Musings on the Kantian Noumenon

The following article assumes that the reader has some familiarity with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his understanding of the phenomenon/noumenon-divide. The noumenon was very important for Jung, and in Psychological Types §659 he even assumed that Ni types could see into the noumenon. But why should the noumenon even exist? Many people, especially NTJ types like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand, have railed violently and forcefully against Kant, and the very idea of the noumenon’s existence appears to be under a great deal of pressure these years.

Why should the noumenon exist? And even if it does exist, does it even mean that it is a worthwhile discovery, or something we have to worry about? Certainly, the human mind could warp and filter reality, as Kant said, but the degree to which this goes on could be so infinitesimal that there is no significant difference to speak of.

I.e. Kant could be right, but his discovery of the filtering mechanism could be insignificant.

Kant asserts that the difference between object-in-itself and object-as-perception is there and that it is non-trivial.

But according to Kant’s manner of thinking, this is NOT an empirical claim as everything empirical belongs to the world of perception. It is by way of reflexivity, i.e. by reason and thought analyzing itself, that he arrives at the idea that there must be a difference between pure reality and reality-as-perception.

But then we must ask ourselves the obvious question: When everything that is thought or perceived must in some sense be subjected to the automated machinations of the human mind, then how does Kant himself know that the thing-as-perceived does, in fact, differ from the thing-in-itself?

This is a pertinent argument against Kant. He attempts to answer it in various ways, e.g. by showing how our cognitive faculties are bound to lead us into paradox and contradiction when examining the nature of reality, e.g.:

  • Is everything just atoms, or does a new layer of reality ’emerge’ somewhere along the way up to full consciousness?
  • Does the reflexivity of consciousness somehow impact conditions going forward [i.e. by some form of will], or is the reflexivity of consciousness wholly determined by the antecedents already given?
  • Can the totality of the universe be regarded as a sum-total, i.e. an object that encompasses the totality, or is it a multitude?

In spite of the ‘new materialism’ of people like Sam Harris and Stephen Hawking, none of these questions can really be decided on merely empirical grounds. Their intellectual grandfather, E.O. Wilson, knew this and said:

“[Scientific materialism]  is a metaphysical world view, and a minority one at that, shared by only a few scientists and philosophers. It cannot be proved with logic from first principles or grounded in any definitive set of empirical tests, at least not by any yet conceived. Its best support is no more than an extrapolation of the consistent past success of the natural sciences.” – Wilson: ‘Consilience’ ; Abacus 1999 ed., p. 7

What happens with Harris, Hawking etc. is really a philosophical nivellation; they dodge the tough questions from their academic opponents and simply declare their views to have been “proven by science” in books meant for the public. They have certainly won the war for the public opinion, but the gauntlet that was thrown down by Hume, Kant, Popper, et al. has been ignored. Particularly disgraceful in this regard is how these “new materialists” declare themselves to be the scions of Hume all the while ignorantly and gregariously trampling his ontological skepticism underfoot.

While one can attempt to buttress the claim that there is a difference between the object-in-itself and object-as-perception by use of experimental, empirical facts, that is really to miss the point. Even if we assume that Kant is correct, this method will diminish his thought, because:

  • By virtue of our experience of this warping it will be subject to those same warpings that govern over cognition of the empirical domain.
  • Again, assuming that Kant is correct the differences that we will be able to ‘point toward’ with the aid of experimental and empirical evidence may not be the most profound ways in which we ‘warp’ reality.

Next, is there any good reason to believe in the noumenon? Isn’t it essentially like believing in the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny?

No: The difference between Kant’s argument and all manner of supernatural beliefs is that Kant would grant that everything that is cognized by us humans appears to us as subject to science and natural laws. So he would not accept, say, a boulder magically altering its course in order to avoid crushing the kindergarten that was passing by below. According to Kant, any empirical phenomena that we can examine will, in the end, end up conforming to natural laws. If the boulder changed trajectory, then it will have done so in accordance with the laws of motion.

However, on the other hand he says that the empirical domain is not all that there is to reality. This is indeed an appeal to the “meta-physical” as he would be the first to assert. In common parlance, “metaphysical” has now become a term of abuse, or synonymous with miracle workers and fortune tellers, but in a philosophical sense it simply means meta-empirical.

So if one would say that Kant’s meta-empirical aspect of reality can’t be asserted, one would be entirely in the right, but on the other hand, Kant is also right when he says that his opponents can’t assert that the empirical dimension is all that there is to reality.

Thus, both the claim that there is another aspect of reality which we can’t perceive and the claim that the empirical dimension is all that there is to reality are metaphysical claims. The proponent of the former can’t assert his claims to be true by any empirical standard and the proponent of the latter can’t prove that the empirical dimension is exhaustive. (Cf. Wilson above, who was himself a non-Kantian.)

Any position on this matter is therefore metaphysical. Whether one agrees with Kant on the points discussed so far is thus really a matter of intuition and taste when it really comes down to it; a taste in ideas.

This is where psychology might lend us a hand: In Jungian terms, Te/Fi types are more likely to believe that human cognition is sufficient to exhaust reality (Aristotle) and Ti/Fe types are more likely to think that normal human cognition is insufficient to exhaust reality (Plato).

Infographic: Plato vs. Aristotle

The fact that we are now getting a host of Ti types propagating the anti-Kantian position is a historical anomaly, attesting perhaps to the continued success of the empirical method. Yet this continued success is a matter of quantity. Within a Kantian framework it is a mistake to think that quantity will suddenly spill over into a qualitatively different domain (i.e. the meta-empirical, again, cf. Wilson above.)

So ultimately, Kant doesn’t have to prove that “there’s more” than empiricism to reality, he just has to argue that what we know about reality isn’t exhaustive. He doesn’t have to “win” he just has to pull a “draw”. And that isn’t too hard.

As Owen Flanagan (another non-Kantian) has said, not even in theory do we know of any series of empirical experiments that can prove that empiricism is exhaustive. So again, whether one believes in the Kantian noumenon becomes a matter of taste. Both positions are metaphysical (i.e. postulating something beyond the physical itself). Kant’s intuition is that there’s “something more” that is qualitatively different – his opponent’s intuition is that whatever “more” there is can be made to conform to the empirical laws that we already know, or that our present body of natural laws can be revised and reformulated so as to eventually form a completely exhaustive account of reality.

The people, who want Kant to pull a “win” before they will take his idea of the noumenon seriously as essentially stacking the deck in their own favor. They might as well turn the argument around and´ask: Why should something be nonexistent simply because humans can’t perceive it? Flanagan and Wilson understood this, but they did not complain: They granted that Kant’s argument can’t be refuted, but got around it by saying that the practical consequences for science are negligible and that one day we may be able to devise a series of tests that can determine if such a dimension of reality really exists.

So people would say that by employing this line of arguing, Kant is framing the argument in such a way as to make it almost impossible to refute his position.

They would be quite correct to say that. But as the physicist Mario Bunge has said, you should aim to subject your claims to tough tests rather than soft ones. If you’re going to make claims about the ultimate nature of reality, then you had better well make sure that you’re subjecting your claims to the toughest possible test. And here, Kant’s critique of cognition is one of the hardest tests that we know.

It is perhaps true that Kant’s noumenon is somewhat analogous to a religion, yet with the notable difference that religious people often claim to know what God is doing, what he wants, who he is, etc., whereas in a Kantian epistemology we would say that we could not know any of this. The only thing we can know, according to strict Kantianism, is that we cannot disprove God’s existence. Yet at the same time, nor is there, scientifically speaking, anything in the empirical domain that points to the existence of miracles or a God; that is purely a matter of faith. Within a Kantian framework there may be one or more deities dwelling in the noumenal dimension of reality, but there may also not be. We can’t reasonably know.

This is not a copout for the kind of faith that you see in religious people who want to assert their beliefs in public. They would hardly accept such tight limitations on their beliefs. But nor is it a concession to the ‘new atheists’ like Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, or even Russell before them. Their arguments are really quite lowbrow, peddling false dilemmas like gunning down specific claims from the Bible and then taking that as proof against all religion (which is really quite ridiculous as the karmic law of Hinduism/Buddhism is entirely transcendent.) Likewise, in the case of Russell and his flying teapot, the sophistry consists again of confounding the empirical domain with the noumenon.

When such ‘difficult’ questions as these are parsed out in formal debates it often happens that the nuances of both positions are lost. At the end of the day, we do not think that the value of Kant’s thought lies in these ivory tower type of discussions that are not going to be settled in any immediate future anyway. Nor do we think that phenomenon/noumenon; fact/value and science/non-science exist as entirely distinct categories outside of pure thought.

If we are to leave the formal discussions behind in order to try and discover what Kant was talking about, rather than what arguments there may be made for his case, it appears to us that we can’t conceive of experience without also conceiving of space, location, and time. To Kant, space and time were properties that we imposed upon the world, our minds having actually started before “we” start to cognize reality.

Here are some examples from modern-day science that Kant may be right:

(a) Location: Looking at quantum, it seems that our usual notions of space and location collapse. As far as quantum is understood today, a particle has no locality until it is observed. It has no location, but is all over the universe at once (technically we would say: in a wave form).

However, once we observe the particle, it materializes in a specific location.There is no unanimously accepted physical or metaphysical framework to make sense of this. Bohr famously said that it was all in the eyes of the observer, which leads us right back to the social constructivism of the left wing.

Physicists today don’t tend to study Kant (although Gödel, Einstein and Heisenberg certainly did). But maybe they should, because what they are observing is actually quite close to the gist of Kant’s thought.

However, Kant thought that reality was “just there” and then we warped it in our heads while it was still “just there” in unmodified form independently of us. As it seems from quantum mechanics, however, reality is not really “just there” behind our cognitive spectacles; reality itself becomes warped by our perception. So quantum actually differs a little from Kant. Yet Kant’s idea of the noumenon as an “unobserved, indivisible wholeness” that cannot be digested by normal human cognition still comes uncannily close to what we are observing.

This is what we mean when we say that philosophical discussion of Kantian epistemology actually leads us away from the insights that can be gained by studying his thought (other than purely intellectual exercises in deduction): In a philosophical discussion we end up discussing “layers” or “dimensions” of reality, whereas what we may really be dealing with is processed and unprocessed aspects of reality as digested by human cognition. (And the very digestion changes the thing-in-itself!)

(b) Time: Phenomenologically we cannot conceive of experience without time; using your terminology, we can barely “not know” what an experience devoid of time would be like. Yet as we know from relativity, traveling at the speed of light will cause time to stand still. So basically this tells us there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and then cognizing something phenomenologically. We can intellectually understand that a wall is made mostly of atoms, but we can’t cognize the fact that the wall is mostly void phenomenologically. So far so good. But we can postulate a ladder where things get progressively harder for us to understand, even intellectually:

  • Level 1: A wall consists mostly of void, not matter.
  • Level 2: There is no time when traveling at the speed of light.
  • Level 3: A particle that is not observed is a non-material wave that is everywhere at once; once observed it gains material existence in a specific location.

Level 1 is easy enough to understand and investigate, even though our cognition is plainly not cut out to perceive a wall as consisting mostly of void. But at Level 3 we are beyond the limits of what our cognition can meaningfully process. Even at PhD level most physicists make the mistake of using “materialist” logic for quantum calculus. Our brain does not understand the unconditioned; it wants reality to be conditioned. It brings its own a priori categories to the table and it is not going to give them up without a fight.

(This is furthermore supported by ‘mystical’ experiences, such as from meditation, which have a surprisingly similar phenomenology in spite of profound differences in method, location, and chronology. People who lived on different continents in different centuries report such unconditioned flashes of insight into reality, but they cannot be maintained for long before the brain starts re-asserting the usual structures by which we cognize reality. In other words, it can’t maintain a noumenal, or rather partially noumenal, view of reality for more than a few moments.)

We have postulated three levels above. But is that all? How far does the rabbit hole go? We don’t know.

Say the rabbit hole goes to Level 1000. Does this mean that we will at some point have crossed a line into some ‘noumenal’ mode, or will we merely have planted the flag onto hitherto undiscovered aspects of the empirical domain?

All of these questions, again, remain unanswered. And personally we think it is unreasonable to try and decide them in any ultimate sense, given our current status of knowledge. An alternative may be the one proposed by David Hume: To be a naturalist in the everyday sense (i.e. assume our default mode of cognition as conventionally true), but to be a skeptic in the ultimate sense. This leaves us with a mechanistic, scientific universe that conforms to the laws of nature and which has no miracles or God; a universe where “man knows what he knows” (“there is no evidence for the existence of God, hence belief is irrational”), but at the same time does not presume to know what he cannot reasonably know (“my experience is finite and hence it would be impossible [but not irrational] to assert my experience with regards to the infinite).

This is still closer to Kant than the anti-Kantian positions that we are seeing from the likes of Sam Harris today. Yet in its own time, Hume’s idea was disturbing enough to Kant to provoke him to come up with the split in the first place.


  1. SamMM says:

    I’ll just go ahead and add myself to those with Ti/Fe and a tendency to favor the idea that the totality of reality is bigger than can fit in any one head. I think our difficulty in comprehending reality empirically in a theory-of-everything manner is mostly a hardware problem.

    I’d agree with those who believe that human cognition is just not vast enough to hold simultaneously the sheer volume of mutually contradictory information that exists in the universe necessary to comprehend a ToE understanding of the world, like a computer whose processing power is just too weak to run a really complex game optimally. Maybe there’s an intellect somewhere in the universe capable of empirically understanding all reality in a ToE (or maybe evolution could take us there eventually). Maybe we could develop an information network capable of synthesizing knowledge into a ToE. But as yet, I think our minds are just a little too slow and limited to hold simultaneously the multitudes of existence. Let’s not forget, we are primates, after all. And a really young species at that.

    Having said that, it’s clear that we understand enough of reality well enough to have thrived as a species and solved some pretty complex problems in the process. Unseen noumena haven’t stopped us yet!

    I’d also throw out there that noumenon/phenomenon might not always be a helpful distinction. Are all colors that we can’t see but other animals with more cone cells can see considered noumena? Or the gamma, UV, and infrared waves that we can’t sense but our technology can, are they noumena? If so, then noumena become phenomena as soon as we develop the capacity to know they exist, in which case noumena is just potential phenomena. There is not then a distinct world of noumena, just a phenomenal world with things we haven’t figured out how to detect yet (but other creatures may).

    Or maybe I misunderstand the concept?

  2. admin says:

    Good comment.

    You understand the gist of the idea, but it appears that you still primarily think of the difference in terms of quantity where Kant would maintain that there is a qualitative difference (e.g. that *we* impose space, time, limitation, causality, etc. – the so-called categories) on reality.

    As we say in §9 above, Kant is not necessarily right about it being a qualitative difference, but at any rate the difference, to him, would be extremely profound (i.e. the noumenon as reality without space, time, quality, quantity, etc.)

    See also:


  3. razorfield9 says:

    A lot of brain food in here for sure. Pardon my inability to really “read” into ideas, but I was merely wondering- the fact that these two positions are ‘irreconcilable’ in the way you propose (The Harrisians contra Kantians ha) is the area in which we see the ‘mystery’ of cognition, the intersection of our conceptions of things as they are as opposed to of what they ‘are’ singles out the important HUMAN component of the issue we are dealing with, and where the science of science must recourse to a ‘taste’ of sorts.

    As it stands now though, the ‘impossibility’ of rectifying this ‘gulf’ seems to be the main center of attention, rather than dismissing it wholesale (as you seemed to suggest directly). Also, the Hegelians and German Idealists with their distraction of ‘reason and reality’ (at least from what I’ve gleaned from Schopenhauer, which was, as S. said, one of the most blasphemous odes in all philosophy for attempting to answer a question CLEARLY designed to be impossible ‘in a sense’

    As I believe was replied to on one of my former forum posts, Ni merely deals with things obvious to them- thus a theory which posits this qualitative difference is rather pointless and in no way conducive to them. The Ne merely follows the logic down to a fulcrum, and if they can go no further, they merely strengthen their argument to avoid having a ‘soft’ point. The ‘hard’ point to Ni is merely what they see- which attests to the incredibly subjective (necessarily so) nature of reality to them, where subjectivity/objectivity blur.

    Maybe Schopenhauer’s conception of the will is rather ‘enlightening’ in this scenario? My only issue with this is that when we take Schopenhauer’s Will, we should also be aware of the status of the will psychologically (Ni/Ne) as well as pertaining to the issue itself. Is Schopenhauer’s Will merely a postulation in the vein of the Harrisians? It seems that Schopenhauer still is ultimately admitting of the problems Kant proposed, but as one of your comments states “the Will comes closer to the thing in itself” or something to that effect. Is Schopenhauer’s thought somewhat of Buddhism for Kantians ™? Ultimately, he CANNOT answer the question that we have on our hands, but maybe it’s more satisfying for those who ‘doubt’.

    At any rate, very good post. Will re-read once I have the time.

  4. razorfield9 says:

    *edit: This also somehow points to the potential for Ni to come to the top-down approach of metaphysics as opposed to the down-up Ne way. I.E. some Ni types, when granted access to certain impressions, can come to an Agreement with Kant on the grounds of the nature of what they perceive to be the Thing in Itself. “Top down” of a sort I suppose. OR am I conflating processes or flat out misunderstanding?

  5. admin says:

    We think Schopenhauer’s relationship to Kant bears witness to how Ni types will almost invariably misconstrue the noumenon or somehow believe that they have seen into it. This is not what Kant intended, but it was very perceptive of Jung to pinpoint this propensity of Ni types to (believe to be able to) see it.

  6. razorfield9 says:

    A-ha, for the perception that is thus created resembles the only reality they ‘really’ know. Their idea is often insightful for how it bears on reality as known, but it cannot have the significance Kant ascribes to the noumenal.

    I guess.

  7. admin says:

    Yes, exactly.

  8. Jud says:

    It is precisely what you say in §2 that makes the noumenal-phenomenal contest incontestable. Every activity of any creature anywhere is within the sphere of that creature’s capacity. I can only see what I am allowed by my physiology to see. Can I ever hope to see exactly what my pet cat sees? Even if he agrees with what I say, all of that agreement would take place within my own range or dimension of the universe. Therefore, I can never hope to postulate anything outside of my own range. Even Infinity is within my own range. And all arguments for and against the noumenon are WITHIN human experience so can anyone ever know? Thus, humans must be satisfied with what they have (I am an animal).

    But this is exactly what makes this a somewhat useless proposition. We are better advised to take our (humanity) own truth and use it; that is, some kind of ontological utilitarianism. As you say, it is like God: far too abstruse to be considered. The only place you are wrong is that God too is WITHIN human experience even if unknown.

    It is this, similarly, that Nietzsche intuited and said there are no facts just interpretations.

  9. AndrahilAdrian says:

    The existence of the Kantian Noumenon is a pointless assumption. Occam’s Razor heroically slices it to pieces.

  10. TaylorS says:

    Interesting, I am a Fi/Te type (INFP), but I am in the Kantian camp.

    I am an Atheist, myself, though not a “New Atheist”, I find that bunch of to have a striking degree of intellectual arrogance mixed in with an unquestioned (and I dare say naive) faith in scientific materialism as Reality with a capital R.

    For that reason I have a lot of sympathy for Buddhist meditative traditions and the empirical and psychological tradition that goes with it, though not the religious-dogmatic aspects attached to those traditions. They accept that there are some aspects of Capital R Reality that cannot be understood by reason and intellectual conceptualizations.

  11. Micah D says:

    @AndrahilAdrian – if Occam’s razor is conditioned on the apriori categories of cognition (it is) then it can’t be used to slice the Noumenon to pieces, unless you fancy sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.

    @Admin The Critique of Pure Reason, to me at least, reads more like a critique of Ti – that is – those categories which it couches our understanding in terms of, are useful to Ti because of its dubious non-objectivity.

    On the one hand, Jung’s insights into Kant helped him to come up with the Psychological Types, and yet on the other hand Jung was a Ti, as was Kant. What could the likes of an ESFP, ESTJ, ENTJ, or ENFP, whose experience (lacking Ti) is cognized more-or-less entirely around objective data, say about the Noumenon? Or is the question of the Noumenon not relevant to extroverts? If so, what gives Ti this privileged position?

    Then we arrive at the age-old question of absolute idealism about a tree falling in the forest. Indeed, transcendental idealism, like absolute idealism, conditions the percepts of reality primarily as objects of perception rather than objects of existence.

    If Kant’s categories are seen as conditions of understanding, how should a ‘Te’ deal with widely varying conditions in a non-ideal experience?

  12. DD90 says:

    I sometimes wonder… do Celebrity Types really believe in such bullshit? Or they try to convince through their alleged impartiality? And if they try to convince.. to what end?

    If Kant’s and generally any Si’s/Ne’s perception want to have practical value, they must either obey blindly, that is, for humanity to never evolve, or, to suicide.

    And ok, i have no problem with any of these concepts if applied to them, but when these people criticize them who acted in perfect accordance to their own values ( Jesus Christ ) then i am pissed off.

    Articles like these, cross the line Celebrity Types. They will never understand you, they will never credit you. In another 1000 years at least. And even then, they will say that you were honest folks, but inadequate for giving them the right to live their lives in the way they themselves please to.

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