To See Philosophically: Introducing the (Publicly) Educated to Immanuel Kant

David Baird


What we don’t study in school, but that you need to know: 

            Beginnings like this make a difference. Many people will only read three lines of a good book. I must instantly convince you to keep reading. However, this is easier than you may think– for I was like you, young and seeking knowledge and life, and I turned to the various resources, and took a many-book’d journey through the world of general science, the biology of evolution, and philosophy; physics, feminism and economic politics– any book I could find out about that looked like it could show me something new. This is just as Immanuel Kant did– except he wasn’t born thirty years ago– instead almost three hundred. In the grand scheme of things, however, this is but a little time. World-historically speaking, Kant was right at the beginning of our own time– the Modern. He helped form the awakening, the Enlightenment, when humanity realized that individuals were supreme– he could perhaps see some things that we take for granted now, but which are critical components of our views of life. In short, he invented The Critique of Pure Reason, the first book when you have reached the end of philosophy– the search for the most intelligence in any one place, with respect to where you are.  

            Kant had life and the world and intelligence right two hundred and twenty-five years ago, with the publication of the book that proved to his fellows and all history that he saw into complexities that apply to everyone, but that no one had had the perseverance or systematic personality to reveal before. But Kant is not just Greatest because he was first. He could very well be first because he was the Greatest. His name should be known by everyone today, but alas– it is not the case. Through this popular account of his philosophy I shall seek, in my small way, to help rectify the situation.

            In school, we learn many things. However, what we are taught about are the usual objects of science: physical things, such as the world, nature, animals, brains, language, society, and so on. What United States (and even perhaps worldwide) schools do not delve into, however, is what is beyond “reductionist” physics– the “objects” that we know automatically or rationally cannot be studied or even perhaps thought about by “science,” or the analysis of wholes by reducing (breaking) into parts, based methodically on repetitive empirical experimentation; these things left unmentioned are god, the soul, and more debatably, free will.

            The question arises, “Do the authorities ignore these because it would be improper to speak of them to kids-slash-students, or do they ignore these things because it is impossible to know anything useful about them, let alone logical or mathematical?” But apparently it is not improper to speak of these things to kids, because most Americans grow up believing in some form of god. And if it is impossible to know anything about these “objects” beyond physics, or metaphysical objects, why do millions attend religious services regularly?


The answers are not simple

            We will leave for you as a puzzle, why the study of metaphysics is left for those lucky enough to attend colleges with philosophy departments. Instead, we will break with institutional, pedagogical, federally mandated positive-and-negative-reinforcing conventional pre-professional educational norms and introduce to you to one of the most important philosophical developments in modern times: Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy. You may have some ideas of what “philosophy” is, but what on Earth could a “critical” philosophy be? And why should you care?


Everyone cares about philosophy

            Whether you explicitly care about “philosophy” or not, I will propose that simply by being a human, with the intelligence necessary to read a text like this, you implicitly care very much. This is because philosophy is simply an approach of intelligence, questioning and answering. It is an approach to the truth, and this of course means that what “the truth” is must be in dispute, among philosophers as much as among politicians.

            Anything you think about or do, anything that can be put into words, is something that could be studied philosophically; although some questions are seen as more “profitable” to dwell on than others. Remember, though: the truest philosophy ever is always to be found in the future; you alone may be the one who knows what the most profitable way to approach the truth may be; you may be the Kant of our age.

            Some questions that might put you on an interesting track would be like these: Would you like to be immortal? Do you wonder about god? Do you hope that as a human, you are intrinsically different than a computer, no matter how powerful the computer could be? Do you wonder about how the laws we live under as a society were justified by those who legislated them? Do you wonder what, if any, purpose humanity has? If any of these questions seem like more than idle banter, you would benefit from learning philosophy.

            The question may arise: “Why are you telling us about some guy writing two hundred years ago? The world has come a long way. There’s so much more to know about– why not tell us about a modern philosopher?” One answer to that may be, “Well– I am. And I am the philosopher!” But also we can say this: although the world has more gizmo’s in it than Kant knew about, and the informational (and thus social) complexity has increased tremendously, there is no fundamental difference between humanity now, and the humanity Kant knew. In other words, extra gadgets and Theories of Everything, extra books and “eye candy,” (complex visualizations), all the wonders of the space-age economy, do not change the essence of what it is to be human. And so Kant, seeing just as much color and beauty in life as you see now, still speaks with as powerful a voice as he did to his own age.

            However, his language is old, and in any case it was probably hard to understand even when it came out, so the aspiring philosopher generally needs some explanation of and guidance about Kant. That’s where I come in– I attended university, where some of the best minds of “the current moment” in modern times, “contemporaneity,” have educated me about their approaches, and hopefully I learned enough so that what I’m writing here will enable you to get a good picture of the man who some would call the King of philosophy, (even though he was unfortunately racist).


What good is having a mind?

            As we all can see, there are many approaches to life. Some become scientists, and study the world to learn nature’s secrets. Others become artists, and seek to express their passions with the utmost intensity they are capable of, in their chosen modality, whether it be painting, music, or guerilla theater. Still others become financial speculators, and strive to “beat the system” and extract huge wealth from the functioning of the economy. But people have one thing in common: they are intelligences. They are minds, and they use their minds in life. So I would propose that it makes sense to take a closer look at this all-important realm, the mental realm, without which we would be like primitive robots.

            Your mind has been likened to a universe inside your head– that is the best image we can come up with for the complexity of brains. A thing which we know the most basic functional parameters of; but as for the more difficult questions, we have almost no clues. For instance, consciousness is something that is fully amazing, especially if you think about the alternatives. Kant himself ventured no hypothesis on this matter, for he thought such a theory– about the cause of our thinking– would be something like an opinion, which would have no place in his philosophy, or system of rational cognition. Now, you may hold and cherish opinions, but in philosophy the point is to get beyond these subjective cognitions and attain objectivity– or thinking that is true to its “object.” Why? If you can’t guess, you probably already know, and will most likely find out soon, (like in the next sentence).


The action of the mind is to combine sensations, memory, and understanding

            Minds both think, and act. But thinking is an act; and an act, unless it’s a reflex, will involve thought. The mind, in short, is an integrated whole – all of its parts fit together as one unified self. All of the aspects of consciousness are “synthesized” into one (usually) coherent experience. Even in multiple personality disorder, the different personalities occur in sequence – while at any one time, there is only one self in/of any brain. Although metaphorically speaking, there are many “selves” to each of us – we have the potential to reach many different destinies, and at any one time, different potentials may be in conflict. Or, different aspects may conflict – the emotions versus the intellect, for instance, debating whether to do homework, or go outside and play.

            A key realization to make about yourself is this: You cannot perceive your self. Of course you can see your body in the mirror, and feel it through sensation, or as Kant calls it, intuition. But there is no special feeling, no one thing you can point to inside of you, and say, “That’s me.” Luckily, though you cannot feel your self, you can be yourself.


What does life consist of?

            Life consists of you, that is, your inner self – the “thinking subject” within your head – and the world, that is, everything else – all you will ever know. By the way, in case you had hopes otherwise, I have to dash them, and assure you that all you will ever experience will happen in time and space. Because, despite our tendancies to be unsatisfied with temporal things, time and space are the “forms” of our sensibility. They are the ways our experience is organized. To escape them would mean escaping your humanity.

            Since time is not a thing, but the way our inner experience progresses, time cannot be perceived. Luckily, though, we have absolutely no need to perceive it; we need only know that which happens in time– in other words, we know of time simply from things happening. (At the most basic level, the things happening are patterns of neural events, which do not stop until you die).



            A good question is the one about how we learn. For instance, with vision, your self sees a visual field. To put it as “generally” as I can: a semi-spherical, colored and shaded three-dimensional something appears to your visual cortex, and is noticed by the the rest of the brain, and your consciousness in general. (The eye-candy is tasted.)

            An experience such as seeing a particular thing, which because of perspective, only you can know exactly, is “subjective,” or relating to you, and “phenomenal,” or eventful. The word ‘phenomena’ has been appropriated by philosophers such as Kant, who use it to mean those events which a mind can experience. Thus, all mentality is “phenomenal.”

            This brings us to a most profound philosophical truth, which even many great minds cannot fully understand, for reasons of their own. It is that we will experience only all that we will ever experience. And what do we experience? Phenomena: mental events. Never “real things.” We are not really “things,” we are appearances to ourselves. However, we can know things, or objects of possible experience– we can agree on what the world is like. Objectivity is somehow possible, even though we can never know real objects, only phenomena– but this only requires that we are all human, or even that we are all animal-beings, discursive or conceptual cognizers at the highest levels of evolution, sensual cognizers at the lower levels, instinctive and reflexive at the lowest.

            There is no direct channel into “physical reality outside.” It may appear as if you are seeing a text in front of you, that really exists, and most people would not dispute the fact that there really is a text in front of you. However, a full “idealist,” a “solipsist” of the most extreme type believes his self is the only existing thing, notwithstanding the apparent brilliance of both the “world” and “other minds,” both of which he thinks part of his “dream.” Women, it is said, tend not to fall into this view, because they are being ever awoken by events beyond their control, while powerful men can sometimes go through life unhindered by harassment, symbolic or otherwise. Today I’ve read philosophers writing that no one could consistently and seriously hold this dream-viewpoint. But new antipsychotic medications are allowing many schizophrenia survivors to become fully functional members of the community and society, where their over-sensitivity to information mixes with their over-malleability, point-of-view-wise, to the more seductive philosophical possibilities, and causes them to take up the most illusory perspective; this of course being the holding of the view that only they are real– all else illusion.

            To this Kant would simply say, “You see the objects of your dream or life– but they did not just appear out of nowhere– something outside of you must have caused their appearance to you– there must be real things corresponding to them– you can call life a ‘dream’ if you really want to, but this is obviously incorrect– you can’t wish away the world for your own selfish reasons.”

            However, what does the world consist of? You are “seeing” my writing. That is, it is not directly present in your mind. What is present in your mind is a real pattern of activation in your visual cortext, which is caused by the pattern of activation of the cones and rods in your retinas, which is caused by light reflected off of this thing. This is a “causal chain,” or processes-process– a chain of processes causing or “determining” one after another. If you think about it, the “real text” is always apart from you – even if you touch it, and your body feels it, you are merely “feeling” it – it has not somehow been connected directly to your consciousness, but rather is the source of a chain of causes between your skin and your brain. There is never direct apprehension of anything but mentality, or phenomena. And science is no exception: scientific instruments, while they may be good at registering more properties of things, will also never let you know any real object directly.

            So, as Kant would say, this text you see before you is a thing in itself. That’s what it is. But what you see is instead an “object,” an appearance. You do not see, nor could any mind ever see, the text-in-itself, what it really is. You only ever see what-it-is-to-you. You see a text-for-you. You are really “looking” at a sort of model in your mind, ephemeral and perhaps not capable of being understood. Yes, I wrote the text, and its abstract linguistic information is digital in a way, that is capable of perfect reproduction, and it is linked to you– I am linked to you. But you will never “know” me, let alone “have” me– you can see and touch, read and ask and tell and show– but you cannot have or know.

            So, to put it bluntly, the nature of reality is being disputed. But Kant, lacking the gadgets of today, still had the most sensitive instrument in the universe– a hyper-complex mind, with reason or rationality, with which he could investigate the truth and reality just as deeply and intensely as any philosopher of today. Yes, science is more convoluted now than in his time; yet the truth has stayed the same, and what Kant thought has not been disproved, but only clarified, by modernity’s progress.


This brings up an important point

            As a philosopher, you may realize that we don’t know what words mean. If you knew what the word “intelligence” meant, for instance, you would be the best psychologist on Earth, and the smartest person – because to know what something means is to understand it completely, and be able to think, or “cognize” it as it actually is, perfectly. To know pure intelligence, you’d have to be a perfect intelligence, something like a god.

            The questions and answers are endless. What you should realize though, when someone tries to enforce their ideas on you, and tell you what a word “really means,” they may be talking sensibly, when discussing common-sense words, like ‘CPU’ or ‘CD-ROM.’ But if the question is philosophical, as in “What does ‘art’ mean?,” the chances are that there is no easy answer – or if there is one, like in the case of ‘soul’, probably only god could know it.


The fundamental beauty of philosophy, and life

            This is why we live: because things are not yet determined. You are a mind with free will. Maybe you have never thought otherwise. But many people, pondering the laws of physics, find themselves in a dilemma. It is the problem of “determinism.” If nature, and all that is within it, functions according to the laws of physics, then why isn’t it the same for our minds? And if we function according to laws, whether they be on the atomic level, the neuronal level, or the psychological level, then how can we ever make free choices? On the deterministic picture, if something happens, it is because a previous state of affairs caused it to happen, according to hard and fast rules that cannot be broken. So if you decide to reread this sentence, it is not because you somehow “choose” to– it is because, given the condition of your brain and its environment, your personality, what’s going on around you, your entire life history, you inevitably will have had to reread this sentence.

            You may be familiar with quantum mechanics, which on some interpretations reveals that there is indeterminacy on the subatomic level. However, even this quantum indeterminacy is lawful, and so even with this twist, things are always caused by previous states of affairs. In short, even with the latest physics theory, the free will cannot be explained, unless you admit that mentality is undetermined. That is, you must admit that the mind can will something to happen due entirely to no previous causes, though of course previous causes will play a large role in what you will.

            After all, it seems like we make choices. We have the word ‘choice’ after all. Can this be an illusion? Kant does not think so. For him and those of us like him, concepts like the concept of causality apply only to the objects of possible experience. But remember about “things in themselves”? These are the things beyond our perceptions, which we will never know directly. And it turns out that our own minds are things-in-themselves, as well as appearances-to-us. So, just because everything that happens must have its cause, does not mean we can take such a judgment and apply it to that which is beyond possible experience, such as your non-phenomenal self. And because you are capable of an action that is not totally determined by previous causes, you are free.

            And the rest of the story is just as interesting...


etc., etc.