Kant’s Theory of Perception

The Mistaken View¹

The summary of Kant’s theory of experience, that

We can only know appearances, not things in themselves,

has been mistakenly interpreted by some, that Kant has sided with Berkeley in that all

we perceive, is in our minds. However, unlike Berkeley, Kant wants to justify the

existence of a material, external world. This view exemplified in what follows:

Rollie has led a life he has believed to be normal. As a child, he had both parents, he had many friends, and he went to school in Normal Town, Pennsylvania. As an adult, he went to college and graduated, found a stable job, and eventually had a family. 

Unbeknownst to Rollie, he currently resides at 497 Evil Scientist Boulevard, Cell #202 at Evil Scientist Establishment Somewhere Under the Ocean. He has lived there his entire life. In fact, he is merely a genetically created brain in a vat that is fed stimuli. The entire life Rollie believes he has lived, existed only in his mind.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it is because it is. Rollie’s life sounds exactly like what is purported by Brain in the Vat/Dream/Evil Demon/Evil Scientist/Evil Aliens hypothesis.

¹ The simple thesis for this paper: The mode of thinking linking Kant’s theory of experience with Berkeley’s theory of experience is wrong, and that a simple reading of excerpts from the texts, along with my interpretations and expounding of those texts, show this.

Those who view Kant’s theory of experience in the way described above would assert that:

1.) Rollie’s experience takes place entirely in his mind, and
2.) that there is a world that is real, a world that exists outside of Rollie. This world is the world of the evil scientist.

For these people, number one exemplifies that we can only know appearances, and number two shows that we cannot know things in themselves. The world of the evil scientist, and the objects within that world, would be interpreted as those things-in-
themselves. The things-in-themselves represent the world external to us that exists, that we are not able to sense. However, this is not Kant’s view.

Kaleidoscopic Senses

“…if I separate from the representations of a body that which the understanding thinks about it, such as substance, force, divisibility, etc., as well as that which belongs to sensation, such as impenetrability, hardness, color, etc., something from this empirical intuition is still left for me, namely extension and form.”

pg. 173, A 21/B 35
Critique of Pure Reason
Cambridge Edition

In another words, if I take an object, such as a couch, and I close my eyes and abstract away its characteristics: its shape, its color, its substance, etc. and I go so far as to try to this same exercise with its surroundings and attempt to imagine nothing, I am still left envisioning a black void – a void that takes up extension and form. This example is to get the reader acquainted with the point that such things as sensing extension and form are unavoidable. I am constrained to thinking of objects as taking up extension and  form (space), just as I am constrained to thinking that my life takes place from moment-
to-moment-to-moment (time). I am constrained to thinking of my experience of the world in terms of rules of space and time.

“We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving [e.g. space and time] them [things-in-themselves], which is peculiar to us, and which therefore does not necessarily pertain to every being, though to be sure it pertains to every human being.”

Pg. 168, A 44/B 60
Critique of Pure Reason
Cambridge Edition

I revisit the statement:

We can only know appearances, not things in themselves.

To Kant, experience is a form of interpretation; appearances are what I subjectively judge the world around me to be. In so, it becomes obvious that Kant’s theory of experience is very different from the theory I outlined in the first half of this paper.

The example touted in class revolves around an individual whose vision of the world is rose tinted (as someone wearing rose tinted sunglasses). To this person, a tree appears rose colored, the sky appears rose colored, along with everything else. In my version of the example², this colored world, is how the world is in itself – the tree and its greenness is how that tree-is-in-itself. However, this person’s vision of the world is biased by rose tint. The rose tint is not a characteristic of the world, it is merely a quality brought unto the world by this observer.

For Kant, and for me, the rose tint observed by the individual is akin to space and time. Kant believes that human beings all perceive objects – are conscious – in this way,

² Please do not let this example lead you to believe that I think that it is possible for me or you to know things-in-themselves.

through “space and time”3 tinted lenses. However, he is quick to remark that this does not necessarily pertain to all beings. Even though I would take this to mean that he took into consideration dogs, cats, bats, bacteria, and aliens, he most likely meant [the Christian] God. Since Kant would believe God to be an omnipotent, omniscient being, it serves Kant well to believe that God is not “inhibited4” by any kind of “lenses” – that God is able to see things in themselves. Many5 believe that it makes more sense that [a] God would also wear “lenses” of some kind. To demonstrate this point more exactly, I am going to diverge slightly from the rose-tinted vision metaphor:

Susie, and everyone else in her world have a type of kaleidoscopic vision. Things-in-
themselves, essentially, have been reflected at least three times. However, this kaleidoscope vision does not phase the individuals of Susie’s world one bit since this is all they have ever known, and that this is the way things are. 

Scientists in Susie’s world have pointed out that they are not necessarily certain that their symmetrical world is how the world is in itself, they just know that everyone sees the world in the same way.

Aliens observe Susie’s world from afar, but from kaleidoscope vision that contains one less mirror. This allows them vision that could never imagine themselves being without, in much the same way that the humans on Susie’s world could never imagine only being able to “see” with merely an eyespot6 – kaleidoscopic vision with green tint, no less!

The creator of Susie’s world, Clive, is able to watch everyone in Susie’s world and the aliens, because his kaleidoscopic vision has one less mirror7 than the aliens.

³ Not limited to merely space and time.
4 put quotation marks around inhibited, since our a priori-rules-of-perceiving are not necessarily inhibiting.
5 Such as Kent Baldner.
6 As the eyespot on the unicellular organism Euglena.
7 For the purposes of this example, this actually happens.

However, in the end, all of the creatures in this story have kaleidoscopic vision/senses, and have no method of telling whether their kaleidoscopic vision is able to bring them the “clearest8” vision of things in themselves. They only know what they see, appearances.

In a way, one could state that Kant’s theory of experience poses a problem similar to that of the Dream hypothesis.

In the dream hypothesis, we have no method to tell whether or not we are dreaming. Even if we were to “break out” of our dream state through some kind of rescuer, we would still have no way knowing whether we were still in another dream.

With Kant, we have no method of sensing objects as they are in themselves. Even if we were to “break free” of our bias, such as that of our current way of perceiving time and/or perceiving in three dimensions, we would still be trapped by yet another bias of perceiving.

To conclude: No matter who is the [conscious] perceiver, that perceiver will be biased in some way when it comes to interpreting the things in themselves.

8 Technically, their vision is clear.


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