There has been a recent trend in philosophy, particularly by some working under various flavors of speculative realism (such as objected-oriented ontology and speculative materialism) to accuse Kantian metaphysics of problematic anthropocentrism—meaning the undue privileging of humans or humanity. These accusations seem to result from a belief that Immanuel Kant’s intervention in philosophy amounted to an expansion of the powers of the human mind, placing it in charge of the category of reality. That is, however, not what Kant did.
Nor does Kant ‘privilege’ humans as subjects while ‘degrading’ non-humans as objects. After all, in his terminology all subjects are objects to each other—and to the extent that something apparently inanimate could be construed as a subject (perhaps through the metaphor of a physical reference frame, or through some notion of panpsychism), all humans are objects to it.
Speculative realists speak disapprovingly of what they call the ‘correlationism’ that pervades Kant, as Kant observes that we will only ever have access to our representations of (and the relationship between) reality and our mind, without ever having direct unmediated ‘external’ access to either. Somehow speculative realists interpret this sharp limitation and restriction that Kant places on the scope of human knowledge as instead being an empowering or even ‘reifying’ of human knowledge.
Now, I could list and flatly deny such claims for a while longer. But that doesn’t seem very productive. So, instead, I’d like to take a step back and mount a proper defense against such ideas. I’ll do this by using this article to explain (in the broadest and most accessible strokes I can) what the low-level insights of Kantian philosophy actually involve.
What Kant Was Really Arguing:
What Kant was really arguing starts from the simple observation that any being that has any knowledge of anything, whatever that being may be and whatever that knowledge may be, necessarily has knowledge that conforms to the ways in which it can know things. If that sounds redundant or confusing, be at ease; explaining its meaning and significance more thoroughly is my aim here today.
As Immanuel Kant was (allegedly) a person—he was interested in the ways that people, subjects like himself, could know about the world. But that doesn’t mean he thought that objects in general and the world itself exist only to or for people. The sneaky thing about Kant’s famous declaration that objects must conform to cognition rather than cognition conforming to objects—is that what he means by ‘objects’ technically changes halfway through that sentence.
Unlike later German Idealists, such as Hegel and Schopenhauer, who offer wholesale restructuring of the nature and workings of reality—the main thing Kant is offering is a radical restructuring of the conversation. What Kant provides is a clarifying insight, a way of discussing and thinking about metaphysics, existence, and being which seems to me both very illuminating and in many ways manifestly accurate.
So, what is that way of discussing and thinking? And why is it so easy for even professional philosophers to misunderstand it?
To begin, one might introduce Kant’s position by saying, ‘We can only access the world as it appears to us.’ But one may get some puzzled looks or disagreements when saying that. That sentence may strike folks inexperienced with philosophy as saying we only have visual access to the world. But ‘appearance’ in this philosophical context refers to all impressions of our inner and outer senses. Even a more savvy reader, however, may interpret it as being a statement about reality being only how it appears to people. But that too would be incorrect. Read the line carefully, and pay special attention to the role played by the word ‘access.’
Now, for clarity’s sake, instead one might say something closer to the first line of this section . . . something like, ‘We can only understand the world in the ways in which we can understand the world, can only visually perceive in the ways that we visually perceive, can only taste things in the ways that we taste things, and so on.’ This time, just about everyone will recognize the tautology and be inclined to agree. Yet the earlier sentiment and those later sentiments all mean one and the same thing: that as subjects we are not gaining direct knowledge of ‘things as they are in themselves,’ but instead knowledge of our own interface with things (i.e. ‘things as they appear to us’).
Thus, the clarification Immanuel Kant provides, the way of thinking he provides, is a reorientation of philosophy’s study of knowledge and being toward the forms imposed on our experience of the world by our understanding faculties. That is, Kant wants to get very clear on what people can know: the world of appearances, our understanding of that world, and the basic forms that the understanding faculty imposes or obeys in constructing the world of appearances from the representations provided by our senses. His discussion and enumeration of these things that we can know was intended as a refutation of preceding skeptical philosophers, such as David Hume. Kant also wanted to get very clear on what people can’t know: the world as it is in itself, and any speculative metaphysical entities or concepts that would exclusively reside there outside of cognition—such as free will, immortal souls, and God. His discussion of these things we can’t know was intended as a refutation of preceding rationalist philosophers, such as Christian Wolff.
So, to recap: we are beings who have a particular set of faculties for experiencing the world. Whatever the particulars of those faculties may be, they draw a boundary around the knowledge and experiences we can possibly have. And as for how objects and the world might be outside of that boundary, by definition we can’t access that.
The speculative realists referenced in the intro often say that it is precisely this supposed inaccessibility of objects apart from how they appear to us that is an anthropocentric mistake. When they themselves claim to know, explicitly or implicitly, that particular objects have existence apart from us—we can understand in this context that they have revealed a belief that they can know about objects as they are in themselves, apart from their interface with our consciousness.
But when you realize that the objects Kant is usually talking about are simply our own intuitions of objects, and that he’s in no way denying the possible separate existence of objects as they are in themselves . . . you can quickly come to understand the error in the speculative realists’ assertions.
After all, if what they mean is that we can know anything about particular objects apart from our experience of them, then what they’re saying amounts to, ‘We can perceive the world in some way other than how we can perceive the world’ (self-contradicting).
If, on the other hand, what they mean is that we can know that the objects as they appear to us correspond to something real and independent of us . . . then the falsehood would instead be in the notion that Kant would disagree. While we can’t perceive objects in some other magical way that is distinct from the way in which we can perceive objects (and when phrased in that way, the truth of it should be obvious)—Kant is always abundantly clear that our perceptions are nevertheless based on inputs that are external to us, actual stuff that we can only access as filtered to our understanding through our senses. Just because we can’t personally access that stuff in any other way, that doesn’t mean the stuff isn’t out there, can’t be accessed in other ways by other types of subjects, or can’t be said to be just as ‘valid’ as us or somesuch.
To assume that we can set aside all such acts of perception and representation, and simply use our minds to gain knowledge of the beings in the world as they are in themselves, or as they are in relation to each other yet apart from us . . . is the exact overreach of “pure reason” that caused Kant to structure his groundbreaking presentation of these ideas around a studious, critical analysis of reason itself.
Kant’s claims say nothing about reality or existence themselves being dependent on humans or the knowledge of humans, nor indeed being dependent on any particular set of beings whatsoever. That everything appears as an object to me in no way implies that everything is an object to itself or to others, nor does it imply that it is only possible for it to be an object to me. It would be more accurate to say Kant is highlighting that our knowledge, human knowledge, is always (by definition) dependent on human subjects. Another way of putting this very same insight, though it is apparently the way of putting it that so offends these recent thinkers, is that the world and objects that we experience depend on us.
But perhaps you’re still unsure about how the relevant clarification works, or how it actually acts as a limitation on human subjects rather than an expansion of their power and importance. If so, read on.
Understanding Kant’s Clarification by Analogy:
In the preceding section, I started by claiming that Kant’s work on metaphysics provides a “clarifying insight” that is a “radical restructuring of the conversation,” and then described it in a way that was intentionally crafted to make it seem almost trivial. So, which is it? Radical or trivial?
Frankly, it’s both. Kant’s careful study of the nature of our experience of the world, and the reinvention of the entire field of metaphysics which he rightly asserted would be needed according to that study, places a sharp set of limitations on what had earlier been taken to be obvious (wide) bounds and clear (high) aims of philosophy. Yet in light of what he had to say, we can now all look at his work and realize in retrospect how fundamental and even obvious some of his assertions are.
But perhaps one thing that makes Kant’s work seem so daunting to learners despite this retrospective obviousness (in addition to the difficulty of Kant’s writing style)—is simply that he jumps straight into his discussion by talking about the mind of a conscious subject. That’s a complicated thing to talk about, and discussing the structure and operation of the mind as a subject in the world so directly and at such length is likely part of the reason that speculative realists, object-oriented ontologists, and related parties so readily mistake his overall system as problematically anthropocentric.
So let’s try something different, then. Let’s try explaining the principles involved here without reference to the mind. Let’s orient ourselves toward an object . . . and instead talk about headphones.
If we said a set of headphones can only play sounds that fall in the frequency response curve of those headphones, and the production of sounds outside those limits are inaccessible to the headphones—I don’t think anyone would accuse us of headphonecentrism and say we are denying the existence or importance of sounds outside the range accessible to the headphones. Nor do I think anyone would say we are denying that sounds that play through the headphones also exist as some kind of data on a media storage device apart from the headphones, such as on a hard drive or a vinyl record.
Obviously, sounds the headphones can’t play still nevertheless exist, and, equally obvious, even for the sounds the headphones can play the waves which are fed electronically into the headphones could be represented or instantiated in some other way (as a graph in a DAW program, for example).
But to such sounds and such other ways of representing sound waves, the set of headphones in question has no access. It would do someone no good to boldly declare that the headphones can actually produce whatever sound they want with no limitations, or that the headphones can gain an understanding of the sound waves represented as visible shapes on a graph. That’s just not what this particular set of headphones does. The headphones only have access to sounds according to the headphones’ own specific ability to play sounds; in other words, they can only access sounds as they appear to headphones.
There you go; that’s it. We’re the headphones . . . in case that wasn’t clear to anyone. So, maybe now you can see that the fundamental point being made is about the limitations, structure, and function of an apparatus.
And at this point we can turn back to the topic of us directly, and it can become crystal-clear that what’s being argued is minimizing the powers of the human subject based on such limitations and structures, not expanding the power of the subject to control reality. Yes, Kant’s work limits some important parts of the field of philosophy, such as metaphysics, to a discussion of what the world looks like to us. But that’s not because we’re the most important; it’s simply because we are us, so that’s the extent of our justifiable range on those topics.
In fact, I think staunch Kantian philosophers would be overjoyed to get input on those topics from non-human subjects . . . just as soon as those subjects start offering.
In Kant’s system, before the operation of reason, a human subject can be understood as simply an organizer or unifier of their own perceptions of the world into various categories and things. Thus, we come to know these perceptions as the world, and this is the world as it appears to us. Still, we never know exactly what underlies the appearances.
That’s not a claim about what does or doesn’t exist, nor is it a claim about what is or is not important. It’s only a claim about the ways in which people know and experience the things they know and experience. To stray back into the tautological phrasing featured earlier in this article, we can only experience the world through our experience of the world. It is in the clear plain light of this fact that Kant reaches one of the main points of all of his argumentation: that if the field of metaphysics is to be in any way productive as it attempts to say things about the world a priori, it will only be able to do that by restricting itself to the apparent world and apparent mind, and then enumerating, describing, and studying the conditions for the possibility of experience.
So, for the last time: our minds may structure objects as they appear to us, objects of experience—but that says nothing about the being or nature of objects as they are in themselves, apart from experience. It doesn’t diminish things as they are in themselves, and it certainly does not say that they depend upon us for their being. To give you another modern analogy, Kant’s great intervention in metaphysics could be phrased with only slight inaccuracy as the simple admonishment that we will only ever be able to run software that is compatible with our hardware.
At the end of the day, if the sin of anthropocentrism that speculative realists think they’ve identified in Kant’s work is simply that it only concretely identifies and works with objects as they appear to human subjects . . . then the speculative realists, object-oriented ontologists, and their allies are ultimately guilty of that same sin. Whatever they might like to believe is the case, speculative realists are human subjects. They don’t have magical extra-sensory abilities, so they too are limited to discussing objects that they perceive, as they perceive them. This is why they are called ‘speculative realists’—because their discussion of other objects or objects known in other ways can only be pure speculation.
 Explaining that remark jumps a few steps ahead in terms of the article’s introduction of these ideas, so I’ve moved it to this footnote here. But basically, when Kant refers to how people have long been convinced of ‘cognition conforming to objects,’ he’s talking about objects as they are in themselves. When he refers to his new theory of ‘objects conforming to cognition,’ he’s talking about objects as they appear to us. He proposes the latter as a solution to progressing in metaphysics simply because he notices it isn’t possible to get to know objects as they are in themselves, apart from how they appear to us. So, by limiting our metaphysical concerns to the structures that cognition imposes on objects in representing them, we can at least learn something about experience, possible experience, and apparent objects a priori.
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