kant taxonomy

Immanuel Kant

The noumenon [noo-muh-non] is a posited object or event that is known (if at all) without the use of the senses. The term is generally used in contrast with, or in relation to ‘phenomenon,’ which refers to anything that appears to, or is an object of, the senses. In Ancient philosophy, the noumenal realm was equated with the world of ideas known to the philosophical mind, in contrast to the phenomenal realm, which was equated with the world of sensory reality, known to the uneducated mind.

Modern philosophy has generally denied the possibility of knowledge independent of the senses, and Immanuel Kant gave this point of view its classical version, saying that the noumenal world may exist, but it is completely unknowable to humans. In Kantian philosophy the unknowable noumenon is often linked to the unknowable ‘thing per se’ (‘Ding an sich’), although how to characterize the nature of the relationship is a question yet open to some controversy.

Platonic Ideas and Forms are noumena, and phenomena are things displaying themselves to the senses […] that noumena and the noumenal world are objects of the highest knowledge, truths, and values is Plato’s principal legacy to philosophy. Noumenon came into its modern usage through Immanuel Kant. Its etymology derives from the Greek ‘nooúmenon’ (‘thought-of’) and ultimately reflects ‘nous’ (‘intuition’). Noumena is the plural form. Noumenon is distinguished from phenomenon (Erscheinung), the latter being an observable event or physical manifestation capable of being observed by one or more of the human senses. The two words serve as interrelated technical terms in Kant’s philosophy. As expressed in Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’ human understanding is structured by ‘concepts of the understanding,’ or innate categories that the mind uses in order to make sense of raw unstructured experience.

By Kant’s account, when we employ a concept to describe or categorize noumena (the objects of inquiry, investigation or analysis of the workings of the world), we are in fact employing a way of describing or categorizing phenomena (the observable manifestations of those objects of inquiry, investigation or analysis). Kant posited methods by which human beings make sense out of the interrelationships among phenomena: the concepts of the transcendental aesthetic, as well as that of the transcendental analytic, transcendental logic, and transcendental deduction. Taken together, Kant’s ‘categories of understanding’ are descriptions of the sum of human reasoning that can be brought to bear in attempting to understand the world in which we exist (that is, to understand, or attempt to understand, ‘things in themselves’). In each instance the word ‘transcendental’ refers to the process that the human mind uses to increasingly understand or grasp the form of, and order among, phenomena.

Kant asserts that to ‘transcend’ a direct observation or experience is to use reason and classifications to strive to correlate with the phenomena that are observed. By Kant’s view, humans can make sense out of phenomena in these various ways, but can never directly know the noumena, the ‘things-in-themselves,’ the actual objects and dynamics of the natural world. In other words, by Kant’s Critique, our minds may attempt to correlate in useful ways, perhaps even closely accurate ways, with the structure and order of the various aspects of the universe, but cannot know these ‘things-in-themselves’ (noumena) directly. Rather, we must infer the extent to which thoughts correspond with things-in-themselves by our observations of the manifestations of those things that can be sensed, that is, of phenomena. According to Kant, objects of which we are sensibly cognizant are merely representations of unknown somethings—what Kant refers to as the transcendental object—as interpreted through the a priori or categories of the understanding. These unknown somethings are manifested within the noumenon—although we can never know how or why as our perceptions of these unknown somethings are bound by the limitations of the categories of the understanding and we are therefore never able to fully know the ‘thing-in-itself.’

Kant also makes a distinction between positive and negative noumena: ‘If by ‘noumenon’ we mean a thing so far as it is not an object of our sensible intuition, and so abstract from our mode of intuiting it, this is a noumenon in the negative sense of the term.’ ‘But if we understand by it an object of a non-sensible intuition, we thereby presuppose a special mode of intuition, namely, the intellectual, which is not that which we possess, and of which we cannot comprehend even the possibility. This would be ‘noumenon’ in the positive sense of the term.’ The positive noumena, if they existed, would roughly correspond with Plato’s Forms or Idea—immaterial entities which can only be apprehended by a special, non-sensory, faculty: ‘intellectual intuition.’

Kant doubts that we have such a faculty, because for him intellectual intuition would mean that thinking of an entity, and its being represented, would be the same. He argues that humans have no way to apprehend the meaning of positive noumena: ‘Since, however, such a type of intuition, intellectual intuition, forms no part whatsoever of our faculty of knowledge, it follows that the employment of the categories can never extend further than to the objects of experience. Doubtless, indeed, there are intelligible entities corresponding to the sensible entities; there may also be intelligible entities to which our sensible faculty of intuition has no relation whatsoever; but our concepts of understanding, being mere forms of thought for our sensible intuition, could not in the least apply to them. That, therefore, which we entitle ‘noumenon’ must be understood as being such only in a negative sense.’

Even if noumena are unknowable, they are still needed as a limiting concept, Kant tells us. Without them, there would be only phenomena, and since we have complete knowledge of our phenomena, we would in a sense know everything. In his own words: ‘Further, the concept of a noumenon is necessary, to prevent sensible intuition from being extended to things in themselves, and thus to limit the objective validity of sensible knowledge.’ ‘What our understanding acquires through this concept of a noumenon, is a negative extension; that is to say, understanding is not limited through sensibility; on the contrary, it itself limits sensibility by applying the term noumena to things in themselves (things not regarded as appearances). But in so doing it at the same time sets limits to itself, recognizing that it cannot know these noumena through any of the categories, and that it must therefore think them only under the title of an unknown something.’

Furthermore, for Kant, the existence of a noumenal world limits reason to what he perceives to be its proper bounds, making many questions of traditional metaphysics, such as the existence of God, the soul, and free will unanswerable by reason. Kant derives this from his definition of knowledge as ‘the determination of given representations to an object.’ As there are no appearances of these entities in the phenomenal, Kant is able to make the claim that they cannot be known to a mind that works upon ‘such knowledge that has to do only with appearances.’ These questions are ultimately the ‘proper object of faith, but not of reason.’

Though the term Noumenon did not come into common usage until Kant, the idea that undergirds it, that matter has an absolute existence which causes it to emanate certain phenomena, had historically been subjected to criticism. George Berkeley, who pre-dated Kant, asserted that matter, independent of an observant mind, was metaphysically impossible. Qualities associated with matter, such as shape, color, smell, texture, weight, temperature, and sound were all dependent on minds, which allowed only for relative perception, not absolute perception. The complete absence of such minds (and more importantly an omnipotent mind) would render those same qualities unobservable and even unimaginable. Berkeley called this philosophy ‘immaterialism.’ Essentially there could be no such thing as matter without a mind.

Vladimir Nabokov uses the word ‘noumenon’ in ‘Bend Sinister’: ‘He had never indulged in the search for the True Substance, the One, the Absolute, the Diamond suspended from the Christmas Tree of the Cosmos. He had always felt the faint ridicule of a finite mind peering at the iridescence of the invisible through the prison bars of integers. And even if the Thing could be caught, why should he, or anybody else for that matter, wish the phenomenon to lose its curls, its mask, its mirror, and become the bald noumenon?’

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