On Philosophy

November 8, 2006

Transcendental Idealism

Filed under: General Philosophy,Mind — Peter @ 1:03 am

Transcendental idealism is a lot like normal idealism with some subtle differences (differences that make a world of difference when we are considering taking it seriously). Transcendental idealists generally don’t deny that a world external to us exists, or that it is objective. They do, however, claim that this world is constructed or constituted by our perceptions of it. According to the transcendental idealist there is no such thing as part of the world that cannot be perceived because our perceptions to some extent define the world. (Of course even within transcendental idealism there are variations, for example does part of the world exist when no one is perceiving it?) We can contrast this position with transcendental realism, which holds that there is some independently existing world, but that we can’t get at it except through appearances.

In my opinion both transcendental idealism and transcendental realism are flawed, but today I am going to deal only with transcendental idealism. Transcendental idealism is certainly preferable to plain old idealism; regular idealism would have us abandon the notion of objectivity, and perhaps slide into solipsism, which is not a problem with transcendental idealism. Transcendental idealism does, however, share a problem with regular idealism, dealing with error and disagreement.

If it is true that the world is constituted or defined by our perceptions of it then how are we to recover the idea of a perception being in error? Let me address specifically a Husserlian kind of transcendental idealism, where objects in the world are said to exist as a harmonious synthesis of perceptions (that means that the perceptions about the object are in some kind of agreement and that they present themselves as perceptions of the same object). What are we to say when our perceptions of an object are in disagreement? (For example, disagreement over time, where an object looks one way close up, but differently at a distance; or disagreement between modalities, where an object looks a certain way, but our sense of touch presents it as another.) Are we to say that no object is being constituted? Or that there are different objects at different times or for different modalities? We could say such things, just as the idealist is free to say that there is no such thing as objectivity, but to do so seems to be to throw out something we wish to save. We want to be able to say that the world is a certain way, and that we can perceive it either accurately or inaccurately, but without allowing for the existence of a world outside of perception transcendental idealism blocks us from describing cases of error in this way. And even the notion of objectivity may be threatened by this problem, when two people disagree about the contents of the world because of their different perceptions of it. How can the transcendental idealist decide who is right, since truth is generally not thought of as a democratic process?

I do not raise such issues because transcendental idealism in general is a powerful force in philosophy at the moment; of course there are some who work with transcendental idealism still, but it does not dominate contemporary philosophy as it once did. However, the philosophy of mind still does grapple with a kind of limited transcendental idealism. Specifically it is claimed that there is nothing more to conscious experience than what appears as part of conscious experience. And unlike normal transcendental idealism this seems to be a rational claim, after all being aware of some fact does seem to be a requirement if it is to be conscious. And to adhere to such a position is not to say that every mental act and structure must be available to us, there could be a large supporting, unconscious, framework that is responsible for consciousness. Additionally, when dealing with consciousness the inability to deal with error may not be a problem at all, since it does seem rational to think that people cannot be in error about their own consciousness, at least not at the moment it is occurring.

And I do not, in principle, have a problem with these claims. However, sometimes we are tempted to take the method of transcendental idealism too far with respect to the mind. It is going too far to say that because it appears to us that there is some feature of consciousness that there must be such a feature. This is to confuse the appearances with the underlying reality, because while transcendental idealism may be a good approach when dealing with consciousness by itself it falls apart when we are considering the mind as a whole. And when we are wondering about some feature of consciousness we are wondering “is there really such a feature in the mind?”, that is, does the reality match up with appearances? And the answer may very well be “no”. It may be that all there is to some conscious feature is the appearance of that feature. For example, it appears to us as if our blind spot is filled in. Is the visual data available to consciousness filled in, or do we just think that it is? This is a question that can’t be answered by appealing to appearances. Sure it appears to be filled in, but that appearance could have a number of causes, not all of which correspond to some kind of filling in of the visual field. Ultimately when we seek to explain consciousness we want to explain and understand the underlying reality, and deal with the appearances only as appearances.

To really make the distinction clear we need to pin down exactly how something can be an appearance to consciousness, which would have the effect of highlighting how the appearances in consciousness, that we can’t be mistaken about, can differ from reality, which we can be mistaken about. I propose that we do so via an “as if” definition. More specifically I am proposing that saying something appears (in consciousness) to be a certain way is to assert that subsequent mental states are constructed as if that appearance was the case. Let me give a concrete example. Going back to our blind spot we can say that there is an appearance of the blind spot being filled in because consciousness proceeds as if it was filled in. We make judgments as if the spot was filled in, we talk about our experience as if the spot was filled in, we orient ourselves to the world as if the spot was filled in, we think about the contents of our visual field as if the spot was filled in, ect. And of course there are many ways in which this could come about, one of which being that the visual data really is filled in. But, as this description of what it means for something to appear a certain way in consciousness points out, we can’t jump from our knowledge of appearances to knowledge about the way things really are. A jump people seem ready to make in the case of qualia, when they assume that because it appears to us as if there are qualia then there must really be qualia, as they appear to us.



  1. I’m in the middle of a seminar on Kant.

    Your objections about a single object presenting multiple appearances seems to miss his whole point. Phenomenal objects are not the same as sense perceptions. Phenomenal objects are single things created by the unifying actions of Reason. My brain naturally merges the cup I see and the cup I feel into a single object in thought. Normally, one would be inclined to dismiss such unifying as a mere subjective sense that “I think I am feeling the same thing as I am seeing,” however, for Kant, saying I am feeling the same thing that I am seeing goes beyond a subjective unity into an objective unity, because anyone with working faculties of Reason would be compelled to make the same judgment if they went through the evidence given by the senses. This is why he calls himself a transcendental idealist but empirical realist. The objects that we experience exist as we experience them, that is, as wholes which unite different modes of sense into a single experience in space and time.

    As for do things disappear when we don’t look at them, Kant would say, the thing in itself is probably still there, but to ask about whether the phenomenon is still there is a bit ridiculous. If by asking “Is the cup still on the table when I look away” you mean, “Is the unseen object still a potential object of experience?” then, of course, the answer is yes. If you mean to ask, “Is it an object of experience even now, when I’m not looking?” then the answer is clearly no. If you’re trying to ask if the-thing-in-itself is still on the table, there can be no answer to the question, because you have never had an experience of a thing in itself and you never will (barring quirks in the afterlife that allow one to go beyond experience and reason). You don’t know anything about the thing (or things) in itself that caused the cup to appear on the table in the first place, so it’s not worth asking after.

    Thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Kant’s view is that we ARE all brains in vat, but the vat is something we can never know about, hence we are better off ignoring it and trying our best not to get caught up speculating about it (though doing so is irresistible usually). It’s important to note though, that since Kant felt time and space are constructs of our reason as it is currently embodied, he is against the assumption that things-in-themselves are subject to time and space in the way that we’re used to. So, don’t assume that the experience of cup on the table now is caused by atoms existing simultaneously with you as things in themselves or whatever…

    I don’t know much about Husserl though, so your comments may have been categorizing his views perfectly well…

    Comment by Carl — November 8, 2006 @ 1:49 am

  2. You missed a bit of the point, which is that in cases of error unifying breaks down. Anyways the bit on why transcendental idealism is flawed isn’t exactly breaking new ground, everyone knows that transcendental idealism has problems, it was really just a lead up to the last bit.

    Comment by Peter — November 8, 2006 @ 2:56 am

  3. Yeah, I would the big flaws in Kant are that he doesn’t explain errors well and he doesn’t talk about man as defined by his social environment. That said, I think the defense is that in cases where you think something is one way but later learn it was another way, in that case you were really wrong about it, because later evidence overturned it, but other questions are really fixed because everyone’s reason will come to the same conclusion of unity given the evidence at hand. So, it’s not possible that I’m wrong that things like tables and chairs really, objectively exist (as appearances) since we all would derive the existence of a chair from the voluminous evidence available, but I could be wrong in my labeling a particular thing a chair if I don’t get enough evidence before rendering my verdict.

    But sure, yeah, Kant is very weak on dreams, etc.

    Comment by Carl — November 8, 2006 @ 3:36 am

  4. Hi there,

    You say that transcendental idealists generally don’t deny that a world external to us exists, or that it is objective. But then you say that they think the world is a mind construction. So how can a transcendental idealist believe in an objective reality? Maybe we can say they don´t deny that the external world exist, but they can´t say anyhing about it.

    Bye, great blog!

    Comment by esteban — November 8, 2006 @ 4:37 am

  5. They say the world is objective because it is constructed as essentially the same for everyone.

    Comment by Peter — November 8, 2006 @ 11:05 am

  6. Hi Peter,
    I guess as with all talk about isms, there is problem with addressing them in general. In some way, specific philosophical systems which might be categorized under one ism, might have more in common with specific systems which are usually categorized under other ism. I think that the categorization, is thus more useful when in lack of time, one needs to explain vaguely some system to someone, so one can just roughly categorize it. But in order to address the specific issues, I think it is much better to address the concrete ideas, as you do for example with concentrating on Husserl’s notion of constitution.

    For Carl:
    Kant’s philosophy is usually not categorized as transcendental idealism. He does inquire in the root of objective (or a priori) judgments, and distinguishes them from what is contingent or purely subjective opinion, but both of those are left in the subject, so they don’t have mark of what is usually thought of objective (as belonging to the reality). The reality in Kant is left as some “otherness”, which can not be known. So when Esteban says “maybe they don’t deny that the external world exists, but they can’t say anything about it”, that can be said about Kant, but he is not usually taken as transcendental idealist, for the reasons given. Because of that, I think it is more properly categorized as “critical philosophy”, but some would also argue that Kantian system is a kind of subjective idealism. Of course the problem of categorizing the whole system of philosophy shows as simplification here, as there is for sure lot of difference between Kant and e.g. Berkeley.

    Anyway, as I understand “transcendental idealism”, the common element of these philosophical models would be the attempt to overcome the notion/thing dichotomy, so in part it is antithesis of Kantian system (which sets the mind/world as two separated elements), or as much as it accepts the objectivity of thought (possibility for a priori/objectively true judgments) present in Kant, it is supposed to be about the world simpliciter, and not about “phenomenal world” which would be distinguished from it. This name (“transcendental idealism”) could be use in this sense for philosophers which come after Kant like Fichte and Hegel, and also a little later for philosophy of Husserl. It should be noted here that Husserl calls his philosophy phenomenology, but this shouldn’t be taken as accepting the Kantian dichotomy, but phenomenology argues for immediate acquittance. In any case those philosophies don’t see the intentional content as intra-mental, but as transcending particular intentional acts, and that’s what makes them “transcendental”.
    In addition to the negating the dichotomy, one of the parts of the transcendental idealism, is that it doesn’t dismiss the subject from the picture (which might be one way to distinguish it from naive realism).

    Comment by Tanasije Gjorgoski — November 8, 2006 @ 11:29 am

  7. Given that Kant coined the term transcendental idealist in the Critique of Pure Reason just to give his system a name, I find it odd if people have decided to use the term in some other way, such that he is no longer classifiable as one.

    Comment by Carl — November 8, 2006 @ 11:56 am

  8. Hi Carl,

    Yeah, you are right. One more problem with isms.

    Comment by Tanasije Gjorgoski — November 8, 2006 @ 12:07 pm

  9. BTW, I might have used the wrong word ‘usually’, when saying that he is not seen as being transcendental idealist. I should have specified that he is not seen as such by those people who considered themselves “proper” transcendental idealists, like Husserl, and by Hegel who considered Fichte as transcendental idealist, but used “absolute idealism” to talk about his own system.

    Comment by Tanasije Gjorgoski — November 8, 2006 @ 12:11 pm

  10. In talking about transcendental idealism, one notes the “objective” and external world that is a “construction” of our perceptions. How, then, (as Esteban noted) can this world be objective if it is created by individual perceivings, and not an already implemented entity? Perhaps deeming this world objective is insufficient in that it must be expounded upon in order to give a more accurate description of what is meant (which is, rather, how I interpreted it)…

    For instance, to everyone, a cup of coffee is, phonetically and comprehensively speaking, simply a cup of coffee; in other words, at this point it is purely an objective entity. Now, one individual drinks the coffee, and here is when the contents becomes subjective: the person perceives the coffee from his own solipsistic experience, and likewise, another individual will thus perceive it differently than the former, and by his respective sensory perception and personal taste, which is derived, one could say, from his preceding life-experiences and physical/chemical makeup. Similarly, one is motivated in life by various inclinations unique to him that consequently affect how the objective world outside of him transitions into a subjective reality once he impliments his perceivings upon it.

    Comment by Rebecca — November 8, 2006 @ 12:17 pm

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