Knowledge of nuomena

by Neil Rickert

A comment to my previous post asked an interesting question:

Do you yourself think that the noumenal world (The world “in itself”) is unknowable to humans?

This brings up issues which deserve a full post responding to the question.  In particular, it brings up questions such as:

  • what do we mean by knowledge?
  • what is the relation between the nuomenal world and the wolrd of our experience (the phenomenal world)?

Some background

Let me state, at the outset, that I am not a professional philosopher.  My background is primarily in mathematics and computer science.  So you should take this post as mostly reflecting my personal opinion.  I like to think that opinion is informed by my study of cognition and consciousness.  As best I can tell, nobody else is studying consciousness in quite the same way.

For background on the meaning of “nuomena”, I suggest the Wikipedia article.  Apparently, Plato used the term to refer to his ideal forms.  But, more recently, the term has been used for what Kant described as the thing in itself.  I take that to be a reference to the world undistorted by human ideas and concepts.  I should note that “nuomena” is plural, with “nuomenon” as the corresponding singular.  And I shall use the expression “nuomenal world” for the world of nuomena.

These terms contrast with “phenomena”, “phenomenon” and “phenomenal world” which refer to the world that we experience, the world as we understand it from our sensory experience.  And, for good measure, we can throw in the idea of the “intellectualist world” as the world that we talk about in our natural language discussions.  The intellectualist world includes our descriptions of the phenomenal world and it also include our talk of abstract entities.

What is knowledge?

Before we can discuss knowledge of the nuomenal world, we must ask ourselves what we mean by “knowledge”.

Typically, philosophers say that knowledge is justified true belief.  With this meaning, knowledge would be roughly the same as statements which we could justifiably claim to be factual.  Presumably, then, knowledge of the nuomenal world would be in the form of factual statements about that world.

If the nuomenal world means the unconceived world, then it is a world without concepts.  And there cannot be facts without concepts.  So if knowledge amounts to some form of factual statements, then I don’t see how there could be knowledge of the nuomenal world.

I have never liked that characterization of knowledge.  To me, it has always seemed mistaken.  We value the knowledge of a plumber, not because he can talk about the pipes in our houses, but because he can repair them.  So I see knowledge as more to do with knowhow, with our abilities.

If knowledge is in knowing how, then yes we do have knowledge of the noumenal world.  We are able to walk around in that world and live our daily lives there.  I count our ability to navigate the world as knowledge of that world.  Of course, we do use concepts in that navigation.  But we can see that as just an implementation detail in our knowledge.  It does not matter that those concepts and conceptualizations are not themselves part of the nuomenal world.

The intellectualist world

I want to discuss the relation between the intellectualist world and the phenomenal world.  Here, the intellectualist world is the world of our description and our abstractions.  I see it as mostly adding to what I take to be the nuomenal world.

In my previous post, I said:

I see trees as part of the nuomenal world, but not as nuomenal objects. I don’t think there is anything in the nuomenal world to decide what is an object. It is up to us to decide what to count as an object.

Here, we see that our intellectualist world is a world of objects (such as trees), while the nuomenal world does not tell us what to take as an object.  So we have added structure to the nuomenal world, and we have added distinctions between different parts of the resulting structured world.

That we have added structure to the nuomenal world, is because we have the ability to structure that world.  And the abilities that we have developed constitute our knowhow in navigating the nuomenal world.  Some people criticize the idea that we structure the world, the idea that the structure comes from us.  But it has to come from us, else we would lack that ability to navigate the world.  The way that we navigate the world is different from the way that a bird or an ant or a butterfly would navigate the world.  And we need to structure the world in a way that fits with our basic biology.

Our facts are facts about the structure that we find in the intellectualist world.  Our truths are true statements about that structure.  If the structure is not part of the nuomenal world, then neither are facts and truths.  So facts and truths are human artifacts.  They are part of how we have developed knowhow to navigate the nuomenal world and how we share that knowhow with others in our communities.

The phenomenal world

By the “phenomenal world” we mean the world of our sensory experiences, most strikingly the world that we experience with vision.  The experiences themselves, such as our visual picture of the world, are often said to be representations of the world.

Where do the phenomena come from?  They come from us using our cognitive abilities to make distinctions and to thereby structure the world.

It is sometimes said that the phenomena are a given, and our knowledge starts with those phenomena.  But that’s surely a mistake.  What is given, are crude raw abilities to make sensory distinctions.  Our cognitive system then builds from those crude abilities, a more comprehensive ability to structure the world in a way that is useful to us.  This building on our raw abilities is amounts to perceptual learning, or acquiring improved skills at perception.  And the phenomena present to us that structured world, built by those acquired perceptual skills.  Perceptual learning is acquiring of perceptual knowhow, and our ability to navigate the world depends on that.  The phenomena, or perceptual experiences, are the experiences of applying that knowhow to the world.

Summary

I have attempted to paint a picture of how we relate to the nuomenal world, and how we enhance the world of our experience beyond what the nuomenal world provides.

9 Comments to “Knowledge of nuomena”

  1. You may already know this, but epistemologists distinguish between (at least) “knowing that”, “knowing how” and “knowing persons”, and there is an ongoing debate as to whether that list can be reduced to one or another of its members. I think you’ve presented here the outline of an argument that the first, in a sense, can be reduced to the second.

    I dislike the JTB definition because we have no unmediated access to the “T” bit; at best only to increasingly greater levels of “J”. If we take truth as meaning something like noumena, then we may be thinking along the same lines.

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    • Yes, I’m aware of those distinctions. In my opinion, there is too much emphasis on JTB, I suppose because that fits easily with an emphasis on logic. But it misses too much that should be important.

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  2. Sorry Neil Rickert, I should have made my question more clear.

    Instead of “Do you yourself think that the noumenal world (The world “in itself”) is unknowable to humans?”

    My question is: “Do you yourself think that The world in itself (reality as it is in itself) is unknowable to humans?”

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  3. Hi Neil,

    As noumenon is not exactly the same as thing-in-itself in Kant’s philosophy, I wanted to concentrate our discussion on thing-in-itself (reality-in-itself) only so as to keep a sharp focus.

    Kant wrote:-
    —– And we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.
    — Prolegomena, § 32

    I would, for myself, complete this quote by saying:

    And we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances (TO US) , viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.

    Kant makes a distinction between reality as it is in itself and reality as it is perceived, cognised or experienced by humans.

    Do you agree with the Kant quote which I gave above from his book ‘Prolegomena to———‘ ?

    If you want more clarification, please do not hesitate to ask me. I love to discuss philosophy in as simple a language as possible.

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    • We are possibly talking past one another, at least to some extent.

      Kant makes a distinction between reality as it is in itself and reality as it is perceived, cognised or experienced by humans.

      Yes, I make such a distinction, but not for the same reasons as Kant. I make that distinction, because how we perceive reality depends in part on us. As an example, a color blind person not see things in the same way as a person with normal vision.

      Do you agree with the Kant quote which I gave above from his book ‘Prolegomena to———‘ ?

      I’m quite sure that I’m not looking at it in the same way as Kant.

      If I am watching a movie or a television program, then I am dealing with objects of sense as mere appearances. And I don’t get to see the thing in itself, I only have that appearance.

      But perception in real life is not at all like watching a movie. There isn’t an appearance that we are looking at. Rather, we are looking at the thing in itself, and our brains are generating that appearance. We are not limited to an appearance, because we can move around and change how we perceive it.

      When watching a movie, the producer is creating the appearance. And the producer has more access to the thing in itself that we have. But for ordinary perception, we are the producers. And we have that additional access. We are not limited to the appearance. We also have some access to our action (the actions of our perceptual system) in producing that appearance. And much of the meanings that we value come from our actions in producing the experiences.

      At least that’s how I currently understand perception.

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  4. Kant makes a distinction between reality as it is in itself and reality as it is perceived, cognised or experienced by humans.

    “Yes, I make such a distinction, but not for the same reasons as Kant. I make that distinction, because how we perceive reality depends in part on us. As an example, a color blind person not see things in the same way as a person with normal vision.”

    I agree with what you write here , and what do you think are Kant’s reasons with which you disagree?

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    • I’m not a professional philosopher, and I have not closely studied Kant.

      My understanding, which could be wrong, is that Kant thought that our access to the world is indirect. That is, we observe the phenomena or appearance, and only indirectly access the world.

      I think our access is more direct than that. But we are still limited by our biology, as illustrated by the example of a color blind person. Reality itself might be infinitely complex. But, as finite beings, we are limited and must pick and choose what distinctions are important to us. And it is unavoidable that this will influence how we see the world.

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  5. Very good reply Neil Rickert,

    I think that we perceive the reality in itself directly and not indirectly. I think that (as you wrote) there isn’t an appearance that we are looking at, rather, we are looking at the thing in itself, and our brains are generating that appearance. This means that when some person is perceiving a chair then that chair is only the appearance which his mind is generating of the reality in itself.

    Your example of a color blind person is relevant.

    Another example: Suppose a fat man is standing there. When you look at this fat man through a certain kind of optical lens, then the man looks to be thin. So in this case you are looking at the fat man directlly but still not seeing him as he is because of the nature of the looking apparatus. Similarly human apparatus of perception and cognition does not cognize reality in itself as it is but only as it can be cognized through the particular cognizing apparatus.

    I think that the important point here is that human cognition of reality in itself is not only incomplete but can be completely wrong too. What is fat can be cognized as thin.

    I think that it is a common misunderstanding of many philosophers that Kant thought that we cognize thing in itself indirectly. I have studied Kant and I do not think that he thought that we cognize reality in itself indirectly.

    There is a good article on Kant’s transcendental idealism here:

    Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    A very important book on kant’s transcendental idealism is:

    ‘The manifest reality’ by Lucy Allais.

    Your criticism and questions are welcome.

    O.R.

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