Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves

Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves

Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves

Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves


Rae Langton offers a new interpretation and defence of Kant's doctrine of things in themselves. Kant distinguishes things in themselves from phenomena, and in so doing he makes a metaphysical distinction between intrinsic and relational properties of substances. Kant says that phenomena--things as we know them--consist 'entirely of relations', by which he means forces. His claim that we have no knowledge of things in themselves is not idealism, but epistemic humility: we have no knowledge of the intrinsic properties of substances. This humility has its roots in some plausible philosophical beliefs: an empiricist belief in the receptivity of human knowledge and a metaphysical belief in the irreducibility of relational properties. Langton's interpretation vindicates Kant's scientific realism, and shows his primary/secondary quality distinction to be superior even to modern-day competitors. And it answers the famous charge that Kant's tale of things in themselves is one that makes itself untellable.


Does the Distinction I attribute to Kant conflict with Kant's commitment to phenomenal substance? In this chapter I shall address that question by exploring the status of substance as phenomenon. This is a large topic, and my aim is not to analyse or evaluate the arguments of the First Analogy, nor to begin to do justice to the vast and complex literature on this subject, but rather to show how Kant's Distinction is compatible with a commitment to phenomenal substance as something enduring in the appearances. In the process of addressing this problem, more support is offered for two theses of the previous chapter: the Distinction itself, and the thesis of Humility.

Some cautionary remarks are in order. The notion of a 'phenomenon' tends to call to mind nowadays the notion of something of which we are aware. Because of its historical association with philosophical doctrines that take the name 'phenomenalism' it calls to mind sense data, and logical constructions thereof. Because of its association in the philosophy of science with the phenomena or observable regularities that may or may not need to be saved, it calls to mind what can be seen or at least detected. However it has not always been so, and it seems to me that in Kant's own rationalist philosophical background the primary sense of phenomenon is metaphysical: to say that something is a phenomenon is to say that it is not fundamental, that it is in some way dependent or derivative. The Distinction offers a metaphysical conception of phenomena. Kant says, in a quite general manner, that the understanding tends to 'entitle an object in a relation mere phenomenon' (B307); and confirmation of a broadly metaphysical conception of phenomena will be found in this chapter.

2. The Pure Concept of substance vs. the Schematized

To attribute to Kant the view that things in themselves are substances is to ignore the conception of substance for which Kant is most famous, and for which he argues in the First Analogy. The Distinction draws on a general conception of substance which is also to be found in Kant's writings, which is not the same as the substance of the First Analogy. This general conception, or pure concept, of substance is described in such passages as these:

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