Kant’s Numen-Phenomenon Distinction and Understanding of Knowledge, What is Numen, What is PhenomenonJune 27, 2021
If you wear pink-rimmed glasses, every aspect of your visual experience will be colored.
You may forget you are wearing them, but they still affect what you see. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that we all understand and live the world through such a filter. The filter is the human mind. It determines how we experience everything and assigns a certain shape to that experience. Everything we perceive takes place in time and space, and every change has a reason. But according to Kant, this is not because this is the final state of reality: it is a contribution of our minds. We do not have direct access to the way the world is. We cannot take off the glasses and see things as they really are. We depend on this filter, and without it it would be completely impossible to experience anything. All we can do is recognize that it is there and understand how it influences and colors what we experience.
Kant’s mind was quite ordered and logical. So was his life. He never married and lived every day to a strict order. He had asked his servant to wake him up at five in the morning so as not to waste any time. After waking up, he would drink some tea, smoke a pipe, and get to work. He was quite prolific and wrote numerous books and articles throughout his life. He later taught at the university. At 4:30 p.m.—at exactly the same time every day—he would go for a walk, circling the street eight times. So much so that the inhabitants of the town of Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad), where he lived, set their clocks according to his walking time.
Like most philosophers, he spent his time trying to understand our relationship to reality. This is essentially the subject of metaphysics. Kant was also one of the greatest metaphysicians of all time. He was particularly concerned with the limits of thought, the limits of what we can know and understand. It was an obsession for him. In his most famous book, “The Critique of Pure Reason” (1781), he discovered these limits by pushing the limits of the logical. This book was quite difficult to read: Kant himself described it as dry and ambiguous, and he was right. Few people can claim to understand the whole book. Much of the reasoning in the work has complex and heavy jargon. Reading it is like walking through a forest of words where you don’t know where we’re going and you rarely see the light of day. Yet the main argument is clear enough.
What is reality like? Kant thought that we can never have a complete picture of how things are. We will never learn anything directly about what Kant called the “noumena” world, what is behind appearances (whatever it is). Although he sometimes used the word “noumenon” (singular) and sometimes the word “noumena” (plural), he should not have done this (This was a point Hegel also emphasized): We cannot know whether reality is singular or plural. Frankly, we know nothing at all about this noumenal world; at least, we can’t get any direct information about him. On the other hand, we can know the world around us, the world we experience through our senses, the world of phenomena.
Look out the window. It is a world of phenomena that you can see grass, cars, sky, buildings and so on. You can only see the phenomenal world, not the noumenal world; but the noumenal world lurks behind all our experience. It is the one that exists on a deeper level. So some aspects of what exists will always be beyond our grasp. Yet we can understand more than we can from the diligent purely scientific approach. The main question Kant put before himself in the “Critique of Pure Reason” was: “How is synthetic a priori knowledge possible?” This question probably doesn’t make any sense to you. The main idea is not as difficult as it seems at first glance. The first word to be explained is “synthetic”. In Kant’s philosophical language, ‘synthetic’ is the opposite of ‘analytical’. “Analytical” means accurate by definition. So, for example, the statement “all fathers are men” is true by definition. What this means is that you can know that this sentence is true without making any observations about real men. You don’t need to check that they’re all men, because if they weren’t men, they wouldn’t be fathers. No field research is required to come to this conclusion, you can infer it from your seat. The word “fathers” includes the idea of men. This situation is similar to the sentence “all mammals suckle their young”. Again, you don’t need to study any mammal to know that mammals suckle their young—as this is part of the definition of mammal. If you’ve ever found something that looks like a mammal but doesn’t suckle its young, you’d know it wasn’t a mammal. Analytical statements are really just about definitions, so they don’t give us new information. They describe what we assume exists when we define a word. Synthetic knowledge, on the contrary, requires experience and observation and gives us new knowledge. This is the symbol we use