Thursday, October 05, 2006

Things in themselves, appearances, noumena, and phenomena, Jessica Leech

Consider two distinctions: the ontological distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances (what things are), and the epistemological distinction between noumena and phenomena (how an object may come to be known). One might take these distinctions to be co-extensional, i.e. all appearances are all phenomena, and all things-in-themselves are all noumena. I have reason to disagree with this (and the preferred interpretation leads onto an account of a distinction between self and world). The first conjunct is acceptable; all the appearances are the same as all the phenomena. Both ‘appearances’ and ‘phenomena’ are defined by experience, in the first case the general type of what is experienced, and in the second case how it comes to be experienced. In both cases the same things are going to be picked out; everything experienced in the empirical world is appearance, and everything here experienced must be experienced through sensible intuition and the understanding, and thus is phenomenal.
I do not accept the second conjunct; that things-in-themselves and noumena are co-extensional. Take a simple general case, the thing Y: Y1 is a thing-in-itself, underlying an appearance y1, y2 is the phenomenal object the experience of which corresponds to the appearance y1, and Y2 is the noumenal object postulated through y2. Roughly speaking y1 and y2, and Y1 and Y2 correspond, those numbered 1 being ontologically defined, those numbered two being epistemically defined, those in lower case being part of the empirical world of experience. Now contrast this with a special case, the thing Z, where Z is a thing-in-itself (we do not have experience or knowledge of Z in any way). In the same terms as above, we have the thing-in-itself Z1, but no appearance z1. As there is no appearance, and appearances and phenomenal objects go together, then there is no phenomenon z2 here either. Finally, as noumenal objects are postulated as a result of experience of a phenomenal object, with no z2 there is no Z2. Thus, one has the thing-in-itself, Z1, with no corresponding Z2. Therefore the ontological and epistemological distinctions in question are not co-extensive.
This conclusion is perhaps not so surprising, given the different foundations on which each distinction is based. The ontological distinction concerns the nature of things; what they are. Although what appearances are is the product of our intuitions and concepts, the distinction does not rely on a human subject. It is just that without human experience to provide appearances, there would only be things to satisfy one side of the distinction—the possibility of there being a thing-in-itself with no appearance is just the possibility of there being no experiencing subject to “create” the appearance. Conversely, the epistemological distinction is based deeply in human experience, as it depends on different ways of knowing objects, presupposing that there must be a ‘knower’ before anything can be distinguished.

Now take the self as a supposed object of investigation. Suppose there is a real self, a thing-in-itself, S1, then there may be a corresponding appearance s1. We might accept this, allowing that the appearance is the empirical self. The empirical self is phenomenal, thus we then also have s2, and further postulate S2, the noumenal self. Now, the phenomenal s2 is related by some knower to the postulated S2. We are purportedly classifying the self, or elements of the self according to the phenomena-noumena distinction. However, this distinction itself is driven by there being a (human) knowing subject. This knowing subject is the recipient of intuitions, and will apply the concepts of the understanding and so on, resulting in knowledge of the empirical self, and inference to the noumenal self, these being associated with that same knowing subject. However, it is unclear whether something that is a foundation of a distinction can have that distinction applied back to itself in this way, i.e. can a distinction founded in some x be applied to x?
This kind of self-referential problem is a serious and wide-ranging one. (Related issues arise in the study of logic, associated with Russell’s Paradox, the Liar Paradox and the use of diagonalisation in Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.) It is unclear if the distinction at issue here, based on how a subject has knowledge, can be applied to that very same subject. We would no longer be considering the case of how a separate object is known, but rather the special case of self-knowledge. Do we know the self through sensible intuition and the understanding, or do we postulate the self as underlying phenomenal experience? Above I have already rejected both accounts, at least where the self in question is that in a self-world distinction. This lends support to the claim that the phenomenal-noumenal distinction cannot indeed apply to the subject on which it relies, whereas the ontological distinction can.


Anonymous jonny said...

A quote from Ramsey
"We could always cheat a theory of our voluntary actions. i.e. the comlpete statement of our nature (the laws by which we would react to any stimulus) must be such that we couldn't understand it and spite it. Therefore we cannot understand our own nature."
I don't understand what noumena are, but if Ramsey's argument is correct, would this mean that there can be no noumenal self? Or perhaps that the noumenal self is necessarily non identical with the self in its self?

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Jess said...

That is my idea I think, though not necessarily the same motivation. We can't know anything (much) about the noumenal self by definition - it is just something that we posit as grounding the phenomenal self. There are arguments elsewhere to show that 'the self proper' cannot be the noumenal self. But my argument against the two distinctions being co-extensive leaves room for the possibility that this 'self in itself' is not the noumenal self. So there is somewhere we can locate the real self, that does not require it to be phenomenal, noumenal or empirical.

There is of course the point that we can't know anything about a thing in itself, and hence we can't know anything about a self in itself. We can only have knowledge of such things as they appear. This doesn't mean we can't understand anything about our own nature though. We can understand a lot by looking at these appearances, and the conditions of the possibility of our experience being as it is. For example, we can find out that the real self is a thing in itself...

6:25 PM  
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2:26 PM  
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