The Thing-in-Itself -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Thing-in-Itself

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All human knowledge (cognition) is the product of two factors—the cognising subject and the cognised object. The raw material of knowledge is provided by the external object (the physical world), whereas the subject (the thinking mind) gives form and meaning to the information of the senses. Kant, unlike Berkeley, accepts the existence of an external world, without which there would be no possibility of knowledge, or experience. Nevertheless, Kant denies that it is possible to know things as they are in "themselves." We can only know appearances. His fundamental mistake was not to see the relation between appearance and essence. It it wrong to think that we can only know "appearances." When I know the property of the thing, I know the thing itself. There is nothing else to know; no "beyond," no Thing-in-Itself.

Now it had been the conviction of every age that the only way of getting to know a thing was precisely by taking the material given to us by our senses, and analysing it by means of reflection. This, and nothing else, is the process of cognition. Here, for the first time, we are confronted with the assertion that there is some kind of difference between what we can see and experience and the "real" nature of things. This is a most peculiar notion, and one which runs counter to all human experience. It therefore demands a very clear justification. But the fact is that Kant does not justify it at all. He merely asserts it in a dogmatic manner, which is the opposite of what he set out to do.

"It marks the diseased state of the age," remarks Hegel, "when we see it adopting the despairing creed that our knowledge is only subjective, and that beyond this subjective we cannot go." (Hegel, Logic, p. 35.) Hegel, like Kant, was an idealist, but he was an objective idealist, who never denied that it was possible to know the real world. Such objective idealism is far superior, with all its faults, to the complete confusionism which comes from subjective idealism. It is therefore not surprising that in the "diseased state" of our own age, it is Kant, not Hegel who has found most favour with philosophers and scientists, who wish to convince us that we cannot really assert that the physical world exists, or that we cannot know what happened before the "big bang" (and must not ask), or that the behaviour of sub-atomic particles depends exclusively on whether we are present to observe them.

Against this, we agree a hundred times with Hegel when he says that "everything we know both of outward and inward nature, in one word, the objective world, is in its own self the same as it is in thought, and that to think is to bring out the truth of our object, be it what it may. The business of philosophy is only to bring into explicit consciousness what the world in all ages has believed about thought. Philosophy therefore advances nothing new; and our present discussion has led us to a conclusion which agrees with the natural belief of mankind." (Hegel, Logic, p. 35.)

Evidently, at any given moment in time, we cannot know everything about a phenomenon. Truth is as infinite as the universe itself. But the entire history of human thought is characterised by a constant movement from ignorance to knowledge. What we do not know today, we will discover tomorrow. Therefore, it is a serious mistake to confuse what is not known with what cannot be known. Kant’s Thing-in-Itself is merely a way of indicating our present limitations. It is not a mystery, but a problem to be solved. What is today a Thing-in-Itself will tomorrow be a Thing-for-Us. This is the message of the whole history of thought in general, and science in particular.

In reality, the Thing-in-Itself is an empty abstraction. If we take away all the properties of an object which are knowable, we are left with precisely nothing. As J. N. Findlay, echoing Hegel, correctly observes: "The Thing-in-Itself, which Kant holds to be unknowable is really the most completely knowable of all abstractions; it is what we get when we deliberately leave out all empirical content and every vestige of categorical structure." (Foreword to Hegel’s Logic, p. xii.) There is a fundamental difference between what is not known and what is unknowable. Kant here slides into agnosticism, the impotent doctrine that says that there are certain things which cannot be known, and therefore, that there are certain questions which cannot be asked. Findlay is harsh but not unjust when he concludes that "Kant, in short, is in a permanent philosophical muddle, and never knows where he has got to nor where he is going." (Ibid., p. xiv.) The notion of the unknowable Thing-in-Itself is undoubtedly the weakest part of Kant’s philosophy, and for that very reason is practically the only bit which has been taken over by the modern philosophers and scientists.

The source of Kant’s error was to regard appearance and essence as two mutually exclusive things. Thought, instead of being seen as as a bridge uniting the thinking subject with the world, is conceived of as a barrier, something standing between the subject and the object. Kant conceives of thought as an instrument which we use to understand the world. This is an unsatisfactory formulation, as Hegel explains:

"A main line of argument in the Critical (i.e., Kantian) Philosophy bids us pause before proceeding to inquire into God or into the true being of things, and tells us first of all to examine the faculty of cognition and see whether it is equal to such an effort. We ought, says Kant, to become acquainted with the instrument, before we undertake the work for which it is to be employed; for if the instrument be insufficient, all our trouble will be spent in vain. The plausibility of this suggestion has won for it general assent and admiration; the result of which has been to withdraw cognition from an interest in its objects and absorption in the study of them, and to direct it back upon itself; and so turn it to a question of form." (Hegel, Logic, p. 14)

Hegel points out that thought is not an "instrument", like a tool which can be examined before commencing a job. We would be faced with the paradox that the "tool" would have to examine itself, since thought can only be examined by thinking. To seek to know before we know is like the conduct of a man who refuses to go into the water until he has learnt how to swim. Men and women thought long before logic was ever conceived. In point of fact, the forms of thought, including logic, are the product of a very long period of human development, both mental and practical. The objects of the physical world are immediately given to us in sense-perception. But the matter does not stop there. The understanding gets to work on the information given to it by the senses. It is analysed, broken down into its parts. This is known as mediation in philosophy.

Marx’s son-in-law, the French socialist Paul Lafargue, very wittily explains the practical consequences of the theory of the Thing-in-Itself:

"The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. Not at all, say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.

"The question is not properly put, that is the whole trouble...In order to know an object, man must first verify whether his senses deceive him or not...The chemists have gone deeper—they have penetrated into bodies, they have analysed them, decomposed them into their elements, and then performed the reverse procedure, they have recomposed them from their elements. And from the moment that man is able to produce things for his own use from these elements, he may, as Engels says, assert that he knows the things-in-themselves. The God of the Christians, if he existed and if he had created the world, could do no more." (Paul Lafargue, Le MatŽrialisme de Marx et l’IdŽalisme de Kant, in Le Socialiste, February 25, 1900.)

Despite his undoubted genius, Kant did a disservice to philosophy and science by implicitly placing a limit on human knowledge. The theory of the unknowable, that part of Kant’s philosophy which should have been allowed to quietly sink without trace, is precisely the one thing of Kant which has been taken over in the 20th century by those, like Heisenberg, who wish to introduce mysticism into science. While Kant attempted a critique of the forms of logic (this was his great merit), he displayed a certain inconsistency, for example, in accepting the law of contradiction. This led him into new problems.

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