twitter are today. But for this reason, Latour’s “criticism of criticism” is perhaps even more important in our contemporary climate. Latour continues, chastising those of us making a career out of social and cultural criticism:

Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu [. . .]? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

Before I get to Latour’s solution, I want to parse this relationship between the structure of conspiracy and critique a bit more. Drawing a sharper distinction between critical and conspiracy theories at this point will help us to see how we can further distinguish them using Latour’s solution. Latour points out here, I think, only a surface level rhetorical similarity between these two discourses. He is right that there is a structural or formal similarity, but even that is only superficial. Take any of the examples I mentioned at the opening of the post; those are all structurally similar to each other. There is an entity of some kind that has duped the public into thinking its motives have been above reproach when, in fact, it has been profiting from the public’s suffering, actually putting the public’s well-being into very serious jeopardy. Arguments for the existence of institutional racism or structural socio-economic injustice also seem to follow this same pattern. There is an entity to which certain segments of the population are blind. Their continued blindness has perpetuated a threat that has always been there but is now institutionalized through its normalization (i.e. because these segments of the population think of it as normal, they can’t see it as a problem.)

However, we can already begin to see in these examples the important differences to which Latour does not give enough attention in his initial analysis. These differences, I think, can be summed up in the difference between entities. Latour does admit that while conspiracy theories identify a physical group of people, critical theories are interested in abstractions–society, discourse, etc. But this isn’t a small difference. To be sure, critical social and cultural theories accuse more “visible” entities too. For example, we implicate Halliburton and Dick Cheney in the creation of the second Iraq war. We point to a conspiracy there. The difference is that both the effects of that conspiracy and the conditions that made it possible extend far beyond the aims of the conspirators and into the realm of abstractions such as “capitalism,” “discourse,” “neo-liberalism,” etc.

Those abstractions themselves are not conspiracies in the same sense because those who participate in them are not “historically” complicit in their original creation; they are complicit in their perpetuation and thus their creation by cultural inheritance. In fact, it would be hard to say that these abstractions, though they certainly exist, were “created” in the same way that conspiracy theorists want to say Big Pharma created the “myth of vaccinations.” That’s a really important difference. The latter kind of conspiracy theory is the stuff that Hollywood dramas are made of. They begin and end with the people involved. Critical theories may point to people who are consciously involved in a phenomenon “conspiratorially”–but those conspirators are always only an example, a particular manifestation of a larger systemic problem that always transcends their specific conspiracy.

Latour, I think, downplays too much the necessity of critical cultural and social analysis of discourse, of structures of power, of political economies, etc. Of course, I too have written here in the past about my desire to move beyond mere critique and toward a more constructive discourse. And though I disagree that the state of critique is in as dire a situation as Latour claims it is, I think Latour does provide us with an interesting proposal for doing that.

Latour’s solution to this problem, the confusion between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory, is to move our attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” In other words, while our previous modes of social critique, e.g. discourse analysis, deconstruction, critical theories of race, gender, and class, etc. have insisted that we move away from “facts” as such and toward the production of those facts, Latour argues the aim of critique “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” A “matter of concern” is a way of talking about phenomena as states of affairs in all of their complexity rather than uncritically accepting what a matter of fact is, thereby limiting our analysis to the production of “bare facts” for the purposes of power. Matters of fact are “objects in the world” in the old, Enlightenment sense of that phrase. They are dead, concretized, and neutral, available for our observation but also our manipulation. Matters of concern, comparatively, are Things in the Heideggerian sense–an object that is struck by an inexhaustible set of connections.

A better way of putting this, I think, is to say that Latour is adding a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique. Matters of concern extend beyond matters of fact precisely because they take into consideration the values that traverse them and make them what they are. By “value” I mean descriptions that are not facts–attributions of beauty, certain attributions of goodness or badness, attributions of fear or disgust, etc.

I would contend, then, that Latour’s proposal shares more similarities with the projects of Simmel or Weber, with the added dimension of an ethical standpoint from which analysis is performed–that is, with the dimension of social critique. When Horkheimer and Adorno abandoned the old sociological descriptive project, which was epistemically relative and anti-empiricist, and was championed by the Neo-Kantian sociologists of the early 20th century like Simmel and Weber, we might say, anachronistically, that they also shifted the focus of social analysis from matters of concern to matters of fact. That maybe seems counterintuitive, particularly because these figures (especially Weber) argued polemically against using sociology as a platform for social criticism. Weber thought that had no place in scholarship. But his approach to social phenomena is exactly what Latour describes here. The “historical individual” (a concept I’ve written about here) in Weber’s sociology is almost identical conceptually to what Latour is calling a Thing here. That is, a Thing for Latour is an historical-cultural concept that is formed out of the nexus of other Things and values which cross it and give it its character and significance.

Using this framework casts an even sharper distinction between critical theories and conspiracy theories because we can show how the latter will always be trapped in the logic of matters of fact while the former can easily move beyond facts to concerns. In other words, critical theories are equipped to talk about values (fear, comfort, danger, safety, familiarity, violence, privilege, advantage, etc.) and show how they become transformed into facts: “White people attribute the values of danger and violence to young black men” becomes “Young black men are violent and dangerous” through the normalization of police and other state violence against African Americans as evidenced by the disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers and the disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, can only describe what they take to be the facts: Big Pharma wants to profit from the death of our children; Mexico is sending us its most violent rapists and other criminals; Abortion is a means for profit from the discarded body parts. You get the idea.

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The Origins of Critique IV: Objective Judgment

We now turn to the final part of our task which is to explicate the idea of objective judgment for Kant in order to show that the knowledge that results from an objective judgment cannot be knowledge of an object as it is in itself and further explicate the central role of the person in the production of knowledge. Within what we have covered already, we have touched quite heavily upon the arguments that Kant sets forth in his objectivity thesis; namely, that the appearances of objects are correlated to objects outside of intuition, but these objects, “can serve only as a correlate of the unity of apperception for the unity of the manifold in sensible intuition, by means of which the understanding unifies that in the concept of an object.”[1] We shall now examine the steps in Kant’s argument for this thesis, so we may see the function of the thing-in-itself in relation to objective judgment.

Kant begins from what he calls the transcendental unity of apperception—the ‘I’ that thinks.  He writes, “The I think must be able to accompany all my representation; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me” (B132).[2] The manifold of intuition (prior to any proposed application of the categories) must have a relation to the I think. This is a pure self-consciousness. It cannot be given in experience, nor is it an a priori intuition. It is rather “an act of spontaneity, i.e., it cannot be regarded as belonging to sensibility” (B132), and it must be regarded as a unity so that we may say the representations that correspond to it belong to only that I think.[3] That is to say, the manifold of the intuition must be synthesized in one consciousness that I call “my representations.” The categories which Kant proved in the Metaphysical Deduction are the rules by which this synthesis takes place. It follows, then, that “The synthetic unity of consciousness is therefore an objective condition of all cognition, not merely something I myself need in order to cognize an object but rather something under which every intuition must stand in order to become an object for me, since in any other way, and without this synthesis, the manifold would not be united in one consciousness” (B138).[4] The categories are, therefore, objectively valid, meaning they apply to objects, and they allow us to make objective judgments, which give us knowledge about objects.

Kant makes his “object argument” in the third part of the A Deduction (A104-105) in order to show what an objective judgment is and how they are possible. He begins by reminding us that when we say our representations are appearances in objects, we mean that our appearances “must not be regarded in themselves, in the same way, as objects (outside the power of representation)” which raises the following question: “What does one mean, then, if one speaks of an object corresponding to and therefore also distinct from cognition?”[5] One might think that we simply have nothing to say at all about the object as distinct from cognition, and indeed, we cannot say anything about it; however, we do know that there is necessity in the relationship between our representation and the object outside of our cognition. Kant writes, “[I]nsofar as they are to relate to an object our cognitions must also necessarily agree with each other in relation to it, i.e., they must have that unity that constitutes the concept of an object.”[6] Kant has already established that our intuitions are necessarily intuitions of objects as they appear to us and that the categories apply to objects because we have a transcendental unity of our apperception, which is only possibly through the application of the categories to the manifold. But this has only demonstrated that the manifold of our intuition is a unity in our self-consciousness.

What Kant is adding in the object argument is our ability to make objective judgments about the objects found in our representations. We must remember, Kant writes in the third step of this argument, “that since we have to do only with the manifold of our representations, and that X which corresponds to them (the object), because it should be something distinct from all of our representations, is nothing for us, the unity that the object makes necessary can be nothing other than the formal unity of the consciousness in the synthesis of the manifold of the representations.”[7] We might worry, therefore, that even though there is a correlation between representation and object (outside of representation), we might only be able to have subjective judgments about those representations since they are not the objects as they are. These would be judgments of perception only.[8] However, we must also remember that the categories are rules that apply to objects, and, therefore, the above worry is “impossible if the intuition could not have been produced through a function of synthesis in accordance with a rule that makes the reproduction of the manifold necessary a priori and a concept in which this manifold is united possible.”[9] In other words, the synthesis of the manifold into the unity of transcendental apperception is not possible without the categorical rules by which this synthesis takes place. The categories are universal, necessary, and known a priori. Therefore, if we think objects according to the categories, we have the means by which we can have objective judgments about objects of appearance that produce objective knowledge that is also universal and necessary.[10]

Here’s where we are now: objective judgments that produce universal knowledge about objects cannot be equivalent to knowledge of the thing-in-itself, but they are related. The conditions of possible experience that make the manifold of our intuition possible also produce a necessary methodological distinction between intuition and objects as they are outside it. But this methodological distinction also produces a necessary correlation between object outside of intuition and the appearance of the object within it since the distinction is merely two ways of considering the same object. But the manifold of intuition alone is not enough to make coherent judgments—it is a chaos of sense impressions.

We know, however, that the manifold is transcendentally unified in our self-consciousness; it is our manifold. What gives the objects of the manifold unity is the synthesis of them according to the rules of the a priori universal categories. Therefore, when we examine these objects of intuition, which are correlated to how the objects really are outside of it, according to the categories of the understanding, we can make objective judgments which produce knowledge about the objects of intuition, but not about the objects as they really are. The worry that what Kant gives us in his explanation of objective judgments is knowledge about things in themselves cannot be the case since Kant demonstrates quite clearly that objective judgments are confined to the conditions of possible experience which cannot apply to things in themselves but because the manifold of our intuition is unified by a priori categories, both transcendentally ideal and empirically real, we can make universal judgments about objects that are necessarily correlated with things in themselves but cannot apply to them.

What this study has hopefully done is given us an important starting point for the constitution of the person in critical discourse. I would encourage readers not to get too caught up on words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” right now. The important take aways from this study:

1) Intuition belongs to a subject.

2) “Objectivity” is not removed from subjective intuition but is rather an integral part of it.

3) Correlation here is not 1:1 between objects of intuition and objects as they really are.

The demand of these conclusions for contemporary critical discourse is that we employ more care when we talk about the problems that terms like “objectivity” and “correlation” pose. As I mentioned in the first post, continuing through the history of critical discourse, we’ll see how the role of the subject in the production of knowledge and the articulation of the limits of knowledge becomes reconfigured and contested such that, eventually, words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” become immensely problematic. For right now, I hope readers will find it useful to think through these issues with figures like Kant (and later, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Husserl, and others) in order to arrive at a more robust understanding of one’s own place in the larger tradition of critical discourse.


[1] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 347-8.

[2] Kant, 246, his emphasis.

[3] Kant, 246-7.

[4].Kant, 249, his emphasis.

[5] Kant, 231.

[6] Kant, 231.

[7] Kant, 231.

[8] Hume thought that outside of mathematical knowledge, these were the only sorts of judgments we could make, i.e. “The sun is out, and the ground is warm.” There is no necessary connection between these events, only a series of perceptions.

[9] Kant, 231.

[10] In contrast to the example in the previous note regarding judgments of perception, an objective judgment is one of experience. That is, given the categories of the understanding, one could examine a series of perceptions (“The sun is out, and the ground is warm”) and produce a necessary connection between them, i.e. “The sun caused the ground to be warm.” This is an objective judgment that produces necessarily true knowledge about the objects in question.

The Origins of Critique III: The Function of the Noumenal

I established in the last two posts (here and here) that how the thing-in-itself operates within Kant’s system is rather difficult to pin down; in addition to this, what the phrase means is also quite ambiguous since Kant uses a number of different locutions to seemingly refer to the same thing.[1] Furthermore, Kant discusses the subject at both the beginning and the end of the first division, and it is not clear that he is referring to the same thing in both places. That said, I want to emphasize again that this reading of the thing-in-itself is set forth and utilized in order to best show the distinction between knowledge of things-in-themselves and knowledge that comes from objective judgments, which we’ll get to in the next (and final) post on reason in Kant.

The primary issue at hand for Kant is to explain both how objects in our sensible intuitions are only as they appear and how it is that his system is not simply a version of Berkeleian idealism in which there are no empirically real objects at all, only ideas. Kant first introduces the idea of appearances contrasted with objects as they are in the Transcendental Aesthetic.[2] Objects cannot be given to us any other way but through intuition (A19/B33), and Kant calls these given objects appearances. In the Transcendental Aesthetic, he establishes both space and time as a priori conditions of the possibility of intuition, with space as the outer sense of intuition and time the inner sense. They are the form of all intuition—they make appearances possible. Space and time are therefore not themselves appearances or empirical concepts that come from experience but the form of experience without which we could not have sensible intuitions. Most importantly for our present concern, space and time do not apply to objects in themselves. We know a priori that space and time give us the form of objects as they appear to us, since “One can never represent that there is no space, although one can very well think that there are no objects to be encountered in it [. . .] [and] In regard to appearances in general one cannot remove time, though one can very well take the appearances away from time” (A24/B38, A31/B46).[3]

In other words, we simply cannot think outside of these forms. They are for us. If space and time are the form of our intuition and we accept that there are empirically real objects that we intuit as appearances,[4] it follows that those objects exist as they do not appear to us as well. We can think them that way (or “consider” them as Allison says) because we know that our intuitions are of objects as they appear to us according to the form of space and time. In this way, thing-in-itself is a contrasting place-holder. We cannot know anything about objects as they really are because we would have to know them outside of space and time. However, this does not prevent us from saying that the same objects exist independentally of our intuitions—refuting that that would be to commit to idealism. We can thus say that the thing-in-itself as aspect is a methodology in that it is the counter to the thing as it appears to us in space and time that helps us square the existence of empirically real objects with the premise that the intuition of objects can only be appearances given that the ground of all intuition is space and time, an a priori pure intuition. In Kant’s conclusion to the Transcendental Analytic, he surveys all that he has covered and returns to the ideas of appearance and thing-in-itself. In the A edition, Kant reintroduces the phenomena/noumena terminology from the Dissertation (discussed in my first post) initially giving a summary of his claim from it. He writes:

Appearances, to the extent that as objects they are thought in accordance with the unity of the categories, are called phenomena. If, however, I suppose there to be things that are merely objects of the understanding and that, nevertheless, can be given to an intuition, although not to sensible intuition (as coram intuiti intellectuali), then such things would be called noumena (intelligibilia). [. . .] For if the senses merely represent something to us as it appears, then this something must also be in itself a thing, and an object of a non-sensible intuition, i.e., of the understanding, i.e., a cognition must be possible in which no sensibility is encountered, and which alone has absolutely objective reality, through which, namely, objects are represented to us as they are, in contrast to the empirical use of our understanding, in which things are only cognized as they appear. Thus there would be, in addition to the empirical use of the categories (which is limited to sensible conditions), a pure and yet objectively valid one, and we could not assert, what we have previously maintained, that our pure cognitions of the understanding are in general nothing more than principles of the exposition of appearances that do not go a priori beyond the formal possibility of experience, for here an entirely different field would stand open before us, as it were a world though in spirit (perhaps also even intuited), which could not less but even more nobly occupy our understanding (A248-9).[5]

His initial description of noumena found in the Dissertation cannot possibly be correct; otherwise, to paraphrase Kant here, we could not assert that the categories are rules by which we unify the manifold of sensation and do not exceed the a priori formal conditions of space and time which make sense experience possible. His previous understanding of the noumena as non-sensical intuition (i.e. what he had previously called intelligence) does not have a place in a system of transcendentally ideal, empirically real categories in which all intuition is sense experience. Kant reconfigures the terms, writing:

All our representations are in fact related to some object through the understanding, and, since appearances are nothing but representations, the understanding thus relates them to a something, as the object of sensible intuition: but this something is to that extent only the transcendental object. This signifies, however as something = X, of which we know nothing at all nor can know anything in general [. . .], but is rather something that can serve only as a correlate of the unity of apperception for the unity of the manifold in sensible intuition, by means of which the understanding unifies that in the concept of an object. This transcendental object cannot even be separated from the sensible data, for then nothing would remain through which it would be thought. It is therefore no object of cognition in itself, but only the representation of appearances under the concept of an object in general which is determinable through the manifold of those appearances. Just for this reason, then, the categories do not represent any special object given to the understanding alone, but rather serve only to determine the transcendental object [. . .] through that which is given in sensibility, in order thereby to cognize appearances empirically under concepts of objects (A250-1).[6]

We have now a reasonably clear understanding of both the definition and function of the thing-in-itself for Kant. It is a methodological concept that is the necessary result of recognizing that the objects of our intuitions are appearances which conform to the pure intuitions of space and time a priori. In my final post on reason in Kant, we’ll look at his understanding of objective judgments to see how that differs from knowledge of things-in-themselves. 


[1] Allison, following Gerald Prauss, writes, “By far Kant’s most common locution is Ding an sich selbst” which he goes on to say is a version “of the cannonical “thing considered as itself” [Ding an sich selbst betrachtet], where the an sich selbst functions adverbially to characterize how a thing is being considered rather than the kind of thing it is or the way in which it exists.” Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004): 52.
[2] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
[3] Kant, 158, 162.
[4] We have not addressed the issue of objectivity yet, and indeed at this point in the Critique, neither has Kant. We shall reconstruct Kant’s objectivity thesis in the final post.
[5] Kant, 347, his emphasis.
[6] Kant, 347-8, his emphasis.

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.