Well Street, Moffat, Scotland
Well Street, Moffat
Moffat's shopping street on a summer's afternoon

A picture of our normal world: the buildings and infrastructure, the flowers and clouds of nature, cultural artefacts like Bruce's statue - just visible - the cars and the shop sign, and not least the people - seasoned, sexed and aged by appearance. A very typical scene that we would all agree does indeed belong to our normal world. Together these, and all such experiences, indeed all experiences, are said to constitute the phenomena of the world; this word is the familiar one of a pair of words. The other term is less familiar: 'noumena'. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines noumena as: "Chiefly Kantian Philosophy. An object of purely intellectual intuition, devoid of all phenomenal attributes." But this is not a definition that Kant could fully endorse, and the reasons why he might not agree are important.

The homely scene above is misleading in that it suggests that phenomena are only everyday; the term is used to cover everything whatsoever within our experiences. Kant proposes that these experiences are derived by our minds from 'material' that our senses bring to them. However, this derivation is not a passive 'logistics' job of transportation, rather it is more like the imposing of structures on malleable content: our minds make sculptures from the clay the senses supply - we never get to see the clay, only the sculptures. Our minds transform what, logically, cannot be known, into what is comprehendible, and so it becomes part of our known world.

The point can be made by considering the eyes. What they pass to the brain is an upside down image, that is what lenses do, the brain then inverts the received image so that we see a world the right way up, we never see that upside down world; the transformation cannot be detected by us. We are utterly unaware of this relatively superficial and constant translation that our brains make. So in an analogous way our minds give us the world we experience, taking the material they encounter and rendering it into the form with which we are familiar.

Kant rightly points out that we are incapable of being aware of that unprocessed material, and of the way that the categories (the word he uses for the structures imposed on the material) do their 'work'. The structures or categories in the mind produce a world that has, for example, negation, plurality, and existence. This is like the process by which the brain inverts the image without our knowledge, the difference is that we can see how that inversion works, but we can never comprehend the work of the categories in an analogous way, for it is their working that produces our ability to understand anything whatsoever.

The crucial point is that it is the resulting products that are available to understanding, and not that raw 'material'. That material has just been defined as being something about which we cannot say or think anything. For that reason we can never know if that 'material' does or does not possess the structural characteristics with which we are so familiar, such as negation, plurality, and existence. If it does not possess these we cannot, for instance, talk about it or them, or say that they do, or do not, exist. So it is not possible to say "We cannot know the noumena" or indeed name 'them' as noumena in the first place. This is why the dictionary definition does not quite reach Kant's point.

This is tantalising. And many are tempted. Schopenhauer is tempted when he asserts that we can know the noumena through knowing our own true natures. But it will not do, minds create all their knowledge in a similar way, whether it is internal or external, objective or subjective, all experiences are part of Kant's phenomenal world. Writings in more mystical traditions, and indeed within recent secular work on meditation, long to break the bounds set by phenomena. However, the noumenal lies outside, and forever out of reach, carrot like, tempting us towards it, but leaving us only able to echo the wistful yearning in Issa's Haiku–and yet...and yet...

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  • Kobayashi Issa (1819) 'The Spring of My Life' [Selections translated into English by Sam Hamil & J.P. Seaton (2004) in 'The Poetry of Zen', Shambhala]

  28th August 2014 ~ 28th July 2015